Christmas Music 101 With Night Before On XPN Host Robert Drake

For the 22nd year in a row, WXPN host—and our 2014 Best of Philly pick for Best DJ—Robert Drake will stay up for 24 hours on Christmas Eve playing the enormous collection of holiday music he’s collected since his youth. Called The Night Before on XPN, the exhaustive set will include every type of holiday song imaginable—rare tunes, as I learned this week, that reach as far back as 1918. I caught up with him to learn more about this monster collection, how he stays awake all night and, since he’s the closest thing I know to a holiday-song expert, glean some yuletide-tune etiquette: When is it too early to start blaring “Jingle Bells?” What are the three most-own holiday albums? Is Mariah really worth the hype? He lays it all out in our chit-chat below.

Robert Drake in the studio. | Photo by Joseph Hocker

Robert Drake in the studio. | Photo by Joseph Hocker

How many songs are in your holiday music collection?
Wow, that is a hard one to answer since my collection is primarily based in CDs … but I’d say I’ve got easily 20,000 songs going back to 1918.

 You have a song from 1918?!
It’s a reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” It was on a holiday compilation I got several years ago.

What sparked your fascination with Christmas music?
As most kids, I loved hearing Christmas music since it meant Santa wasn’t far behind. As I got older, I loved the fact that, no matter what genre of music you performed, you could always produce a Christmas album. Some great, most fair and a decent amount truly awful.

Earliest Christmas song memory?
For me it’s Kate Smith performing “Silver Bells.” I’ve no idea why, but it does explain my fascination with Divine years later.

When is it okay to start playing Christmas music? After Thanksgiving?
This is a touchy topic since so many people are burnt out over Christmas music, and a lot of that is due to the tight rotation commercial radio and satellite stations have with their holiday programming. I mean, how many times can you hear the exact same song in one month’s time?! However, when you really stretch the format and the diversity of songs of the season (both holiday and winter), you can go a good month and not be disappointed.

What makes a good Christmas song?
The classics are classics for a reason; they resonate with the listener, triggering childhood memories and happy times. As for more modern Christmas songs, it’s the same rule as with music in general; quality songwriting and arrangement … unless you’re deliberately going for novelty – then make it funny with a capital “F.”

What’s your all-time favorite?
I have two; “White Christmas” by The Drifters and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland. Both connect with me emotionally—from the carefree fun of the holiday to the sadness that always lurks in those darken corners each year.

What Christmas song makes your ears want to bleed?
Novelty Christmas songs that have lived well past their shelf life. From singing dogs to murderous reindeer, those songs were cute for a hot minute or two, but let’s move on.

What are some of the rarest tunes we’ll hear during Night Before on XPN?
A lot of what I have is “rare” since unsuccessful Christmas albums tend to fall by the wayside in both artist catalogs and record store shelves. But I’d have to say my collection of vintage Christmas R&B songs from the 1940s are at the top of my list.

Three musicians who do Christmas music better than anyone else?
Aside from the obvious classics, I’ll have to say Ilene Weiss, The Roches and Blind Boys of Alabama. You’ll never go wrong with any of these three holiday albums.

What recent holiday music offerings got it right?
Guster did a great song, “Tiny Tree Christmas.” Target picked it up, but even if they hadn’t, it still deserves to be enjoyed. Another song that got some push thanks to TV was one by Bishop Allen, “You’ll Never Find My Christmas.” It’s a total holiday ear worm!

Mariah Carey Christmas music: Love it or hate it?
I love it. She recorded it while her voice was still great and really embraced the season … and I would have to say her “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is probably the most-recent Christmas classic song recorded … nothing since has stuck as strong as that.  And who can’t smile watching Mariah, Jimmy Fallon and Philly’s Roots performing that track with toy instruments?!

How do you decide what songs to play on your show?
One of the secrets of going for 24 nonstop hours is not to program too much. So, with rare exceptions I press play on a CD player and I have X minutes to figure out what I want to play next. It keeps me focused and awake!

If you could only play one song on loop for 24 hours-kind of like they do A Christmas Story on Lifetime-what would it be? Why?
I’d have to say “The Christmas Song” performed by Nat King Cole. It’s warm, fuzzy and one that speaks volumes in just a few minutes.

What do you do to stay awake all night?
Besides not programming most of my show, I’m lucky enough that technology has caught up to me. Since many people listening are streaming online, I have developed a global audience, which helps keep my Night Before chat room active. Also social media keeps me focused on those moments I tend to drift off a bit—and, knowing that the Jingle Cam is streaming live from my studio (where listeners can watch me in action and make sure I don’t fall asleep). That also keeps me on my toes!

You stay up all night Christmas Eve; does that mean you sleep through Christmas Day?
Like Santa, I nap much of Christmas. No big plans and no socializing; John and I spend the day at home and together … with our dog Nomi and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Now that’s Christmas!

Catch DJ Robert Drake on Night Before On XPN on 88.5 FM on your radio, or streamed live here.