Thursday, December 25, 2014

TMFW 68 - Pro Football's Lost (and Found) Holiday Records

[NOTE - DISASTER!  The holiday week has me all messed up and I only realized just now that today is Thursday!  So let's call this a Special Holiday Edition of True Music Facts Wednesday, brought to you totally-not-accidentally on a Thursday.]

[NOTE 2 - Merry Christmas to those readers who celebrate it!]

Last week, TMFW-favorite had a long feature about now-forgotten NFL-themed holiday records.  You can read the whole story at the link - and if you have 15 minutes, you should; it's a lovely read - but the principal details are pretty straightforward to recount.

In 1970, an ad-man named Mike Tatich was making his living producing cheesy, quick- and cheap-to-make "[Celebrity] Sings the Hits" records, which were advertised on TV and sold by mail.  He got the idea that he could make sports-themed records - with a built in geographic audience for each one - and approached the NFL.  Because in those days the League was less established and the players' contracts were less rich, and because the AFL-NFL merger was just becoming official and the league was looking for PR help wherever it could get it, the NFL and the player's association agreed to take part.  According to the article, Tatich paid a grand total of $0 to the NFL for their approval and assistance; under the deal, only a portion of the profits would go to the players' association.

There was to be one album per NFL team, so when the deal was made Tatich suddenly had 26 records to make (this was pre-Buccaneers, Seahawks, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, and Texans).  Tatich and his partners went to Yugoslavia, where they avoided the cost of the American musicians' union and had the backing music recorded on the cheap.  (I'm sure the NFL players union would have loved knowing that.)  The music was identical for each record - 8 "classics" including "Frosty and Snowman" and "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," and 1 original song called "A Tropical Winter." Then, with the instrumental tracks in hand, they booked time at recording studios around the country and went to every single NFL training camp to convince players to come sing after their days' workouts were through.  Tatich lured them with promises of beer and pizza, and amazingly enough it worked.  All 26 teams sent players, and all 26 records were recorded before the regular season kicked off. 

Though he had no record company or distribution network to speak of, Tatich thought he was sitting on a sure-fire hit and decided that he would self-release the records.  Printing them on the label "Manlius Records," a made-up imprint that apparently never released anything but 26 NFL-themed holiday records in 1970, he promoted the album with media appearances and even got a chorus of NFL players on The Ed Sullivan Show.  But - again, because he had no record company or distribution network to speak of - the records found only a (very, very) limited audience, and most ended up in a storage warehouse.  The bulk of the records were ultimately sold to scrappers for the value of the vinyl. 

Despite their rarity, it seems that the records did leave a legacy.  The author of the article linked above speaks eloquently about the Raiders' version, which tradition required to be played on repeat as his family decorated the tree each year: 


"I think that I [insisted on traditions like that] because a small family like the one I described above, my family, is also a fractured one. Maybe some part of me understood that Christmas isn't quite the same for families that don't have fathers, uncles, grandparents, and cousins all gathering around the tree at Nana's house. I think I obsessed over all those dumb traditions—the Raiders' album chief among them—because it was the clearest way for the four of us to remind ourselves that, yes, this is a family that doesn't make much sense, but it's still a family. Haven't you noticed all of these traditions? We are still here."


Similarly, in this blog post from 2008 about the Cowboys' version, there are comments from a Packers fan who says "The Packers version was a Christmas music staple & tradition in my household when I was a little boy growing up in Wisconsin during the Vince Lombardi Packers era...I still covet & play my copy of this LP each Christmas when my kids decorate our Christmas tree."  Here's a fellow who discovered the Chiefs' version at garage sale, and eBay has you covered for the Rams ($20) or the Colts ($60).

It's amazing to think that there was a time when (a) the NFL would license their team names and lean on their players to make carbon-copy holiday records, all for free, and (b) you could build a chorus of willing pro football players to give up a night at training camp and sing "All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth" with just the promise of free beer and pizza.  Those were the good old days.


BONUS FACT THAT IS ALMOST AS LONG AS THE MAIN FACT:  What drew me to today's TMFW (other than that it was easy, and fun, and Christmas related) is that it was not the only "lost and found pro football record from the 70s" story that I am aware of.  There's an even stranger one from our friends up north.

In 2009, a musician named Henry Adam Svec announced that, during his work for the National Archives of Canada, he had discovered a set of recordings made by Canadian Football League players in the 1970s. Because the recordings were "rough" and "deteriorating," Svec did not try to restore the original recordings but instead worked with a composer to recreate and intrepret the songs with additional instrumentation and "contemporary orchestrations."

Unfortunately, the method of recording the music in the 70s prevented Svec from sharing much about the songs.  As he explained on a website devoted to archiving and celebrating the music and in lectures that he gave about the project, the recording sessions were lead by a mysterious Canadian folklorist named Staunton R. Livingston.  Livingston's "folklore method involved not writing anything down.  He didn't write down the author, the performer, location"  This is because, according to Svec, "he didn't think it mattered; he thought music belonged to everyone and so [identifying information] would actually violate the songs that he was trying to share."  Livingston initiated the sessions in 1972 and unfortunately died in Quebec in 1977, so he is no help for the reconstruction of historical details. 

Without the names of the players or even the song titles themselves, Svec was left to interpret much of what he found.  He called the project "The CFL Sessions"   The track list for the resulting record reads like a too-good-to-be-true picture of life in a modest Canadian professional sports league in the 1970s:  songs like "Song Written Upon Getting Cut by the Argos," "Linebacker Passing Through," "'E' for Endzone," and "Life is Like Canadian Football."  That last one is my favorite; lots of wisdom there.  At the lecture linked above, Svec presents at a symposium at the University of Western Ontario about the process of discovering the recordings and plays the song he calls "On Discipline."  As the first lines make clear, the song is written by a CFL player who is abstaining from sex because he fears it will inhibit his play: "You're so pretty and you're so young / I'll mess around with it but I can't cum / I need my legs, I need my energy / If that's superstitious, well then superstition is a part of me."

If the story about a trove of CFL-inspired songs written and recorded (and then forgotten) in the 1970s - and rediscovered 30+ years later by a budding musician who gave them the attention and reworking that they deserved - seemed too good to be true, it turns out that it was.  Svec had fully invented the backstory to give himself a theme to work around for a record.  As someone who had chosen to believe the tale, I was disappointed when I learned the truth.  But the record is still fun to listen to; when I do, I like to imagine those CFL guys getting their feelings onto tape all those years ago. 
BONUS FACT 2:  If we are talking about The Great White North and it is Christmas, I hope you will indulge a link to Bob and Doug McKenzie's classic rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  I love that song; the line "good day, and welcome to day 12" gets me every time.
BONUS FACT 3:  The dad of early TMFW reader and former TMFW neighbor Ross played Canadian Football at the University of New Brunswick, where he was (maybe) a flanker or a fullback.  After college, he had a tryout with the mighty BC Lions of the CFL (6-time winner of the Grey Cup), but sadly his knees did not cooperate.  
BONUS FACT 4:  I am not sure whether Ross inherited any of those football skills from his dad, but he makes some of the finest ribs you've ever tasted and he's the best turkey carver I have ever met.  So that's something.

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