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: