My Favorite Christmas Song
For Lisa Layne, September 27, 1989 would mean more than just her 27th birthday. She was standing at the microphone at Nashville’s Masterfonics recording studio. Nearby were some of the town’s finest studio musicians prepared to record a new bluesy Christmas song. The recording would be listed under the name of a retro rock and roll band that originated in New Orleans, Vince Vance and the Valiants.
As the tape began to roll, a funky, but melancholic saxophone solo introduced the tune until the point when Lisa Layne leaned into the microphone and began to sing:
Take back the holly and mistletoe
Silver bells on string
If I wrote a letter to Santa Claus
I would ask for just one thing…
Here was one of those moments when greatness was achieved – in a single take. The song “All I Want for Christmas is You” is one of the top-selling Christmas songs in the world, and arguably the holiday’s best pop song ever.
I don’t need sleigh rides in the snow
Don’t want a Christmas that’s blue
Take back the tinsel, stockings and bow
‘Cause all I want for Christmas is you.
Layne was born in Tyler, Texas but her family moved to Dallas when she was three. Because her father was a musician, music was part of her heritage. After graduating from high school she performed with her own band until she was scouted by the Valiants, whose operations were split between New Orleans and the Texas city.
“All I Want…” was written by New Orleanian Andy Stone, who plays the role of Vance, the rock geek with the pointy hairdo, and guitarist Troy Powers. Stone was inspired to write the song in 1973 when he was touring with the band and spent a lonely Christmas in a Columbus, Ohio motel room. His words would dig deeply into the emotions of the season especially ,when Layne erupts after a seductive mid-song sax solo:
I don’t need expensive things
They don’t matter to me
All that I want, can’t be found
Underneath the Christmas tree.
“I never got a penny for that recording,” Layne recalled when I interviewed her in 2008; nor was her name on the label. She was an employee for the band just doing her job. Few Valiants were involved in the session, which included mostly Nashville musicians recording under the Valiants' name. The song, nevertheless, would become world-famous, with Lisa Layne as the powerful, but anonymous voice.
There is a grinch in this Christmas story. It is singer Mariah Carey. In 1994, five years after the Vince Vance recording, Carey released a song with the same name. The Carey version is completely different but the message of love and longing is the same. “I guess they had the right to use the name,” Layne conceded, though grudgingly. The Carey song comes nowhere near capturing the moodiness of Layne’s Joplinesque performance.
After leaving the Valiants, Layne settled for a while in Nashville. If there is one person in country music history that anyone who tries to imitate has to be really, really good it is Patsy Cline, the greatest female voice that the genre ever produced. For two years Layne played the lead role in a national tour of a “Closer Walk With Patsy Cline.” She is one of only three performers to have been endorsed by the Patsy Cline Foundation as being worthy of playing the stellar role.
These days Lisa Layne spends much of her time in Branson, Missouri, quite often performing as Cline. Boo Miller, who backs her on the steel guitar, also assumes the roles of manager and “permanent partner.”
She has a website under her name that reveals a newer version of the song. “It is a little more country-style,” she says with her Texas drawl. This time her name is on the title, all the legal work is in order, and she is making royalties.
Amazingly, for all the anonymity of the original version, “All I want…” is still the song that most identifies her.
“Someone we knew in Amsterdam once called,” Layne says, “to say they heard it there. Sometimes during Christmas my Mom calls saying, ‘Guess what I just heard on the radio!’"
Let’s see, could the song Mom heard end like this?
You are the angel atop my tree
You are my dream come true
Santa can’t bring me what I need
‘Cause all I want for Christmas is you.
Vince Vance’s words, and Lisa Layne’s delivery, will reverberate for as long as there is Christmas – and loneliness.