Jimmy Iovine was sitting on the floor of his sister’s house in Staten Island, on the phone with Bruce Springsteen, when he made the decision. It was 1985, and Iovine’s father, Vincent, had died suddenly on what the legendary producer says is “still the worst day of my life.”
“I had an extraordinary relationship with my father,” Iovine says. “It was very devastating because he, his mother and his father all died within eight weeks from natural causes.”
Springsteen had called to offer his condolences, Iovine recalls, and “at that moment, I just said, ‘I’m going to make a Christmas album for my dad.’”
He asked Springsteen whether he could help out. He could.
“And I got off the phone, and I put all the energy that I’ve ever put into anything, and I said, ‘I’m gonna make this album,’” Iovine says.
“A Very Special Christmas” came out 35 years ago, on Oct. 12, 1987. Some of the biggest names of the MTV era accepted Iovine’s invitation, all for a deserving charity. Madonna, Sting, Stevie Nicks, the Pretenders, Whitney Houston, U2, Bob Seger, the Pointer Sisters and Run-DMC are among those who contributed, as did Springsteen and his E Street Band.
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By the ’80s, Christmas and pop music were certainly well acquainted: “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby’s perennial 1940s hit, still reigned as one of the most popular recordings of all time. Motown artists, Paul McCartney, Elton John and others made significant contributions to the seasonal canon in the 1960s and ’70s. But “A Very Special Christmas” arguably altered the recording industry’s relationship to holiday music, and the way Christmas sounds in the present day.
“This is such a huge album in terms of its impact, just because there hadn’t been anything like it. It changed the place of Christmas in pop culture,” says music critic and author Rob Sheffield, who believes “A Very Special Christmas” represents “a before-and-after moment in the history of Christmas in pop culture. It’s a thing that had never existed before, and afterwards was never going to not exist again. Pop stars now all want to do Christmas albums.”
Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Destiny’s Child, Bob Dylan, Kacey Musgraves, John Legend, Kelly Clarkson: Name a popular artist today, and there’s good money they have a holiday record. Or think of it this way: Without “A Very Special Christmas,” the path to Mariah Carey’s 1994 permahit “All I Want for Christmas” becomes far less clear.
To understand the album’s influence, it helps to bask in the seeming simplicity of its lineup, the matching of artist to song in a multigenre journey through the religious and the secular, the solemn and the goofy, beginning with Santa’s journey to town and ending with the Nativity. Hark, the original track list:
Iovine initially found inspiration in “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector,” the producer’s 1963 holiday album, which timelessly featured Darlene Love, the Ronettes and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. He was drawn “not so much to the sound, but the idea of it — a lot of contemporary people singing great songs.”
“What makes great albums great albums is someone’s vision,” Iovine says. “There’s a cohesiveness about the album that was absolutely there in the spirit of recording.”
But first, he needed to find something to do with the potential proceeds. He didn’t care where the profits went, not originally, but he knew he didn’t want to see a dime from the record. So he turned to the soon-to-be Vicki Iovine, to whom he would be married for more than 20 years, and asked for help finding a charity, telling her: “I gotta get money out of the equation, so I can make it pure. I want this to be the purest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
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Vicki was friendly with Bobby Shriver, son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the pair invited Iovine to a Special Olympics wrestling event in New Jersey. He was immediately struck by the actors playing famous wrestlers — a fake Hulk Hogan, a fake Randy “Macho Man” Savage and so on — and asked Shriver, “Why aren’t the real ones here?” Shriver explained that, at the time, the charity wasn’t considered “cool” among the celebrity class.
“I said, ‘What? Okay, now I got another reason,’” Iovine says. “I’m gonna try to help make this cool. It’s already cool. I want people to know it’s cool.”
Bobby’s father, Sargent, then the president of the Special Olympics, agreed, and a cause was found. From there, Iovine and Bobby Shriver went to Jerry Moss, the “M” in A&M Records, and secured project funding. Next, they had to rustle up artists and start recording.
