Bill Adler's Xmas Jollies is the Christmas mixtape you've always wanted, but aren't cool enough to get. Adler, the former head of publicity at Def Jam, is a lifelong music aficionado—and a Jew. So when he married into a Christmas-celebrating family (his wife is the noted chef Sara Moulton) in 1981, he was horrified at the same treacly seasonal music played everywhere around the holidays.
So, the following year, Adler made a holiday mixtape, choosing Christmas songs that, as a fan of soul, r&b, jazz, and, of course, hip-hop (he first reported about the genre for the Daily News back in 1980), he—get this—actually liked.
Other people liked it too, and word of Adler's annual mixes began to spread. He built a mailing list that has grown to hundreds of recipients, including many of his prominent friends in the music business. The mix, which has featured custom holiday greetings from celebrities ranging from Yo! MTV Raps host Dr. Dré to Julia Child to Paul Schaffer, has been featured in press all over the world, including the New York Times and, well, Complex. Adler was also featured in the 2013 documentary about Christmas music obsessives, Jingle Bell Rocks!
I brought Bill into the Complex office to talk about the history of the mix, his own key role in creating a modern-day Christmas classic, and more. I also got the history behind some songs from this year's Xmas Jollies, and we included those tracks below. We started off by discussing our actual location—the now-former site of the Complex office.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
I wanted to start with where we are. We're in 1271 6th Avenue...
AKA the Time-Life building, and it's kind of hilarious to me because it was named for two magazines. Actually, it was named for a whole magazine empire, one of which was Life magazine, and doesn't exist anymore. So the building has outlasted the magazine. Baby boomers, which you might have two or three among your readers, will remember Life magazine. I grew up with it.
Anyway, it was here in 1983 that I had a month-long tryout at People magazine, which was also published by Time-Life and which continues to limp along into the present day. I worked for a month here and they ended up not hiring me, but it was during that period that I persuaded my editor to allow me to do a story about rap music. Because by '83, shoot, I'd been following it for four years, from the time the first records came out. When I'd first come to the city in 1980, I did a story for the Daily News about this rapper who had a national hit. His name was Kurtis Blow, the song was called "The Breaks."
What brings us here is Christmas. And you started a now world-famous, covered-in-the-New-York-Times Christmas mix.
That's it, I can retire now.
[Laughs] Growing up, did you have any favorite Christmas songs?
I didn't pay much attention to it. I'm Jewish and we did not celebrate Christmas, and also, unlike some of my cohorts, I never was jealous of my gentile friends. I never missed Christmas, you know? We had a little bit of Hanukkah, as much as any Jew does.
Hanukkah basically is the poor relation of Christmas. I think Hanukkah, in the old country, mostly wasn't celebrated. And it's been pumped up to a certain extent to compete with Christmas, but it's still lame in terms of just being this time of tribal community and togetherness, you know? To me, as a Jew, I'm saying, Hanukkah doesn't work like that. And likewise, Hanukkah music—[mockingly sings] "O, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel..." I mean, that's it. There might be one other song, and it's just a shame.
But having said that, in terms of the Christmas music, did I hear Bing Crosby? Sure. Did I hear Mel Tormé? Yes. But I don't think I paid any particular attention to it. And then when I got married, and I married a Gentile woman, and she celebrated Christmas, I started to pay attention. What I wanted to do was create a soundtrack of Christmas music I liked to get me through the holiday. That's when I started to pay attention to Christmas records.
So the impetus was just so that you could have something to listen to during the season?
Yeah, because there's an awful lot to like about Christmas. But the mainstream music, the go-to standards, even if they were wonderful once upon a time, after you hear 'em a thousand times, they're played the fuck out. So let me find something that's fresh and soulful, at least in my opinion, and all I'm really ever trying to do to begin with is please myself. I make these mixes for myself, to begin with—because believe it, I'm gonna be listening to 'em through the holidays to help buoy me up.
The go-to standards, they're played the f*ck out. so let me find something that's fresh and soulful.
Why do you think so many people are satisfied with Mel Tormé, Bing Crosby, and Elvis, and never go past that?
