Friday, December 1, 2023

Merry and Bright Interview with Tim Neely (part 1)

Tim Neely is well known in the world of Christmas Music collecting.  And, "well known" is an understatement to the hard core Christmas music collector community.  Tim is the author of the indispensable Goldmine Christmas Record Price Guide, published in 1997 and still highly sought after by collectors 26 years later.

Tim is an active member of the online Christmas music collector community, contributing tidbits of recording history to many discussions.  Deeper knowledge about the history of Christmas music recordings may not exist (although Stubby might make it a tight race).  

Each year since 2014 Tim has graced us with a "Christmas Song of the Day" during the month of December, sharing with his readers a song that has some special meaning to him.  We learn all about the song, and why he selected it, which may be a very personal, moving story.  I've been introduced to many new artists and songs from Tim, BarlowGirl, Laura Allen, and Nightbirde being three that come to mind.  You can follow along Tim's CSOTD at his website, Tim Neely Stuff.

Several months ago I asked Tim if he would mind doing an interview with Merry & Bright, to talk about all things Christmas music.  Tim enthusiastically agreed, unaware of just how many questions would be coming his way.  Trooper that he his, Tim sent back extraordinarily thoughtful answers to all my questions.

I am very, very grateful for Tim's time.  He is a music lover, collector, historian, and gentleman with truly fascinating insights into Christmas music, past and present.  So, here on December 1, coinciding with Tim's debut Christmas Song of the Day, I am very proud to present Part 1 of my interview with Tim Neely.  Stay tuned to Merry & Bright for Part 2.


Merry & Bright Interview with Tim Neely part 1

Merry & Bright:  Tim, thank you for spending this time with Merry & Bright.  As such a highly respected member of the Christmas music collector community, I think my readers will really enjoy hearing your thoughts about Christmas music and related topics.

Tim Neely: Thank you for thinking of me and asking me.

MB:  I’d like to start by learning a little more about you.  My personal earliest memory of Christmas music is a Bing Crosby album that my parents had (“Songs of Christmas”, Decca DL 34461,  with Bing and Katherine Crosby wrapping presents on the front cover and Bing advertising for La-Z-Boy on the back).  I played that record year round in my early childhood, and I still have it in my collection today, over 50 years later.  What is one of your earliest memories of Christmas music?

TN: Just one? I must have been a Christmas music fan from my pre-kindergarten years, because I vaguely remember watching three classic Christmas TV specials, if not the year they first aired, then not long thereafter – Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! With help from my dad, I made a reel-to-reel tape recording of Rudolph off the television one year, but about a third of the way through, the sound became distorted.

I also remember looking forward to the Christmas season at church, because they'd pull out Christmas songs to sing as part of the service, such as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and "Angels We Have Heard on High."

Another early memory is that my parents bought me a songbook of Christmas music when I was quite young, and I used it so much that it eventually fell apart. I did a search for it not too many years ago, and I found that it was called Christmas Carols and was published by Whitman in 1964. (Earlier editions were printed many times dating back to 1938!) It has a great cover, with singers standing around what looks like an old-time organ. It would be neat to have that 1964 songbook again.

Finally, during the Christmas season of 1967, my parents bought an LP at W.T. Grant, which used to be a five-and-dime department store chain. Grants was where we went to visit Santa, probably because it was the closest place to do so from home. Anyway, they bought an album called A Very Merry Christmas. That album was the first "grown-up" record that my dad let me play on his big-people stereo. That is where it all began. I've had other copies of that album in the years since, but I still have that record that my folks bought in 1967, complete with my handwriting on the back cover.

MB:  How did you become a collector of Christmas music?  To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell, was there a ‘tipping point’ after which your collecting mojo really took off?  Or was it a gradual thing, where one day you suddenly realized you had built up quite a collection?

TN: It was definitely a gradual thing. I consider the start of my record collecting as March 1973, though there had always been records around the house. It wasn't a focus of the collection for many years, but when (especially) 45s of Christmas songs showed up, I got them. I had "The Chipmunk Song" by the Chipmunks early on, as well as Gene Autry's "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Jimmy Boyd's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," because an early focus of my 45 collection was songs that hit #1 in Billboard.

Some others I recall adding to my collection early on were an early-1960s pressing of "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole; the 45 EP with "Blue Christmas" by Elvis Presley on it; and "The Man with All the Toys" by the Beach Boys.

The Christmas part of my collection started to grow in the mid- to late-1980s, to the point where by 1990, I made Christmas mix tapes for my mom's Christmas parties for her friends from work. By that time, I had dozens of holiday albums and hundreds of 45s. By the early 1990s, I began to collect Christmas CDs; I also started to collect various-artists series of albums. I got all eight volumes of A Very Merry Christmas from Grants and most of the Firestone and Goodyear volumes. Finally, I worked on collecting the True Value Hardware Happy Holidays series. By 1997, I had enough Christmas albums that I segregated them from the rest of my collection. So it was definitely a gradual progression.

MB:  Can you estimate the size of your collection?  How many LPs, singles, CDs?  We’ll exclude downloaded digital music from the count.

