Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. There was a time in my memory when I hoped I might never hear those words sang again. It was just over 20 years ago and I was in the midst of trying to complete the musical orchestration of a special Christmas CD.
Alan Autry and Carroll O’Connor had asked me to bring together the “In the Heat of the Night” cast Christmas CD for charity.
It began when Norman Holland at the Benson Company asked me if I might have a song for a Christmas compilation they were preparing for 1990. I asked some of my friends from the show if they might join me
on a song and next thing I knew I had an entire Christmas album to produce.
Thus began an eight-month long production that included over 60 performers, working in seven studios in four states with 12 recording engineers for over 175 studio hours.
We decided to raise money for drug abuse prevention charities and Alan Autry and I produced the project.
Each of the cast selected a song they wished to sing and then
I worked to orchestrate the song by asking the appropriate musicians to enhance the performance they shared.
The project includes the sounds of bluegrass, jazz, rhythm and blues, Cajun, country and even pop.
The primary performances featured the late Carroll O’Connor (Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella), the late Howard Rollins (The Night Before Christmas), Anne-Marie Johnson (Little Drummer Boy), David Hart (Let It Snow), Geoffrey Thorne (I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day), Crystal Fox (The Christmas Song), Alan (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and me (Let’s Live Every Day Like It Was Christmas).
While many of the cast tried to encourage Carroll to perform “White Christmas,” Carroll opted to do the traditional French carol he selected in both languages. After producing his vocal, I decided to give the song a Cajun flavor.
I had created a wish list of performers that I hoped might join us on the project and while many I approached passed for various reasons, we brought together a who’s who of Nashville and Atlanta musicians and stars to add to the project.
We also added two group songs “Jingle Bells” and “Christmas Time’s A Comin”’ enhancing them with the talents of stars from bluegrass, gospel and country music.
I decided to feature our guests on a section one of the songs.
With “Christmas Time’s A Comin’,” it was my hope to bring together all the major legends of bluegrass music to join the cast – Jim and Jesse, Ralph Stanley, The Lewis Family, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, Josh Graves, Chubby Wise, Doug Dillard were among those that accepted. While I tried, we were not able to get Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers. However Blue Grass Boys Wayne Lewis and Buddy Spicher did join us adding to the solid rhythm work provided by Bill Everett and Gene Daniell.
“Jingle Bells” became the feature focus for the members of the Country Music Hall of Fame and others who joined us on the project Jimmy Dickens, Kitty Wells, Pee Wee King, Johnnie and Bobby Wright as well as the Marksmen Quartet, Ken Holloway
The late Grant Turner, Dean of the Grand Ole Opry announcers, introduced the project. Some among the other stars were the Whites, Jerry Douglas, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Mose Davis, Jim Hoke, Abe Manuel, Jr., and John and Debbie Farley.
There were several folks who helped ease my efforts bringing the project together, John and Debbie Farley, Ned Burris, Doug Wilmer, Ben Hall and my late mother Pearl Franks. John was my right hand as I brought the project together.
Once completed, next came finding a company willing to work with us to distribute the project while helping us provide the monies raised to various charities. Company after company turned us down until Chris White of Sonlite Records and now Crossroads Music decided he would invest the time and energies to help us make the project a success.
Thanks to his help, the project became one of the most successful Christmas titles of 1991 and 1992 and was considered for awards by the Recording Academy, the Country Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association.
So why did I get tired of hearing Jingle Bells, well to be short, we had prepared a soundtrack for the cast. It was the wrong key, so at the last minute, John Farley took his guitar and played along as the cast sang. I then had to take that very fluid performance and build the musical arrangement around it along with the features of all the stars and musicians that added their talents. By the time I was done, I am sure I had heard the song close to a couple hundred times.
Needless to say, I had the time of my life and as I listen back, sometimes, I wish I could be there with them all over again. You can also see never-before-seen interviews with the cast about the CD at Randall Franks TV on YouTube.
The 20th Anniversary “Christmas Time’s A Comin'” CD is available at www.shareamericafoundation.org – or by sending a $20 tax-deductible donation to Share America
Foundation, P.O. Box 42, Tunnel Hill, Ga. 30755.