Why are so many people satisfied with whatever the standard stuff is? I've just never been that guy, and partly, I wanna say it has to do with the fact that I grew up at a particular time when the musical menu that was available to just about anybody was pretty doggone broad. I'm 12 years old in 1964 when the Beatles hit. So it's the British Invasion, but it's American soul music, as well. It's American rock ‘n’ roll as well. The pop stars of the '40s and the '50s, including people like Sinatra and Tony Bennett, are still having hits. You know, there was just an awful lot going on.
You started to hear Jamaican music in 1964—Millie Small had a hit with "My Boy Lollipop."
Who among us knew that this was out of Jamaica? But in fact, that's starting to infiltrate as well. So it happened to be a wonderful time to grow up.
I'm somebody who listened fiendishly to Top 40, because that's what was happening. But by the time I'm 17 and go away to college, I start working in a record store, and all of a sudden, I'm seeing and hearing records that aren't on the Top 100, and I find that stuff compelling.
Detroit public schools back in the '60s were kind of wonderful. Among other things, they would offer music lessons. So as a fifth grader, I started to play trombone in the school band, because my mom was a fan of the Dorsey brothers and Glenn Miller. So I think that started to tip, from that age, in the direction of jazz. By the time I'm in high school, I'm subscribing to DownBeat. So my taste was always, "This can be broader."
So you start making these mixes. What was the first year that you said, "I'm gonna start sending these to my friends?"
Gee, I don't know. I really did just make it for myself, but I have friends and I've got an extended family, and people began to hear about it and talk about it and come to me and ask for it. And then, truthfully, I had enough pride in it myself so that if I had a friend who didn't know about my yearly collection, I'm thinking, "Well, it is Christmas time. I should give him a Christmas present. Well, gee, there's nothing easier than giving him a copy of this compilation I've already made."
The recipient list has grown now to hundreds of people, so who are some names on that list we might recognize?
[Sighs] Well, yeah, you know, Shawn Setaro is one of 'em. [laughter] In terms of notable folks, I send it to Lyor Cohen, I've sent it to Ice-T over the years, I send it to the members of Run-DMC, the folks I used to work with like that. Writer friends of mine.
I send it to lyor cohen. I've sent it to ice-t over the years. i send it to the members of run-dmc.
And how do people get on the list? Can they request it from you?
That's usually what happens. This article will come out, and people will track me down on the Internet and they'll say, "Jeez, Bill, I heard about the mix and it sounds interesting, may I have a copy?" And generally I'll say yes, if I've got enough.
You have drops on the mix from all kinds of celebrities. Who have been some of the folks who have given you custom greetings over the years?
Well, you know, my wife is a chef. One year we had Julia Child, that was fun. My man DJ AJ, who was Kurtis Blow's DJ. Lyor Cohen has jumped up. Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets. This year, I've got Doctor Dré and his partner Thomas Reid—that's the large Doctor Dré from New York, not the producer Dr. Dre from Los Angeles. Doctor Dré is the former co-host of Yo! MTV Raps, which already is antique. I talk to a young person today and I mention Yo! MTV Raps and they say, "Wha'? Wha'?" But there was a time when that was a game changer.
Now that you've spent so many years looking for Christmas music, is there any era or years that stand out as being particularly good for Christmas music? Is there a golden age of Christmas music?
You know, I've never thought of that, and I don't know what to say. I don't think there's a golden age for Christmas music, per se. I believe that subgenres of music peak and fade, so 2017 isn't the golden age of jazz music. It's not the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, in my opinion.
To me, the great decades of rock, for example, are the '50s and the '60s, and unsurprisingly, my preference for Christmas music in that genre is also the '50s and '60s. But having said that, I try to expand my tastes all the time, and I find new artists and new recordings and new genres, that I hadn't been familiar with all the time.
Who are some artists or what are some genres you've discovered through this process that have then become staples of your life?
You know, I'll tell you this: I listen to much more Spanish-language music than I used to. There's music from Cuba and Puerto Rico and Colombia that I've put on the Xmas Jollies over relatively recent years. There wasn't so much of that to begin with. I get deeper and deeper into the music of Jamaica, I get deeper into the music of the rest of the Caribbean islands, calypso music. All of that stuff has enriched the Xmas Jollies over the years, and enriched me, doggonit.
