Christmas With The Everly Brothers And Boys Town Choir
Christmas is a wonderful season for music heritage. There's no other time during the year when audiences across so many demographics and genres reach more for the musical past. Sacred and secular, they listen to the classics and new albums featuring covers of the classics. In lieu of a time machine, this music is a splendid tonic for those who long for a more simple, innocent and dignified era. I swoon for those delicious, vintage sounds!
As a fan of The Everly Brothers and a new addition to The Everly Brothers Childhood Home Foundation in Shenandoah, Iowa as an Historic Preservation Consultant and Committee Member, I've been curious about their 1962 album, Christmas with The Everly Brothers and The Boys Town Choir. My discovery of this recording coincided with my increased involvement in the study and advocacy of their history. Virtually nothing is known about this collaboration aside from the liner notes, so I was eager to learn more, especially since it was recorded so close to Don and Phil's former hometown. Also, having studied psychology and worked in social services alongside my pursuit of a career in music, Boys Town's story and mission were of equal interest and inspiration.
Listen to the beautiful 12-track album originally released by Warner Brothers. "Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella," an English translation of the centuries-old French carol, is among my personal favorites.
Befitting their co-billing, the brothers and the choir were both superstars in their respective genres. The choir toured extensively from the 1940s to the 1970s. The organization's profile was heightened by the film Boys Town (1938) featuring Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy. It was a box office hit nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two. It was followed by Men of Boys Town (1941).
I reached out to Boys Town and initially received a reply from Rhianon Kohl, the Archivist at their Hall of History, who wonderfully embraced my inquiry. I was then connected to John Mollison, a chorister on the album, who is now the Senior Alumni Advisor at Boys Town. To my delight, he was keen to share memories of his choir days as well as a special photo from Christmas 1961, taken eight months before recording with the Everlys. John is the handsome lad pictured at far right!
SHERRY // First of all, many congratulations to all of you at Boys Town on your 100th anniversary! The new documentary, The Work Will Continue, is inspiring. Have you had the opportunity to meet with other choir alumni during the centennial year celebrations? I'm sure one of the perks of your position as Senior Alumni Advisor is staying in touch with everyone!
JOHN // Yes, we bring together the Alumni Choir at every reunion and sing a high mass. This year we put on a short concert of Patriotic Music after mass. The voices are getting older and the ranges have shrunk but the enthusiasm is still there.
SHERRY // When did you discover that you had a talent and passion for singing?
JOHN // Prior to my arrival at Boys Town I sang in school choirs. My mother used to go around the house singing all the time. She was an Italian war bride from Rome, Italy, and I was born in Naples.
SHERRY // How did you become a member of The Boys Town Choir?
JOHN // I arrived at Boys Town in August of 1957, at the age of 11, and the Concert Choir was on tour in Havana, Cuba at the time. When all boys arrived at Boys Town, they were given a voice test to see if they were choir material. If you were you were placed in the "Choir Section" building on the grade school side of campus or in the high school cottages (five of them) that were designated for choir section boys. Those cottages were all close to the Music Hall on campus so getting to rehearsal was quick and easy.
SHERRY // Little is known in the mainstream about Boys Town's musical culture and history, including the choir's Christmas album with The Everly Brothers. An article written by alumnus William Shannon entitled, "Music Delivered a Boy from Despair," certainly gives one an idea of the tremendous impact the program had as a measure of enrichment and rehabilitation.
JOHN // I was originally placed in what was the Chancel Choir (basically the treble voices). (The choir system was set up in a feeder system. There were two levels of choir (Chancel and high school, tenors and basses, ahead of the Concert Choir and you were placed in one by audition.) The touring Concert Choir usually consisted of about 33-35 boys (mainly driven by how many could fit in a Greyhound bus with the requisite adult staff (usually three or four). In January after the choir returned from tour and completed their Christmas programs Father Francis Schmitt (founder and director at the time) would increase the size of the Concert Choir to around 80-100 boys. Between January and June the Concert Choir was whittled down to about 40-50 boys. This group then went to summer school in order to complete their fall academics and rehearse the music for the tour. There was about 3 1/2 hours of music for the touring program that we had to memorize so we rehearsed twice a day (sectional rehearsals during school) and full choir rehearsal at night...five days a week. During this time we also had to prepare for a High Mass every Sunday and we sang a different Mass every week. By the end of summer school, the choir was pared down to its touring size and we then went to Boys Town's summer camp at Lake Okoboji and spent about a week to ten days in intensive rehearsal throughout the day. We did get to swim, fish and water ski during this time. When we returned to Boys Town we began our tour preparation in earnest. We all received a suitcase full of news clothes, were schooled in etiquette, worked on the logistics, were fitted for our costumes and continued rehearsing. The concert program consisted of three sections. The first section was mainly madrigals and a Christmas section. The second section was liturgical, motets and masses and the third section was made up of broadway show tunes, spirituals and more contemporary music. Costumes for each section were: 1st section (formal blue pants and white waist coats), 2nd section (cassocks & surpluses with stiff collars and red ribbon ties), 3rd section (brightly colored shirts and slacks).
