The Abominable “O Holy Night”: RevealedBlog — By Jordan Green on December 1, 2008 at 12:00 am
(Every year, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, we kick off the Christmas season our favorite way possible: listening to an unspeakably awful rendition of “O Holy Night”. Last year, we were contacted by the song’s performer and interviewed him. It’s sad, to some extent, to put a name to that majestic voice. But were were we going to pass up that opportunity? No, we were not. Enjoy our yearly tradition.)
The most popular article in Burnside history is “The Abominable ‘O Holy Night‘”, in which I speculated on the origins of an internet sensation. What you’re about to hear is a rendition of the great Christmas hymn so immaculate in its broken beauty as to render any listener helpless. I first heard this recording through The Sneeze, the best blog on the world wide web.
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A few weeks ago, I was mysteriously contacted by Steve M. (last name withheld for privacy’s sake). Steve M. claimed he was the composer and singer behind the track.
I was incredulous, but Steve provided proof, a variety of tracks including the original instrumentation.
The Abominable ‘O Holy Night’ has brought me much joy, and part of that joy comes from the mystery behind the track, the myriad of telephone-game like stories that have weaved their way across the country. Should the mystery be revealed, or would we be better off not knowing?
Ultimately, it’s Steve M.’s story to tell, and he’s convinced it’s time to let the world know. After all, it’s hard sitting back and letting people take credit for something so wonderfully awful.
Jordan Green: First off, a million thanks for speaking with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about yourself.
Steve M.: I am Steve M. I graduated from college in 1976 with a degree in Classical Music Theory. In 1981 I moved to Nashville, Tennessee from South Carolina to continue my nine year career as a professional studio musician. Since 1981, I have made my living totally as a commercial musician/arranger/producer and have recently began writing for film. I work on an average of 100 recording projects each year and last year I wrote 250 arrangement all of which were recorded in the various genres of music I work.
In 2006 I returned to Belmont University to teach a course in Computer Assisted Music Notation which I had taught in the mid 90s along with some private commercial composition students. I was not enticed to return when they called but just casually said, “Too bad you don’t have a Masters in Classical Music Composition or I might be tempted to return if I could get a Masters while I taught.”
I had been trying to find a place to do just that but could not even get a reply from several schools, so in disgust I threw it in God’s face and said, “OK God, maybe this is stupid, I’m 50 years old so if you want me to get a Masters…you work it out.” To my surprise the voice on the other end of the phone said, “That”s funny, we just added that Masters program to our roster last semester. So I now teach at Belmont University in Nashville and have fifteen hours toward my Masters in Classical Music Composition.
JG: Besides teaching, do you work in the recording industry?
SM: Yes. I’m a recording specialist. I’m passionate about recording because recording freezes a time, a place and an era of music like a time capsule. I work on a lot of album projects, jingles, film, visual media projects. I work in country, gospel, rock-n-roll, classical but I don’t do hip hop or rap. I write for full orchestra, hire the studios and musicians and record what I write. I also have my own 48 track Protools production studio at home.
JG: Why not hip-hop and rap?
SM: I find hip-hop and rap boring to me. A four bar loop with somebody talking with very simplistic rhymes just does not interest me musically, and I find the lyrics to be vulgar and profane.
JG: Who are some of the entertainers you’ve worked with?
SM: In Gospel I have produced or arranged for Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Gaither Vocal Band, Avalon, Casting Crowns, among others. I also orchestrated “Midnight Cry” with Gold City Quartet which has been one of the biggest songs in Gospel music over the last 20 years.
On the Country side of things I’ve worked with Kenny Rogers, Martina McBride, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson. I used to produce Floyd Cramer, to name a few.
In Pop I recently did the LA NAMM show featuring Richard Marx, Earth Wind & Fire, I also did a LA NAMM show that was a tribute to Michael McDonald which had Steve Winwood, and Ray Charles on the show. I have worked with Collective Soul, Pat Boone, Amy Grant and Seals & Crofts.
I also arranged and produced a classical opera singer last year, Karen Knight, and a classical piano record with live orchestra for Greg Howlett.
JG: What about other mediums?
SM: I recently did the TV show for CMT’s 100 Greatest Love Songs, and in January of 2006 I was the supervising copyist and music prep director for Hoodwinked, an animated movie that reach #1 in box office nationwide featuring Glenn Close and James Belushi.
JG: You’re obviously experienced in the music industry. How did you get the idea to record this version of ‘O Holy Night’?
SM: In the summer of 1990, I was orchestra director at a world famous church here in Nashville (CC). The musical director asked me to produce a Christmas album for the choir. This recording was a fully orchestrated recording with a 200 voice choir and I produced and orchestrated the whole album. The recording was praised by critics and a newly formed record label picked the project up and released it on their label and sold a few copies, but most of the units were sold by the church.
It was a big, long process with hundreds of details. My good friend and engineer for the project (Kevin) and I had just completed all of the recording process. In other words everything was on tape. The tracks were done, the orchestra was done, we had recorded 200 voices and a smaller group of guide vocals, and the last thing we had completed were the individual solos. It was a Friday night and we had just finished recording Guy Penrod’s solo. It was about 11:00 pm and Guy was the final part of the puzzle before we started mixing We were in a “let off a little steam” mode and us two red-necks were cutting up.
Now, Guy was not yet famous, but later became very famous with one of the groups mentioned above. Guy is extremely tall and rugged and is the nicest human being you would ever want to meet. He has a great heart for God and he sings high B flats. But Guy has very long hair, down past his shoulders, and with the shorter cuts of the yuppies, it was not the norm for somebody to have hair that long. Guy also played with his hair during the session, pulling it back and shaking it from time to time while singing into the mic.
My hair was about a half inch on the sides and sweeps sideways to cover the bald spots. Guy had left the building when Kevin said, “Man that Guy can really sing, you reckon it’s the long hair that lets him sing that high?” To which I replied,”Nah, I don’t have long hair and I can sing that high.” Kevin laughed, “You can’t sing that high!” I asked, “Give me a track and I’ll show you.”
JG: Take us through the recording minute by minute.
SM: Kevin started the now famous intro of my orchestration, my production of CC choir. I began to sing. I knew I had a long way to go before the high notes, so as I started, I decided to demonstrate everything I had ever heard bad singers do in my career. If I hit the same pitch twice, it would not be the exact same pitch. If I held a long note I would go sharp for a while then flat for a while, never holding a true pitch just as most amateur singers do. I over-emphasized words, I emphasized the wrong syllables and I breathed in awkward places. (One of the Belmont University vocal teachers used this recording to demonstrate to her voice class what bad singers accidentally do, not knowing it was me singing.)
The basic tone quality of my own voice did not have to be tampered with too much, I do sound like crap! My brother is a great singer and has sung for major artists. I was a great child singer. I could carry a independent harmony part at 5 years old and made my first recording in 1964 when I was 9. But when my voice changed it changed for the worse.
Kevin was laughing, we were silly, and I was playing with my half inch hair mocking Guy, shaking my head and flipping my hair back. (Sorry Guy if you ever read this, I love you man, but I’m telling the truth here.)
And then we got to the high chorus.
Guy actually does not sing the melody at the high part in the original, the choir takes the high part with a lot of power and energy. We did this arrangement at CC many times and the house is on their feet at this point. Guy sings after beat fills but he does go up to A’s and eventually ends on a B flat. It is awesome, and we did this song every year from then on at CC, it was a real crowd pleaser.
Instead of backing the choir, I sang the melody at the big part. Well, I knew I could not reach those notes. I can’t reach an F on a normal day. But we were letting off steam, celebrating the end of months of hard work and I got the “superman” syndrome and just decided on the spot to go for it! So I went for it! To my surprise I actually had some kind of sound up there, but it was obviously not a pleasant sound. Kevin started laughing uncontrollably which just gave me more encouragement. The highest note was coming, I was already on a D above Guy’s B flat which is absolutely beyond anything most men can sing but I realized I could not reach the G on “divine” so I switched to a falsetto. The switch was not a smooth transition and as I came back down my voice was almost spent so I dropped down the octave preparing for the end, which is more subdued. I was really hurting to the point that at the end I gave up singing and recited, “You know it was Dee-vine that night.”
I had just enough voice to sing the last, “O night divine” to which I starting seeing just how flat I could go, and for one final added “bad singer” device, I took a big breath in the middle of a sustaining note on the worse possible syllable and came back in and held it to the end.
When we finished, Kevin and I played it back so he could make a cassette copy of it for me. We had DAT machines at that point, but I wasn’t thinking of making this a master tape, so cassette was fine. I took it home and played it for my wife Deborah, and she was not all that amused. I played it for Landy and Joy (the music directors at CC) and they politely laughed but were not rolling in the floor. I stuck the tape in a box with other keepsake tapes from my career.
JG: Do you think your wife’s reaction, and the reaction of the music directors at CC, have something to do with the fact you butchered such a beautiful, almost sacred, song?
SM: I think it’s the fact they all knew it was me that made it less funny. The same reaction may come from the general public when they find out the true story. Will it still be funny if they know it is a studio professional singing? I don’t know. My wife specifically thinks it is a shame that the most famous recording I am on is something showing off my worse feature, my voice. Out of the thousands of records I have made, this fluke is the most widely heard thing I have done and that ticks her off a little.