TN: At one time, I had over 10,000 Christmas records, including 45s and LPs, and I think I still do. I have an entire wall filled with Christmas CDs, including both full-length and singles; I estimate that I have 4,000 CDs.

MB:  I’ve often thought about what will happen to the collections that our colleagues in the community own.  My collection is pretty large, but it pales in comparison to some of the true A-Listers like Rob Martinez, Ernie Haynes, and Tim Sewell.  Where will your collection wind up a few decades down the road?  And what would you like to see happen to the collections from our peers?  I hate the thought of a giant truck backing up to the loading dock at the local thrift store with pallets of Christmas records from a collector.

TN: It's not something I've thought about very much, unfortunately.

MB:  I’ve wondered about the utility and feasibility of an International Christmas Music Museum and Research Center, as a place for these collections to live on in perpetuity.  Maybe someone out there knows of a rich patron to provide the startup funding.

TN: Or perhaps, one can find a major research university with a great already existing music-history department to host such a collection. A large financial donation or endowment would help, which alas is beyond my meager means. But if that school already has some infrastructure, adding a Christmas-music component would simply require storage space and commitment.

MB:  What are your general thoughts about the Christmas music collector community?  What role do you think the blogs, message boards, and sharing of out-of-print vinyl (lovingly transferred to digital) have had on the world of Christmas music?

TN: I love it! Any time you discover other people with the same specific interest, it's a godsend. All the talk by bloggers and enthusiasts has been a positive thing, because I think it shows that reissues of rare Christmas music, especially by niche labels, can be commercially viable.

MB:  Let’s talk about the evolution of music media, a topic not exclusive to Christmas music, but one very important to us as collectors. We’ve seen the distribution of music transition from vinyl to CDs to digital downloads to streaming (I left out 8-tracks and cassettes, but I suppose we can give them a nod as well).  Now vinyl is “in” again, and achieving significant sales, with more and more new and re-releases every year.  What are your thoughts about the evolution of the media, and the resurrection of vinyl?

TN: It makes me glad I got off the acquisition treadmill a few years ago! By the 1990s, every new Christmas album was on CD, and many were still on cassette, but almost none were on vinyl. With all the LP reissues of the past 10 years, I'd be doing the opposite of what many music buyers did in the early 1990s. In other words, I'd be replacing my discs with records, rather than the other way around. But there's no way I could ever afford to do so today.

Along those same lines, I know of a Christmas music collector who has at least 40 (!!) vinyl variations of Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas with different colors of records and styles of covers. At one time, that album was impossible to find! I remember buying the 1988 reissue version at a store that was clearing out its records in 1990, and I had no idea it existed at all. Now, it's reissued so frequently that it's darn near impossible to keep track, or keep up.

MB:  Let’s do a quick focus on digital music – “physical” versions – MP3, WAV, FLAC, etc. – as well as streaming.  I have a huge collection of digital music stored away on hard drives and internet services, but I personally lose track of them, and strongly prefer my CDs and records.  And I am not yet a convert to streaming.  I will stream some music each season, but it’s a very small part of my listening.  How has digital and streaming music affected the way you listen to Christmas music? 

TN: Frankly, not much at all. I mostly find it annoying! Going all the way back to Kimberley Locke's 2005 version of "Up on the Housetop," and possibly earlier, record labels started with digital-only Christmas music. When that song was popular, the only way to find that song was if you were fortunate enough to find one of the promo-only CDs containing it – unless you believed in ITunes, where you could buy the song as a digital download. Two years later, she did an entire Christmas album, but it was only available digitally; hard copies were promo-only.

I downloaded a few one-offs over the years, but only if they were free. One I'm glad I got was "Fa La La" by Jim Brickman featuring Olivia Jade Archbold, because Brickman made a WAV (lossless) version available on his website the year it was sent to radio (2011), and ever since, I don't think it's been on a hard copy.

To this day, I keep a keen eye for those increasingly rare new Christmas compilations in hopes of finding songs I've heard in recent years but despair of ever owning because they aren't on CD or record.

MB:  Over the years, have you seen peaks and valleys in the popularity of Christmas music?  To me, although this may be completely a personal experience bias, it seems like the first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album kicked off a bit of a resurgence in Christmas music popularity.  And, then when the first “A Very Special Christmas” was released, that seemed to contribute to another boost.  If you have seen peaks, what do you think were the triggers that led to the bumps in popularity?  Certain songs or albums?  Other influences?

TN: I could write an entire essay, or even a book, on this subject. But the short answer is yes, I have seen peaks and valleys in the popularity of Christmas music. I'd argue that Christmas music, combining both the streaming and playlist-based phenomenon and the sales of physical media, has never been more popular than it is today! Admittedly, the CDs are far less numerous today than 15-20 years ago, but they're still out there. And I really miss the store-brand CDs from such places as Starbucks, Kohl's, Hallmark Gold Crown, and True Value Hardware. New records, of course, are much more available today. But it's with radio and streaming where Christmas music is bigger than ever.

