430. ‘Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord’, by Boney M

One of this blog’s main drawbacks rears its head once again: Christmas songs in July. Oh well… Boney M’s 2nd discalypso hymn of the year. Ready?

Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord, by Boney M (their 2nd of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 3rd – 31st December 1978

It’s a wonder why more acts don’t do this: rush out a Christmas single while at the peak of their popularity. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because the results might sound a bit like this… The steel drums are back, the insistent, steady pace of ‘Rivers of Babylon’ remains. It could be the same, karaoke-ish backing track.

But we do get off to a positive start when I realise that ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ / ‘Oh My Lord’ is not the double ‘A’-side I’d first feared; but a medley. Our first (official) chart-topping medley! (*Edit* Since Winnie Atwell.) And thank goodness because, for my money, the ‘Oh My Lord’ section – newly written by Boney M’s founder Frank Farian – is the best thing about this song. Oh my Lord, When in the crib they found him, Oh my Lord, A golden halo around him… as a backing singer harmonises. It’s nice.

We’ve heard the main bit of song atop the charts before, of course, way back in 1957. Harry Belafonte’s treatment of it was a bit more hushed and reverential. Not that Boney M sound sacrilegious or anything – they do sound genuinely Christian – but it’s hard to sound too pious with that rinky-dink Eurodisco backing. One thing that does work is the way that the band’s Caribbean accents add a slight gospel flavour to the vocals.

One thing that seems to be a very late-seventies phenomenon is the length of our chart-topping singles. This must be the era of the longest average #1. The 7” of this ditty runs to close on six minutes, while the 12” keeps things running for another minute or so. Why, oh why? Pop songs rarely need to run over 3.5 minutes, I’d say, yet disco seemed to encourage indulgence.

Again, as the song plods on and the minutes pass, my mind turns to wondering why this, and ‘Rivers of Babylon’, gave Boney M their pair of chart-toppers, and not ‘Rasputin’, ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Sunny’, even ‘Ma Baker’… Rare is it, I suppose, for an artist to be properly represented by their chart positions. Anyway, this was the fourth festive themed Christmas #1 of the 1970s – after Slade, Mud and Johnny Mathis – making it officially the Christmassiest decade ever. It’ll be six years until the next one. But, on the plus side, we are about to enter 1979, and are on the cusp of some all-time great chart-topping singles. Bring it on!

65. ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, by Harry Belafonte

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Mary’s Boy Child, by Harry Belafonte (his 1st and only #1)

7 weeks, from 22nd November 1957 – 10th January 1958

Must we?

Maybe it’s because we are approaching mid-summer as I sit down to this, but I am really not in the mood to write a post about a Christmas song… Especially a song as dull as this one.

You surely all know it: Long time ago, In Bethlehem, So the Holy Bible says… Mary had a baby – one Jesus H. Christ – and the herald angels sang. The shepherds saw a star. Man will live for ever more… So on and so forth…

I am potentially the most-irreligious person going and so, to avoid offending any sensibilities, I will refrain from any cynical interpretations of these lyrics. Plus, Harry Belafonte is a titan, both of pop music and of the Civil Rights Movement, and to belittle this song (his only appearance at the top of the UK charts) would be to belittle the seventy-year career of a ninety-one-year-old man, who has achieved more in life than most of us could ever hope to.

Actually, talking of the Civil Rights Movement, the most notable thing about this record is how black it is. And how Harry Belafonte becomes, five years after its inception, the first man of colour to top the UK singles chart. And considering the sheer number of black male artists who have topped the charts – some of the biggest names in popular music history – that’s a pretty cool trail to blaze. He’s of course not the very first black artist to reach the top… So far we’ve had Winifred Atwell playing old-fashioned, white, music hall tunes on her piano, and The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon giving us a good dollop of Doo-Wop. And that’s been it. The charts are still very white. But here, Belafonte sings in a Jamaican patois (a heavily diluted patois, but still). And lines like: While shepherds watch their flock by night, Them see a shining star… are almost subversive in their flaunting of proper grammar! This is technically a Calypso record, but I struggle to hear anything particularly Calypso-ish about the strings and violins that swirl around Belafonte’s voice.

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Let’s treat this is an interlude, then – a moment’s respite from the advancing march of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs that top the charts at Christmas time are rarely reflective of current tastes (cough Cliff Richard cough cough Bob the Builder). Normal service will be resumed presently. Though to call this record’s stint at the top a ‘moment’ is a slight under-exaggeration (what is the opposite of an exaggeration?) It stayed there for seven weeks – hitting the top spot as early as the second last week in November! People clearly loved it.

Searching out the right version of this song has been a bit tough. Belafonte recorded various live versions, and an extended version in the early-60s, though the link below should be the song that topped the charts for Christmas ’57. But if you asked me what the best version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ is, I’d have to say Boney M’s!