Does the Spanish-language stuff, because it's not in English, feel less cheesy than things in English?
There's plenty of cheesy Spanish-language Christmas stuff. I can tell. I don't speak Spanish and believe me, some of it is doggone cheesy. This is a very broad generalization, but they love their ballads, and sometimes a kind of super sincere, heartfelt ballad. To me, it's just like Perry Como in Spanish. I don't need it.
But the stuff that I choose is of a piece with anything else that I might love, which is energetic, and it'll bear repeated listening, and it's upbeat and it's soulful, and on and on. That's the stuff I look for in any genre.
You dig for Christmas songs throughout the year...
Right. I want you to know I already have a very good jump on 2018.
What is the oddest place you've ever run across a song that you ended up using?
Gee, I don't know. I tend not to think of it that way. I'm not a vinyl-only guy, by any means. I'm not a snob about vinyl and not gonna listen to digital records. And also, I am going to do some research online; YouTube has been fantastic for me. It's just vast. And also, what I like about YouTube—and forgive me young people, I know there are other music services, I subscribe to none of them. But I go onto YouTube 'cause it's free and it works. If I'm looking for a particular track and I go to YouTube, and it gives me the track but also it's gonna suggest a dozen or more other tracks that the algorithm thinks are similar. And a lot of times it's bullshit, but sometimes it works for me. I find things that way that I've never heard before.
So that's one thing; the internet is rich that way. But otherwise, I will deputize my loved ones to shop for me when they go elsewhere, because there are still individual locations in America, in particular, state to state and city to city, and you'll find records in those places that you can't find elsewhere.
Last year or two years ago, my wife went to Cajun country in Louisiana to do a show about the local cuisine there, and she stayed in a little town called Rayne. I did my little research before she left and I found that there's a record store called No-Name Vinyl in Rayne, Louisiana, and I said to her, "If you have a little extra time, maybe you could go into this store and look for Christmas records for me." And she says, [laughs] "I've got work to do. Why don't you just call 'em yourself?" And she was right, so I ended up calling the proprietor and telling this woman, Christine Stelly, of my quest and she was very helpful and we stay in touch. One day, I hope to go there and see this little store, but she's got one of the most stunning stocks of 45 RPM records I've ever seen, and she's sent me dozens of Christmas records on local labels from that part of Louisiana that are just stunning to me. Some of that makes it on.
Along the same lines, my wife was a little more cooperative when she went to San Antonio five years ago, and she actually had a little time off. So I sent her to a record store in San Antonio, and she went there and got on the phone with me, back in New York. She had called ahead and the proprietor had set aside his Christmas records, and my wife rifled through them and said, "Do you want this one? Do you want this one? Do you want this one?" And I'd say, "No, no, no," and she'd say, "What about this one?" And I'd say, "Yes, that one I want." So along those lines, when we finally get to the sequence for this year, there's a record by a local guy out of San Antonio...well actually, he's from McAllen, TX. His name is Wally Gonzales, and we've got a song by him called "Christmas Polka" this year. That track comes from a CD that my wife bought for me in San Antonio.
Before we get to stuff for this year, you have direct involvement in a song that has become, in its own way, a Christmas standard: Run-DMC's “Christmas in Hollis.”
We got a call in 1987 from the Special Olympics. Because this was a non-profit project, it basically fell into my lap: "Bill, you handle it, because there's no money involved." That's typical.
It so happened, by that time, I'd already begun putting my compilations together, and I'd already begun thinking about, "What's the cool Christmas stuff?" So I was very happy to have this assignment, and I talked to the guys—and truthfully, I should at least get an A&R credit on this, if not a production credit. But I called Run and D, and I said, "You have this opportunity, and most of these artists are going to do cover versions of already existing records. You guys should write something new."
I had an idea. One of the things that I learned to focus on and appreciate about hip-hop culture, and maybe about Run-DMC in particular, was the extent to which they would write about and rap about their neighborhood and their lives. They'd be super particular about it. And actually, that's what's happened over and over again in hip-hop. If you're living in Miami, St. Louis, Seattle and you wanna rap, well, you can't rap about Hollis, Queens or the Bronx. You'd better write about your own experience.
