Here’s a confession I am embarrassed to make: like most suburban white kids of my generation, the very first version I ever heard of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) was the one by U2, featured on the classic compilation A Very Special Christmas.
A Very Special Christmas was the first Christmas-music compilation album that featured artists most often heard on college radio stations taking a crack at holiday standards. A few, like Springsteen’s Merry Christmas Baby, had previously been released, but were impossible in the pre-internet days to track down. Others were recorded specifically for the album, which itself was a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. It was like no other Christmas album that had come before it, and I practically wore out the vinyl on it I played it so often.
For me, the U2 version of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) was entirely unremarkable; to this day, I still think it’s one of the album’s weaker tracks. Not that this is necessarily an insult, since A Very Special Christmas features such now-classic holiday recordings as Run DMC’s Christmas In Hollis, the Eurythmic’s Winter Wonderland, John Cougar Mellencap’s I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (the only listenable version of that song ever recored), Sting’s Gabriel’s Message, Madonna’s Santa Baby, and of course the aforementioned Merry Christmas Baby. Standing next to such greatness, the album’s recording of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) was never interesting enough to care that much about one way or the other. I never researched the song, because I assumed it was just a ho-hum Bono song. It would be many years later when I first heard the original, definitive version of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), by Darlene Love recorded in 1963.
When I did, it blew my socks off.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), it turns out, was actually written by Soul legends Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, the pair that composed Doo Wa Diddy, Be My Baby, and River Deep – Mountain High. The song was commissioned by Phil Spector for his 1963 studio-showcase Christmas album, as a centerpiece number to be sung by his future wife Ronnie Spector and her group The Ronettes. The Ronettes recorded several versions, none of which quite worked the way Phil Spector had hoped. He decided to have another contract singer take a crack at it, and someone suggested it might be well suited for Darlene Love — a woman best known to members of my generation as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon series.
Back in 1963 Darlene Love was well known inside the R&B world, though she was primarily known as a studio back-up singer for artists such as Elvis, Johnny Rivers, Sam Cook, the Beach Boys, and Dionne Warwick. She had just recorded He’s A Rebel for Spector as a solo artist. However, because she was an unknown name at the time (and because Phil Spector was Phil Spector), Spector oddly released it as a song sung by the Crystals, a recording group that was popular. She was still under contract, so he brought her in to give Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) a shot, and when she did… oh my.
While Bono tepidly whines his way through the Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’s pleas for a return of a lost love, Love rips her beating heart from her chest. Love’s stylings effortlessly swing back and forth from gospel to rhythm & blues to soul and back again. It’s a kind of melodic primal scream of the sort you associate with an Otis Redding or, to jump genres, a Janis Joplin. In the two and a half minutes it takes to sing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Darlene Love leaves everything on the floor. Every time I hear it, I wonder how exhausted she must had been after recording it.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) went on to be Love’s signature song. Because it was so popular at the time it was released (and because Phil Spector was Phil Spector), Spector had her re-record it reloading the word “Christmas” with “Johnny” in the hopes of turning it into a single that would seem year round. Thankfully, that version was shelved, only to be released in 1977 as the B-side of the single Lord, If You’re A Woman.
There are a plethora of other versions, by artists as diverse as Lady Antebellum, Death Cab for Cutie, Hanson, Michael Buble, and — eventually — the Ronettes. All of these are OK, but most of them sound like karaoke versions that pale in comparison to the original. The one exception, in my mind, is the version by Austin recording artist Bob Schneider, who takes a wholly different approach to the song’s inherent sadness, and manages to come up with something that is entirely unlike Love’s — but still quite wonderful in its own right.