'Making spirits bright:' Christmas albums from Goodyear and Firestone filled homes with holiday cheer

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'Making spirits bright:' Christmas albums from Goodyear and Firestone filled homes with holiday cheer

To the citizens of Akron, Ohio, 40-some years ago, December meant snow (lots of it) and gawking at the elaborate Christmas displays in the windows of downtown department stores like O'Neil's and Polsky's. Listening to Christmas albums released by favorite sons Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. also was an essential part of the holiday.

The recordings -- which for many people in Akron, the former "Rubber Capital of the World," were as much a holiday staple as eggnog and visits from St. Nick -- were sold and played on turntables in other parts of the country as well.

Though sponsored by competing companies, elements of the albums were often the same. They were assembled and produced by major labels like RCA and Columbia, featured popular singers of the day, sported festive covers, and contained a mix of religious hymns and secular songs.

"Favorite Christmas Carols from the Voice of Firestone," a 1962 release, was one of Firestone's earliest ventures into Christmas music. Featuring the Firestone Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of conductor John Lesko, the album included carols like "Joy to the World," "O Come All Ye Faithful," and "What Child is This?" A second volume the next year featured the Columbus Boychoir.

A third volume, released in 1964, highlighted individual vocalists like Martha Wright, Roberta Peters, Franco Corelli and others. Subsequent editions featured better-known singers like Julie Andrews, Vic Damone and the Vienna Boys Choir.

The back of each Firestone album's cover listed song lyrics, in contrast to Goodyear's Christmas albums, which provided historical background on various songs, as well as information on the artists performing them.

Goodyear began its "Great Songs of Christmas" series in 1961. The first volume featured "10 great artists of our time," including Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Mitch Miller and His Sing-Along Group and Burl Ives -- a full five years before his holiday trademark, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," hit the charts. Julie Andrews (pulling double duty), Bing Crosby, Connie Francis, Lena Horne, Ray Coniff, Robert Goulet, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Barbara Streisand, and Steve and Eydie (Lawrence and Gorme) enjoyed prominent billing on later albums.

In 1970, Goodyear released the "Best of the Great Songs of Christmas." To mark the occasion, songs were split up according to their slant. Side one was devoted to commercial numbers like "Sleigh Ride" and "Here Comes Santa Claus," while side two was exclusively comprised of hymns like "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and more obscure compositions like "Good King Wenceslaus." "Each year, we try to include one or two less-familiar carols," said the liner notes.

Despite their popularity, the tiremakers' holiday albums didn't make the jump to more modern formats like cassette and compact disc. There were rumors several years ago that Goodyear was thinking about reissuing some of its Christmas music on CD, but they haven't come to fruition. These days, most Goodyear and Firestone holiday LPs collect dust in attics and thrift-store record bins. But for many people of a certain age, they'll always be a fondly remembered Yuletide footnote.

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