Run-DMC was smart about that, and because I knew that's how they rolled, I suggested, "Fellas, why don't you do a song about Christmas in Hollis?" So that's the song they end up writing. At the time, so much of our stuff was recorded in Chung King Studios on Centre Street in Manhattan, which was a dump. [Laughs] It was just a dump, but all of this wonderful music was recorded there.
I suggested, 'fellas, why don't you do a song about christmas in hollis?' so that's the song they end up writing.
So I went to the studio to meet with Jam Master Jay, and I brought a carton full of my Christmas albums with me, because this is the heart of the sampling era. Jay started to rifle through this carton of records, and his eye was caught by a record entitled Soul Christmas, which came out on the Atlantic label and it was mostly a '60s-era thing. He put the needle down—I'm talking about the needle from a tone arm, young people [Laughs}]. So Jay took the record, put it on the turntable, dropped the needle on a few things, and listened to 10 seconds, 15 seconds, to a given song, and would move the needle to the next cut. And on this record, he drops the needle onto a song by a soul singer named Clarence Carter, called "Back Door Santa," and he liked the sound of that.
So he picked up the needle and he put it back to the beginning of the record and he listened again, and then he did it a third time. By the time we did it a third time, Run and D come floating into the room like Heckle and Jeckle. They'd left, they were smokin' a joint, because this was work they weren't gonna be involved in. Jay is gonna choose the music. So by the time Jay plays that track for the third time, Run and D floated into the room, because I think they knew, this is it. And it was on that sample that they built the music.
Selections from Xmas Jollies 2017, with commentary from Bill Adler:
The Kinks, "Father Christmas" (1977)
"Father Christmas" by the Kinks was cut originally in 1977, and I've been aware of it all this time. It's now 40 years old, that track. I grew up in Detroit, and it was a hard rock town. The Kinks had huge top 10 hits, one after another, starting in maybe '64, certainly by '65, '66, '67.
So I was a fan of the Kinks, and then this record comes out 10 years after that, in 1977. I wasn't fiending for Christmas music then, but I liked The Kinks and I heard that song and I think to myself, you know, it starts with this really tinkly piano part, and I've never liked it. But now, thankfully, I have access to digital editing. So the version you'll hear on this year's Xmas Jollies does not have any tinkly piano; I snipped it out. It's there at the beginning of the track, and there's an interlude along the same lines, and I tossed that shit into the dustbin of history. So now what you have is a super-hard-rock Kinks Christmas song. Ray Davies can thank me. I've improved his original; that's the way I feel. I've made it more Kinks-like.
Mavis Staples, "Every Step" (2013)
Me, personally, I'm more comfortable talking about Santa Claus than Jesus, but I'm a fan of gospel music. Also, it's just been such a powerful influence on American popular music. So I'm certainly open to gospel Christmas songs. Having said that, this song by Mavis Staples, I got it off a CD compilation called 24-Hour Christmas Trees, and I don't even know if that's a commercial CD or something that was made by an individual like me. But it comes from an album that Mavis made with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco called One True Vine.
In any case, when I heard it, I was knocked out by it. And it's not a Christmas song. I suppose my idea about what is appropriate for this album, it doesn't have to be a Christmas song, per se. It is a song of faith, and it's very soulful, and I dig the hell out of it, and I put it on this year.
Also, I will confess that I've been reading the name Wilco, forever. I've been reading reviews of their music and I know that they're a thing, and at this point they've got a history of 25 years or so. I've never listened to their music, and now I will give Jeff Tweedy props for having made this album with Mavis Staples, because let's agree that the sentiment is more or less pure gospel. It's a song of faith, a song of devotion, and yet, he's gonna fuck with it. So there's distorted guitar in it, the drumbeat isn't constant, it's off-kilter sometimes. And I like all of it.
Erran Baron Cohen featuring Yasmin Levy, "Ocho Kandalikas" (2008)
As a guilty Jew, I look every year for wonderful Hanukkah songs, and most years I fail to find something that passes muster. But this year, I found a track by Yasmin Levy.
