I will never forget that cold Saturday afternoon in early December 1954 when my older brother Richard walked into our house holding a 45 rpm record in its paper sleeve. He held it waist-high in both hands, like it was some precious object.
He had a sly grin on his face. "Wait 'til you hear this," he said to my brother, Roger, and me.
He went over to the record player in the living room, put the 45 rpm adapter on the spindle and carefully placed the little disc on the turntable. He dialed the volume up, then stood back from the machine with both hands in his pockets.
"Ba-doo, di-doop, boop,boop - boop-di-doop -- Ba-doo, di-doop, boop, boop..." the soft bass voices began. Then a velvety bass solo arched over them. "I'm dreamin'...of a white Christmas..."
We were bowled over. Stunned. About a minute into the song another voice took over the lead, the unmistakable voice of Clyde McPhatter. "White Christmas," my Grandma's favorite song -- the Bing Crosby standard (from the 1942 movie Holiday Inn) would never be the same.
Irving Berlin wrote it. We all love it. Everybody who is anybody has recorded it. But the Drifters' version, released by Atlantic records for Christmas 1954, stands as a landmark in the history of Rock n' Roll and Rhythm & Blues. (Hear the whole song here - www.originaldrifters.com).
The Drifters -- mainly a group of gospel singers from South Carolina by way of Harlem -- had taken a classic and stamped a new age and a new edge on it.
And they did it with an almost subversive grace that has mellowed into the very fabric of the season in a peculiarly compelling way over the past half century. The song has been a solid Christmas favorite ever since it was introduced. It was given an extra kick when it showed up in the hit movie Home Alone a few years back.
My twin brother and I were only 13 years old that Christmas of 1954, and living way out in the wilds of rural Western Pennsylvania where standard pop or "hillbilly" was the standard radio fare. But we were already on the leading musical edge of something we did not quite comprehend, thanks largely to our older brother.
For several years, Richard had been listening to WILY, the "negro station" in Pittsburgh, 60 miles to the west. He had introduced us to the disc jockeys Cousin' Bob and Mary Dee.
He had also managed to tease our big wooden Philco radio into receiving the 250-watt signal from WHOD, in the steel town of Homestead, where one of the most amazing and incredibly unsung pioneers of early rock and R&B, Porky Chedwick, was "spinning platters." (The station later became WAMO).
Over these stations, despite the weak, grainy signals, we were able to cut our teeth on Joe Turner and Little Willie Littlefield. Before we had ever heard of Elvis Presley we knew "Hound Dog" as a much slower, exotic, growling song sung by someone called Big Mama Thornton. We drove our grandmother crazy when we turned up the volume to hear the Clovers, the Ravens, the Treniers, and, of course, this new group, the Drifters.
We loved Clyde McPhatter's piping voice on such songs as the remarkable, driving "Money Honey," "Such a Night" and "Honey Love." But nothing had prepared us for "White Christmas."
We played the record over and over, as the winter afternoon faded into darkness. Our mother was not happy. She felt the Drifters were being almost sacrilegious to do this to a beloved classic. My grandmother, who adored Bing Crosby, was almost apoplectic. More so, when she heard the flip side of the 45, a weirdly beautiful version of "The Bells of St. Mary's"
We didn't know that the basso profundo in the duet with McPhatter was named Bill Pinkney. We didn't know that he was a World War II vet (four bronze stars!). We didn't know that the song was a note-for-note copy of a version made by the Ravens way back in 1949. We didn't know that Clyde McPhatter had been drafted earlier that year and soon would depart from the Drifters. We didn't know that "Drifters" was an "owned" name in the music business that would be attached to an ever-changing group of singers over the ensuing years (12 different lead singers, 11 of them from other singing groups).
That was all insider stuff that would come out years later when this kind of music would be retrospectively dubbed "Doo Wop." All we knew was that this was our version of White Christmas. Young. Iconoclastic. So different from what old folks listened to.
I could hardly wait to play the record for my friends. I was thrilled when it showed up on the juke box at the Rustic Inn, a favorite teen hangout nearby.
I still love to hear Bing Crosby sing "White Christmas." I even like Gene Autry's version. I love all kinds of music, but there is for all of us that special music, set in time, that was part of our emerging identity as teenagers. Little did we know back then how durable our "signature" music would be.I was born into the original rock & roll generation and I guess, through my older brother, I was a rhythm & blues "preemie." And every December I still get a special thrill when Pinkney, McPhatter and company swing into "White Christmas."