I'd say the lowest point in Christmas music in the United States was probably the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. Few artists were recording new Christmas LPs; most new releases hitting the market were novelties (numerous "Christmas Disco" albums, for example). And it was considered "uncool" to make Christmas records by the most popular artists of the day, though the Eagles had a hit with their version of "Please Come Home for Christmas" in 1978. In the UK, things were a bit different because of the national obsession with the Christmas #1 hit, which started in earnest in 1973 and remains a thing to this day.

Another contributor to a lull in Christmas-music popularity was Billboard's decision in 1963 to segregate Christmas music, both singles and albums, from its main singles and albums charts. Because of that, we don't really know how big the holiday hits from 1963-73 really were, unless one has access to Cash Box, which never disqualified Christmas music from its charts.

You mentioned the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album. It was released in 1984, and it actually made the main Billboard Top 200 album chart the year it came out, peaking at #110. But it didn't really take off until people started buying compact discs later in the 80s. And yes, A Very Special Christmas (1987) made it cool for American pop-rock artists to make at least the occasional Christmas song again.

MB:  The fairly recent history of Christmas music radio is quite interesting in itself.  I think that for many, many years commercial radio stations would work a few Christmas songs into their playlists during the season, and a very few would make the seasonal switch to all Christmas music in December.  (Side anecdote:  another early memory of mine is a Wichita KS radio station playing “Jingle Bells” by The Singing Dogs every morning during the season.)  A few years ago it seems we had an eruption in the number of stations switching to an all-Christmas format, and also there were races to see who could do it first.  In my market (Kansas City), Christmas radio has normalized, and there are only one or two that switch to all Christmas.  What are your thoughts about the history of Christmas radio, the huge upsurge, and where we are now?

TN: When I was growing up, the local sunup-to-sundown AM station used to play what it called a "Christmas Caravan of Music" starting a couple days before Christmas. It was strictly easy-listening fare; each segment was sponsored by a local business, and all may have been pre-recorded so the station announcers could have time off for the holiday. In the 1970s, the Philadelphia stations would incorporate maybe one Christmas song an hour into the format up until Christmas Eve, when they would play 24 hours of non-stop holiday music on a loop.

The first station I remember adapting an all-Christmas format for longer than a week was in Baltimore, Maryland, in November and December of, I think, 1989. It did so as a stunt, as it was going to change its format on January 1 of the new year. My recollection is that the station's ratings saw a significant improvement during those two months, and a seed was planted.

I think it was Fred Allen who once said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television," and that's even more true on the radio. The first time I heard a station where I lived go all-holiday during the Christmas season was in 1997.

Not many years later, probably in 2003, I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, visiting family during Halloween weekend. As I was driving in the area, two adult-contemporary stations switched to Christmas music within a couple hours of each other. People were getting ready for trick-or-treating to the sounds of Santa! They did this for one reason: In any given market, the first station to switch to Christmas music gets the highest ratings from Thanksgiving to December 25, regardless how early the change.

During the years I lived in central Wisconsin, at least one commercial station switched every year except 2012. That year, the usual all-Christmas station had changed formats to contemporary hit radio (top 40) and didn't convert, and no other commercial station took its place. Instead, the only station in the market that played all-Christmas was a non-commercial Christian station, and its usual minuscule ratings improved significantly.

Many people complain about so-called "Christmas creep" and about the onslaught of holiday songs, but those who aren't complaining, and many who are, are listening. Year after year, radio ratings prove it.

In my market of Lynchburg-Roanoke, Va., one commercial station switches to all-holiday gradually, starting usually with the Delilah show in early November and then on weekends before going completely all-Christmas the weekend before Thanksgiving. Three Christian stations also switch to Christmas music, but they wait until after Thanksgiving.

MB:  Now, for a leading question, what do you think of the quality of the playlists of commercial radio stations that switch to Christmas music?  And, how about the playlists of the satellite radio stations?

TN: I don't listen to satellite radio, so I can't comment on that.

As for the usual playlists on commercial radio, I know that, if I were a program director for a Christmas radio station, I would do things differently.

Some songs get played over and over again because, frankly, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without them. But I would play the chestnuts less frequently – perhaps four times a day instead of 10 or 12.

I'd also incorporate more lesser-known songs, both old and new, that still convey the spirit of the holiday. One of the more annoying trends in Christmas radio the past five or so years is to simply add more different versions of the same few dozen famous songs, but by more current artists. How many versions of these songs do we really need to hear?


Tim Neely Interview with Merry & Bright part 2 coming soon!


  1. Great interview and discussion. Satellite radio does need some help.

  2. Great interview, and I'm looking forward to more parts. And thanks for the little name drop! I was listening to Sirius XM the other day during a free weekend, and the playlist was fine at first. Tuned in again later in the day and it was the same songs in roughly the same order, so I gave up. And even the station playing the newest stuff kept dipping back to the 40's and 50's for the classic recordings. If I wanted that, I'd click to the other station, thank you very much!

  3. Great interview!! Looking forward to part 2

  4. Great to hear from Tim.

    I was thinking, however, that in Philly in the 1980s EZ101 used to do their 36 hours of Christmas. I know it wasn't a full switchover like we see today. But it's something I fondly remember.