Everyone knows Sacha Baron Cohen. He has an older brother named Erran Baron Cohen. He's a musician and producer, and he put out a record of Jewish music in 2008. And one of the songs on there is a song called "Ocho Kandelikas." I don't know that it's traditional, but it's been recorded a bunch of different times, and it's a song in Ladino. Ladino is the Spanish version of Yiddish; Yiddish is basically 70 percent German, mixed in with Hebrew and God knows what else. But Ladino is mostly Spanish and Hebrew, and I'm not so familiar with it myself, because that's not where my people are from. But it's a great, great song and this woman Yasmin Levy, who I'd never heard of before, Israeli woman, sings the vocal and does a great, great job of it. So that's my Hanukkah song this year.
Anthony Hamilton, "Spend Christmas With You" (2014)
He's got the chops and the approach of any number of classic soul singers. He's a contemporary singer, but he's rooted in music that precedes him, I would say. I was put onto that track by my friend Amy Linden, who's a noted rock and soul critic.
Every year, she turns me on to stuff, and every year I say, "No, I don't like it as much as you do, Amy." [laughs] Somehow it doesn't slow her down, and she continues to give me new things to listen to. And this year I really agreed with her about Anthony Hamilton. This is from an album he put out in 2014 called Spend Christmas With You, and there are lots of things on the album that I like.
Anthony Hamilton, he's been recording for at least fifteen years, but I didn't pay any attention. Except, in 2016, there was a video circulating by Anthony and The HamilTones. They cut a little thing, I recommend everybody take a look online. It's a little a cappella rendition of a song that they made themselves called, "Don't Vote for Donald, He Will Grab You by the Pussy." [laughter] It's completely hilarious, and you can sing along.
Wally Gonzales, "Christmas Polka" (1996)
Wally lives in West McAllen, TX, which is just north of the border with Mexico. And he's hilarious to me. He's not much of a singer. He will write his own songs, that's for sure. He doesn't care about pitch too much, as a singer. He's a great accordion player, and he's very funny. I dig the hell out of him.
This is a record that my wife bought for me in San Antonio. This is from an album that he made called Christmas Bandito. But he cut at least one song that's not on the album called "I Hope They Bury Me at Wal-Mart." I'm looking to track that. [Note: We were able to find it.]
Neville Willoughby, "Christmas J.A." (1972)
This is one of the tracks I love best on this year's version. I put a purely instrumental version of this song on my Xmas Jollies sometime during the course of the last 10 years. I didn't understand at the time what made it a Christmas track. It was called "Christmas in J.A." Sometimes, a musician wants to make a Christmas record and he can't think of any Christmas lyrics and he's basically an instrumentalist anyway, and he's put some fuckin' jingle bells on it, okay? [laughter] So now we know it's a Christmas song.
That's what I thought this guy Neville Willoughby had done with this song, and it was charming to me, because it was cut in 1972 and he's got a great band with it, and when it comes to the melody, he whistles it, and he's a charming whistler. So I'd used it once, and this year I'm puddling around on the internet. I like that era; the '60s and the early '70s in reggae or Jamaican music is so rich.
So I'm looking for something else by Neville Willoughby, and it's so odd. They've got a version of this song, they don't call it "Christmas in J.A." It's called "Christmas J.A." and it's four minutes, 41 seconds long. And part of it is Neville Willoughby whistling this melody. But the first part is a vocal that I hadn't heard before. It was on an actual commercial CD, maybe a Trojan Records box set of Christmas stuff, but for some reason they left off the vocals.
I go online and find the vocal, and I spliced together the vocal and the whistling version, and boom, that's what we have on there this year. One more thing about Neville Willoughby: Mostly, he was known in Jamaica as a radio disc jockey in Jamaica for decades. When he died in a car crash in 2006, and the whole island went into mourning.
Marvin Rainwater, "Get Off the Stool" (1956)
I've known about him right along. Basically, his career was in the '50s. He was out of Wichita, KS. His ethnic heritage is 25% Cherokee, so he's one of the rare Native American rock n’ rollers. I was turned on to this track by my friend Ernie Paniccioli, the photographer. He sent me a CD called I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus. It's a various artist compilation. Thank you, Ernie. Ernie himself also has Native American heritage, so boom.