“I took a year off from work and flew all over the world to make that record, to get it right,” Iovine says. He flew across the Atlantic to record a live version of U2 playing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” He enlisted Bob Seger, one of his father’s favorite singers, to play a traditional take on “The Little Drummer Boy,” one of his father’s favorite songs. He remembers Madonna recording “Santa Baby” in July: “It was 100 degrees, and we’re cutting a Christmas song!”
And, while some argued he should play it safe and get a Kenny Rogers song in there, Iovine remembers going to downtown New York to meet with Run-DMC, who were responsible for what would become the album’s centerpiece, “Christmas in Hollis.”
“Ten years later, I was sitting with Tupac, and he saw the [“A Very Special Christmas”] album cover and he goes, ‘I bought that album!’” Iovine remembers. Tupac, who was 16 when it came out, told Iovine that he bought it specifically for the sole hip-hop track. “It was things like that make the record so special to me,” Iovine says.
That centerpiece, now so familiar after decades of blasting out of tinsel-covered subwoofers and over the heads of shopping mall Santa Clauses, almost didn’t happen. “Christmas in Hollis” miraculously fused the emerging hip-hop sound and the birth of Jesus, even if the group (Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell) was hesitant to record a themed song.
“We didn’t want hip-hop to be considered a novelty,” McDaniels says. “We were already at the point where everybody said rap’s a fad, it won’t be here long. So we thought they were trying to make us go out like the Frisbee and the hula hoop a little too early. Give us some more time. We’ve got more rhymes. Leave Christmas to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole!”
Plus, a Christmas rap song already existed: Kurtis Blow’s 1979 festive feat of lyrical dexterity, “Christmas Rappin’.” “Kurt did it, it’s done. Let’s not go there,” McDaniels recalls thinking.
Then they heard the jolly beat — all sleigh bells and synths, with samples of “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells,” “Joy to the World” and Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” — and everything changed. Out came the lyrics celebrating a family Christmas in Hollis, Queens, served up with Mom’s chicken and collard greens.
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“We thought it would just be this hip-hop song on the album with these great artists,” McDaniels says. “We felt very humbled and flattered to have some good company. We had no idea we were going to steal the show.”
McDaniels is convinced that people will still be discovering — and dancing — to “Christmas in Hollis” 100 years from now. “For the rest of the existence of the universe, we have an official Christmas song like Bing and Nat,” he says, sounding awed. “We’re as much a part of Christmas as Rudolph and Santa and the Claymation holiday specials.”
So much so, he adds, “I don’t go to the mall at Christmastime because everybody rhymes my verse at me very loudly.”
For Bobby Shriver, Whitney Houston’s session in North Carolina stands out. “She looked like a kid,” he recalls. She was chewing gum while she listened to the track for “Do You Hear What I Hear?” She removed the gum, strolled into the booth, put the headphones on and sang it, then walked back out and looked for her gum to pop back in, while “everyone in the group had their jaws on the ground. [Her] voice was just so big and bold and beautiful, and she sang the whole thing in one take.”
But, Shriver says, it’s the final track on the album that “completely changed my life.” At the time, Shriver was fresh out of Yale Law School and living two lives at once, helping Iovine produce the record while working as a venture capital firm’s “financial sensitivity analyst” and “wearing a suit and tie every day. So I was a completely different creature than Jimmy and Vicki, the record people.”
One night, he was in Los Angeles for Stevie Nicks’s session and needed to get to the airport to fly back to his job in New York by morning. As he reluctantly headed out the door, “this kid — this guy changed my life, I don’t even know who he was — comes up to me and says, ‘Do you want a cassette of the session?’”
Shriver hopped in his rental Ford Taurus. He popped in the cassette. “And of course, bingo, there was the whole session. Stevie singing ‘Silent Night.’ And I was driving there listening to that, and I thought, ‘I’m quitting the finance business. This is the f—ing real thing right here, man.’ To hear the song ‘Silent Night’ in her iconic voice at 2 in the morning on Sunset Boulevard. It was just like, ‘Oh my God,’” he says.
Finishing the album often required 80-hour workweeks for Iovine, Vicky and Shriver. Eventually, the 15 songs were recorded and polished. Keith Haring, the art world’s celebrated graffitist, drew the distinctive red-and-gold album cover, featuring a haloed figure cradling a child. “After we finished this thing, and it came out and was very successful, I was very scared it would be copied,” Shriver says. “And I can very vividly remember Jimmy telling me, ‘It’ll never happen because no one will do the amount of work we did.’”
