About Dr. Christmas
The Personal Origins of America's Most Diverse Christmas Music Radio Program - An Autobiodiscography
The Christmas music collecting obsession is like one of those diseases where most folks just get a headache and a fever, but a rare and unlucky few end up hospitalized or even dead. It all started innocently enough for me. My mother liked the easy listening music of the time (mid-20th Century), so the Christmas music I was exposed to as a child came from the likes of Mantovani, Kostelanetz, Conniff, and Faith. The 4-LP Reader's Digest "Joyous Music of Christmastime", which was more seriously classical, was a special favorite of mine (and I'm still looking for a near-mint set). Above all, I really enjoyed my childhood Christmases. Although ours wasn't a Norman Rockwell family, those Christmases produced some of the fondest memories of my youth. And as the picture shows, the drifts really WERE bigger back then!
In the mid-60's I didn't pay much attention to Christmas music. I was into rock and jazz, and I was even a music major getting classical training for a while. I collected hundreds of rock LPs, but that gave way to classical music in the mid-70s. There was a small Christmas section in the Discount Records store in Champaign, IL where I fed my classical appetite, and I scooped up about 20 LPs that seemed to be like those I heard in my youth. They included every LP the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had put out, because I liked that big choral sound (Mahler's 8th had just become a favorite at the time). But 20 LPs is a far cry from true obsession.
My collection of Christmas LPs grew slowly to about 100 through the 80's, fed in particular by the inexpensive vinyl from the Musical Heritage Society. My taste had become rather heavily choral/classical/organ. In the mid-80's, however, I became quite the fan of a much lighter music-new age-to the point of even becoming a dealer. Through new age I discovered a whole world of acoustic music, including Celtic, bluegrass, folk, and just about anything else that didn't require 120V AC. Much of what I acquired was now in cassette form
At about the same time I began to wish I could share my growing collection of Christmas LPs and tapes over the airwaves. I knew that much of what was available in terms of Christmas music on the radio was just too much overhyped pop and darn little else. In 1989 I approached Ben Jarman, the faculty supervisor/chief operator of the student-run public radio station (WRST, 90.3) at the university where I was a professor, asking whether I might do a Christmas show devoted to types of music rarely heard on the radio. He readily agreed, in part because the station had a difficult time getting any students to do programs in the week before Christmas since most had already gone home for the holidays.
In 1989 my first show aired. In that year, and that year only, the show was taped for later broadcast, it had a script that I wrote, and I had a producer(someone who did just what Roz does on "Frasier"). The music was all acoustic. In the following year Ben convinced me that I could handle the technical side as well, and broadcast live without a producer. He was right-it's busy, but easy. That year the show grew in length to about 20 hours over several days, and that nudged me to go beyond the acoustic category into other underplayed genres as well, particularly classical, choral, and jazz. As the 90's rolled on, the show grew ever longer, eventually averaging over 40 hours spread over 5-9 days (depending upon when the fall semester ended). Basically, I got a week to play with a radio station. True, it was only 960 watts (albeit on a tall building), with a reach of only 15-25 miles, but listeners went crazy for it. Ultimately I began playing all categories of Christmas music except children's, and at the same time I built connections with many of the small independent labels that needed the kind of airplay I could give them.
The show developed a number of features over the years, including readings pertaining to Christmas in the Midwest, Christmas trivia quizzes (with CD prizes), and feature segments devoted to Christmas recordings by artists who had performed in the area in the year just past. But the one constant was that the shows were mostly devoted to Christmas CDs released that year (or at least acquired by me that year), and generous portions of each were aired. On average a listener gets a 15-minute sample of each CD, although a select few were played in entirety.
In 1993 I also began to write a lengthy (2000-plus words) column of Christmas CD reviews for the Post Crescent, the largest newspaper in northeast Wisconsin (circ. 75,000). That made it even easier to get CDs for the show, while also adding to the pressure to collect Christmas CDs in all genres of music.
By the mid-90's I began referring to my shows as the most musically diverse Christmas radio programs heard anywhere, and none of my friends in the recording industry have ever said that claim was unwarranted. If you look at even a few of my playlists, the diversity is amazing. I also began referring to myself on-air as Dr. Christmas, because that is how harp guitarist John Doan addressed a note to me when I requested his superb Wrapped In White CD (I even had a DOC XMAS personalized license plate for a year or two).
And my collection of Christmas CDs grew ever more rapidly. Some say it is the largest private collection in existence, although I find that hard to believe when I think of the CDs I don't have. It certainly is one of the biggest, though.
I hasten to add that Christmas CDs aren't the only music in my collection. I can't even bear to listen to Christmas music for about 9 months of the year, especially since it has to be the only thing on my sound systems from October through December. In 2005, counting CDs, LPs, and tapes, I had about 1200 classical/choral, 800 jazz (my deepest love), 700 rock and pop, and 2000 new age/acoustic (remember, I was a dealer for that). Most lived in a 20 X 30 media room built mainly for them.
Later I was honored to be chosen as one of the judges in the Seasonal Music category for the Association For Independent Music's "Indie" awards. AFIM , now defunct, represented independent labels that are not tied in with majors such as BMG or Sony, and the Indie was like a Grammy for these little labels that can't afford heavy promotion for their products. I found, however, that Indie winners were often musically superior to the lowest-common-denominator recordings that win Grammys.
I'll be writing my column and doing my shows at least until I retire from UW Oshkosh. And I can think of nothing better for an epitaph than borrowing from Dickens: "it was said of him that he kept Christmas well."
Here are a few of the honors my program and I have received over the years:
- Warren Hartman, longtime music director for country superstar Kenny Rogers, said "I thought my knowledge of Christmas music was formidable, but it pales next to Gerry Grzyb. He's my "go to" guy for pulling a Christmas music query out of the hat. Possibly peerless!" -
- Kyle Munson, longtime music critic for the Des Moines Register, wrote that I was “perhaps the nation’s foremost authority on Christmas music.” I doubt that's true unless he meant Christmas music recordings.
- In recognition of his commitment to independent music, the Association For Independent Music (now defunct) named me one of the five judges in the Seasonal Music category for its Indie Awards (which were the independent music version of the Grammy).
- A variety of musicians quote my reviews of their CDs that appeared in the Appleton Post Crescent on their websites. Google "Gerry Grzyb" or "Dr. Christmas" to see some of them.
- My show has been written about in newspapers from Morro Bay, CA to Erie, PA, and it was listed as one of the distinctive ways people celebrate Christmas in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich's largest quality paper (roughly the equivalent of our New York Times).
- In 2008 I was featured on WNYC, the public radio station in New York City that once had its tower atop the World Trade Center. I took part in a debate about Christmas music as part of WNYC’s Soundcheck program.
(Pictured Above: Young Dr. Christmas - Racine, early 50's)