This song is so funny to me. It was cut in 1956. It's really energetic and it's well-made and if you listen to the lyrics, it's just so bizarre. Let me say this, also: Again, it's not a Christmas record. The thing is called "Get Off The Stool," and the punchline after each verse is, "I'm not your Santa Claus." That trope is something that I've heard of before—it's just a way of saying, "I'm not gonna take care of you for free."
It recalled for me a famous track by a black vaudeville duo, Butterbeans and Susie, called "Papa Ain't No Santa Claus and Mama Ain't No Christmas Tree." In terms of the sentiment, that's where this song comes from. But the sexual reverberations of this song are just so gone. In the first verse, he talks about an encounter with a pretty little waitress, right? And when she speaks, she's speaking in a man's deep voice—he changes his voice and gives her a man's deep voice. In the next verse, he's talking to a bartender; presumably, that's a guy. He has the bartender speaking unexpectedly in falsetto; it sounds like a girl. And then, in the third verse, he's with his girl and they're about to get down, and she "puckers up her painted lips" and it fills him with fright, for some reason. So boom, all of that stuff, I have no explanation, I don't know why he did that, any of it, but it's worth mentioning.
Chuck Berry, "Merry Christmas Baby" (1958)
I was gonna put something on by Chuck, because he died this year, at the age of 90. He did not cut a bunch of Christmas records, and the one that everyone knows is "Run, Rudolph, Run." I've always been partial to his version of "Merry Christmas, Baby," just because that's such a great, great song. By the time he records it in 1958, it probably seeped into his bloodstream, because it was introduced by Johnny Moore and his Three Blazers in 1947, sung by Charles Brown.
So it comes out in '47, and it re-charts in '48 and '49. Immediately, everybody understood—folks listening to black music at the time—that this song was a gem. So Chuck Berry, he was born in 1926, I think. In 1947, he's 21 years old, and he's already a professional musician. He's listening, and he's moved by it. He needs a B-side for an original Christmas song called "Run, Rudolph, Run" and he goes back to Charles Brown.
I'm gonna love it for a number of reasons, but the thing about Chuck is he was mostly an upbeat individual; he was damn near a comedian, and a beautiful writer. And you don't hear an awful lot of blues—certainly you don't hear very much ballad-tempo blues—from him, and that's what he does here. Basically he's channeling Charles Brown; he sounds like Charles Brown on it and he sings the hell out of it, and I was delighted to put it on this year.
Lee Dorsey, "Can I Be the One" (1978) [Bonus Track (for Sara)]
He put out an album in 1978 called Night People, and the title track was a single, and I think it kicked up a little bit of dust.
I wanna say something about Lee Dorsey to begin with, though. In terms of my early musical influences, or my exposure to music, I don't know that I listened regularly to the radio until the Beatles hit when I was 12. But one of the things I used to do in Detroit is they had a Jewish community center, and we were members. And at the center, they had a roller skating rink. I used to go to the roller skating rink from the time I was maybe 11. That was fun, you know. I used to go with my brothers, probably.
But thinking back on it, really the appeal of it was they used to play music. I don't know if there was a DJ, I don't know what the source of it was, but one of the first records I heard—I can still see myself skating around in this room, and the Lee Dorsey track "Ya Ya" was playing. It made a big impression on me then. That might have been '63. This is a record that had come out in '61 and it had been a big radio hit. But that's how far back I go with Lee Dorsey.
Lee is out of New Orleans, a great singer, and this track is just an album track from Night People. To me, it casts a spell. It's quite beautiful. Soulful lyrics, soulful singing by Lee. But really, one of the things that kills me about it, one of the things that makes it great, is that it's mostly written and produced by Allen Toussaint. So Allen is on the track, and he's playing piano, and he pulls in James Booker to play organ.
So now, it's church. It's organ and piano, and the two of them kind of have a conversation, back and forth, a musical conversation during the course of it. And it's spare. James Booker kills me. Allen will play a little bit more, and Booker will answer him with one note, and it's just perfect. And James Booker is a relatively obscure guy at this point. You know, it's not like he ever had a giant career. But in New Orleans, he was a god. Dr. John used to say about James Booker, he was the greatest gay, one-eyed piano player New Orleans ever produced. [laughter] That's James Booker. And whatever, he plays his ass off on this song.