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Sheffield, the author and critic, points out that the album was filled with musical leaps that were unexpected at the time, particularly for pop superstars, such as U2 tackling the Darlene Love-performed, Phil Spector-produced and co-written pop tune “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
“It cannot be overstated what a stretch this was for U2,” who were “the most serious, solemn, meaning-laden rock band on Earth, when they were at their peak seriosity,” to perform a fun pop song, he says. And not just perform. “Everybody in U2 is absolutely putting their hearts and souls into this song. It completely changed what people thought of the band.”
Then there was the reemergence of Eartha Kitt’s cheeky and seductive 1953 song “Santa Baby,” performed here by Madonna in a bubble gum voice, which was loved by some and loathed by others. Nevertheless, Sheffield says, “‘A Very Special Christmas’ made ‘Santa Baby.’” He adds, “It’s funny that this is a song people now talk about as an old classic, but it was completely forgotten, completely unheard at any point in the ’70s or ’80s. It was not on any stations, any Christmas rotations.”
“Santa Baby” particularly stands out “because it was a funny change of pace,” he says. The slightly goofy, fully joyous “Christmas in Hollis” has a similarly interesting album placement, sandwiched between Sting’s somber “Gabriel’s Message” and U2’s heartfelt yearning. The album is “designed to have something for the kids, something for the old folks, something for the grandparents, something for the weird drunk uncle who just sits by himself at the punch and hums along with Bob Seger singing ‘The Little Drummer Boy,’” Sheffield says. A little something for everybody.
That shift between solemn and bright, serious and funny, was part of Iovine’s vision. “Christmas combines a certain melancholy with a certain joy,” he says. “I’ve always felt that” and “was trying to capture that mood, that feeling.”
While the album endures as a cultural phenom, it continues to serve a greater cause: helping fund Special Olympics programs, particularly those most in need around the world. The first album spawned 10 more, plus a 30th anniversary rerelease, and, collectively, the program has raised $145 million and helped more than 110 local Special Olympics programs, primarily in Africa and Asia.
Andrii Pidvarko, president of Special Olympics Ukraine, says the program has been a reliable source of funding for more than two decades. With the Russian invasion of the country in February, it’s never been more important.
“Almost all charitable organizations and foundations, private companies focused all their help on supporting the Ukrainian army now. Our organization was able to receive stable financial help only from ‘A Very Special Christmas,’” Pidvarko says. “For now, we can’t train and compete due to constant rocket fire, but our athletes work as volunteers in hospitals, weave protective masking nets for the army, pack humanitarian aid in warehouses and sing along to the albums.”
One misconception, says Nicole Preston, who received funding for her program when she became president and chief executive of the organization’s Washington chapter, is that the Special Olympics consist only of the Summer Games. But the proceeds help fund such aspects as a schools program and a health program, all part of “a holistic approach to supporting children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Our goal is creating greater inclusion in schools and communities for our athletes so that they’re not segregated.”
That charity aspect is one of the reasons the Pointer Sisters agreed to cut the album’s opening track. “We didn’t really have any big expectations about the popularity of it. We just knew it was for a good cause,” says Ruth Pointer, who has a special-needs family member. “It’s something, I think, that can touch most people. It’s humanity. It’s being kind. It’s being productive. It’s being human.”
“I’m just so glad that it has had the legs and longevity that it’s had, and I hope it just continues on and on and on and on,” Pointer adds. All these years later, a listener can still hear the dedication Iovine and his artists brought to “A Very Special Christmas.”
“None of the artists skimp on production scale or quality,” notes Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist and professor at Berklee College of Music. “People are not just throwing in, you know, an acoustic demo. They’re all bringing their A-game to the party, which I think is perhaps one of the reasons that the album has stood the test of time.”
“There’s just something about those songs, man,” Iovine says. “When you sing them, you can’t be the Grinch.” He adds, “It was my least favorite time of my life, and I did something positive with it. When I see that album, I see one guy, and that’s my father. That’s all that mattered.”