JG: How’d you find out the recording got out?
SM: I received a phone call from my brother who is also a producer/arranger in Nashville. My brother Russell asked, “Have you ever sang ‘O Holy Night’ and really screwed it up?” My reply was, “Yes I have, how did you know that?” He said, “Somebody just e-mailed me a copy of O Holy Night with what I immediately recognized as you singing.”
I explained to him it was impossible for somebody to e-mail me singing “O Holy Night” because I had the only copy on a cassette tape. In 1990, the general recording population was still on analog tape, and the “O Holy Night” project was recorded on 2″ tape and had never made it to the digital world. His reply was, “Well it’s you, I’ll send it to you.”
When I downloaded the song, it was indeed me singing. So I conferred to my brother as to who sent the song to him and he told me it was one of his engineer friends and that he had heard several other people talking about hearing the song. This is a common occurrence in the recording world. We get a copy of somebody screwing up or misspeaking or being a jerk reading jingle copy and we pass them around.
So my brother and I decided not to tell anybody it was me singing but to always ask, “Who is this singing and what is the circumstance.” The stories were never the same and they grew and grew with each subsequent e-mail.
JG: What’s the best story you’ve heard?
SM: My personal two favorites were: “This is the audition demo for a college student trying to get a scholarship to a university, and he really thinks he is good.” My top pick is “This is a guy from East Tennessee who mortgaged his house and made this record thinking it would be a big hit because he needed to use the money to pay for his mother’s cancer surgery.” NONE OF THESE STORIES ARE TRUE. There is not even a seed of truth to anything I have read online.
JG: So if you had the only copy, how did this get out?
SM: All we can figure out is this: the original company that released the CC record went out of business and sold everything to another company, who later was purchased by a big, worldwide secular company. It is standard procedure for the master tapes purchased by such companies to be archived onto whatever the most recent format is of the day. I would guess some low dollar engineer was transferring the 2″ analog tapes into some form of digital media such as ADAT or Digital 32 track before committing the masters to the storage vault and found my special performance. I have tried to trace the recording backward and no one can seem to find the master tapes or where the master 2″ analog tape is. It is a dead end. I can only guess as to how it reached digital domain and who sent it out over the Internet, I know it wasn’t me and I was as shocked as anybody to hear my voice over the radio.
JG: Have you made any money from this recording?
SM: Not a dime! There has never been product such as CDs or cassettes with this version of the song on it. It was studio guys having fun, never meant for public release. I have been to ASCAP to see if we could collect from radio play, but there are two problems. First of all, radio stations do not log funny stuff that they play, especially at Christmas. If they don’t log the play then there is no revenue from it. Secondly, even if ASCAP tried to follow up and collect from airplay, Public Domain songs only get 1/10 of normal royalties, so they say it is not worthwhile to fool with it. If everybody that has down loaded this song sent me $.50 I would be able to pay off my house, pay my kid’s college bills in cash, but I’m not going to hold my breath until that happens! I don’t think I can sell something on iTunes that is so readily available for free download unless I use my tracks to clean it up a bit.
JG: And cleaning it up would be such a shame. So why now? Why come forward and claim responsibility?
SM: The kicker that made me want to break my silence was the YouTube videos. I stopped counting at 15 videos using my voice and my track saying they were the real singer. Some of the characters are pretty weird and I just couldn’t stand the thought of somebody claiming credit for something they had absolutely nothing to do with. I have the copy of the mix marked October 12, 1990, that is the original project, and everything I have said is completely true.
JG: Can you prove you’re the guy?
SM: I have a 1/4″ tape copy of the original recording mixes with CC choir and Guy singing. I have the split track version with music on the left and choir only on the right, I have the stereo track with no vocals at all of the exact track you have heard, and I have the original orchestration, note-for-note. You can follow along with the song and see every note I wrote.
JG: Steve, thanks so much for your time, but most importantly for your gift to humanity.
SM: The gift given to me by God is musical talent. I use my talent in film, television, recordings and live shows to enhance the artist, build drama, and push the emotional buttons people have through the notes I write and record. Many years ago I questioned my calling to do what I do and I felt God gave me this mandate to, “Lift the spirits of mankind.”
So if I write a classical piece that lifts people’s spirits I have succeeded. If I work on a country song that lifts people’s spirits then I have succeeded. As for me, I don’t care if people are laughing at me and my performance because I know I am doing what God has planned for me to do, lift their spirits…if that is His plan, mission accomplished.