For the third time this decade, and for the fifth time in all, the Christmas number one is an actual Christmas song. The previous two, from Slade and Mud, were very seventies, very glam. This one, though, could have been #1 at any point in chart history.
When a Child Is Born (Soleado), by Johnny Mathis (his 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 19th December 1976 – 9th January 1977
Let’s split this record in two, and start with the good half. It’s got that ‘classic standard’ feel to it, a sweeping melody of the kind that you think you must have always known. When the backing singers come in with the ah-ah-ah-aaahhs it’s quite sweet. Plus, Johnny Mathis sings it like the professional crooner that he is. A ray of hope, Flickers in the sky…
On to the bad bits… And let’s start with those lyrics. It’s all winds of change, silent wishes, brand new morns and rosy hews. It feels churlish to complain about soppy lyrics in a religious, Christmas-themed song. What kind of lyrics is it supposed to have? Except, I’m not religious, and it’s April. So there.
Plus, the production is very floaty, glossy, mid-seventies MOR goop. And there’s a stinker of a spoken section: The world is waiting, Waiting for one child… Black, white… yellow? No-one knows… It is what it is. I’m not going to knock it any more. Mathis means well, and I have fond memories of my late grandmother singing this by the tree after a sherry or three.
I had assumed that ‘When a Child Is Born’ would have been an old, old tune from the mists of time. But the melody, ‘Soleado’, was written for an Italian singer in 1972, while the English lyrics followed a few years later. It’s a skill, I guess, to write a song that sounds so timeless. Johnny Mathis had been around for a lot longer, releasing his first singles in the mid-fifties. He followed this up with ‘Too Much, Too Little, Too Late’, his first US #1 for almost twenty years. Some impressive longevity there. He’s still with us, aged eighty-five, having released his most recent album in 2017.
You will all be thrilled to hear that the 1970s, the decade of the Christmas #1, is not done with the festive tunes just yet. But that is some way off. Up next, we launch head-first into 1977, which marks the singles chart’s quarter century!
Listen to all the #1s from 1976, and from every year before, with this playlist:
14 thoughts on “398. ‘When a Child Is Born (Soleado)’, by Johnny Mathis”
Johnny Mathis is one of those artists that isn’t represented much on the Billboard charts largely because much of his hits during his ‘50s peak came before the Hot 100 was established including the pre-Hot 100 #1 “Chances Are” in 1957. He was such a big hit maker at the time that his 1958 greatest-hits album held the record for most weeks on Billboard’s album chart until Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. Like most crooners of the time, he wasn’t able to keep up with Beatlemania and the other pop music upheavals of the ‘60s so after 1964 he didn’t have much success until the 1978 duet “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” gave him his biggest Hot 100 hit with Deniece Williams later of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” fame. The song’s success led to more opportunities together which included singing the theme song for the Michael J. Fox sitcom Family Ties.
I like ‘Chances Are’ in the vocal group, doo-wop versions I’ve heard. Don’t think I’ve ever heard Mathis’s version. He’s a name in the UK, but not as well known as in the states. Speaking of Deniece Williams, she’ll be appearing shortly herself.
As it’s not one of the “Chosen Few” that invade the Xmas charts and airwaves each year I’ve never really reached that “Oh God give me a few years without hearing it again!” moment, and at Xmas (and not the rest of the year) I’m quite happy to indulge the sentimental overload. Johnny is a great singer, and his best stuff is in the 50’s really, Chances Are, Misty and many others, a voice of honey, but he moved into more soul-based stuff in the 70’s, starting with his hit cover of The Stylistics I’m Stone In Love With You. Well-loved veteran was his status by 1976, so I think the fans all rallied round in a display of sentimental nostalgic support for a nice tune and nice warm message during a bitterly cold winter where the snow was deep and crisp and uneven through December and January in the UK.
Me, I’d have preferred Livin’ Thing on top, a classic bit of ELO, or Queen’s Somebody To Love, but hey ho….
Oh yes, either of them would have been great number ones. From the alternative #1s you mention, it feels like around this time the cream was definitely not rising to the top… (does it ever?)
Occasionally 🙂 5 of 1977’s chart=toppers topped my personal charts of the time and 3 of them are bonafide perfect records. No prizes for guessing which 🙂
OK, I’ll say… Two from ABBA, Hot Chocolate, Donna Summer, and… Kenny Rogers!
Hah! Hot Choc has done it as an oldie since, Kenny Rogers has only ever come close with Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town, but the other 3 classics are spot on. I’ll just say Spain and a scottish island for the other two 🙂 Among acts that topped my charts that year that didn’t top the UK charts are: Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder 3 times essentially, Space, Hot Choc (but a different track) Julie Covington (but a different track) Boney M, La Belle Epoque, Boston, Heatwave, ELO, Jacksons, Babs Streisand, ELP, Rah Band, Meco. I think covers a lot of genres… 🙂
Ok, Bacarra were my next choice, if I were being sensible. But Mull of Kintyre…? Well, I’ll have a chance to reassess it when we come to it. Not sure I’ve really listened to it in years.
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I haven’t heard this one much at all. I do like it…I may even give it a spin this Christmas…it’s not Slade… But I would listen to it.
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