*The following is a 1941 photo of Dowd Memorial Chapel where The Boys Town Choir recorded with The Everly Brothers in August 1962. The Chapel and its renowned organ has played a significant role in the performance of sacred music in the U.S. Boys Town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (see nomination form) and designated as a National Historic Landmark in February 1985. (Image Credit: A Century of Boys Town Interactive Timeline via Boystown.org)
SHERRY // What did membership in the choir mean to you?
JOHN // For me, membership meant being part of something very special and in a way it allowed us to get away from the daily life at Boys Town and experience a totally different world. We, at times, stayed in private homes in small towns across the country so we were able to meet many different types of people, we got to see many of the tourist attractions of our country and certainly many areas of the country as members of the choir. It gave me a deep sense of music as a way to express myself and the potential for a career in the field. I also played trumpet in the band, viola in the orchestra, took piano lessons and worked after school in the Music Library. It was such an influence that I enrolled at the University of Nebraska after graduation and was a trumpet major and voice minor receiving a degree in education. I was going to be an elementary music and band teacher. This never materialized. I did teach elementary music at Boys Town for about a month before I entered the Air Force and went on to flight training. I ended up flying in Vietnam in the F-4 Phantom fighter jet and remained in the Air Force for nearly 30 years and retired as the Support Group Commander at Offutt AFB with the rank of full colonel.
SHERRY // What purpose did the choir serve for the mission of Boys Town?
JOHN // Our appearances around the country brought to life the reality of what Boys Town was for many people whose only exposure was the Boys Town movie or the seasonal mailings they received. It let them know that their donations were making a difference in the lives of boys who might not otherwise have a chance in life. It made Boys Town real for them and not just a fictional place they saw in a movie.
SHERRY // Many celebrities visited Boys Town and brought attention to its good works. How did you react when you learned that The Everly Brothers were coming there to record an album with the choir?
JOHN // We were excited on two levels. We were looking forward to cutting a record that was national in scope and as fans of the Everly Brothers we looked at this as a great opportunity to see them in person. They were very personable and easy to work with and work we did. We rehearsed in the Music Hall and recorded in the evening at the Chapel. We had a full pipe organ in the Music Hall so we could simulate the Chapel environment. We played volleyball with them on our breaks in recording and listened to their stories of touring.
SHERRY // Do you have a favorite Everly Brothers song and/or album?
JOHN // Favorite song: "Lucille." I like the tune and the rhythm.
*The following postcard (1930-1945) depicts The Boys Town Choir performing in the choir loft of Dowd Memorial Chapel where they recorded with The Everly Brothers. (Image Credit: Digital Commonwealth)
SHERRY // Did you and your peers look to the brothers as role models?
JOHN // We certainly admired their success in music and the recording industry and we got to learn more about them and their experiences. They shared their experiences of touring and we learned how their tours were much different than ours...but still much the same.
SHERRY // I was pleasantly surprised to find an audio clip of a 1962 tour rehearsal at Dowd Memorial Chapel on YouTube. Amazing! Was preparation for your recording session with The Everly Brothers different than preparation for other performances?
JOHN // Preparation was pretty much the same as for our tours. We just had to learn the music and make it right so we didn't waste any of their precious time or ours. We were certainly excited when we learned they were making a Christmas album and we were going to be on it with them. We were also preparing for our fall tour so it was a very busy time.
SHERRY // In terms of documentation, I found only a brief mention of the album in the January 1963 Boys Town Times and little else. Your colleague Rhianon confirmed that there were no extant records in the archives. So, it seems that we're left only with the music and the memories, which is why it's so important to bring attention to your story. Yours is the only known public account. What are your fondest memories of meeting and working with the brothers?
JOHN // For me it was watching how flawlessly they performed. It was obvious they had prepared for the short visit to Boys Town. I think getting to interact with them on a personal level (volleyball, sharing stories, etc.) made the experience much more meaningful and memorable.
SHERRY // Although you were from two different musical worlds, did you feel, as a performer, that the collaboration was a natural fit?
JOHN // You are correct in that we were from two different musical worlds. Their style of singing was totally different from ours and it was that difference that made the album so unique. The album showcased two musical styles in a way that were complimentary and yet different.
*The following postcard (undated) is of the Music Hall in Boys Town, where the choir rehearsed with The Everly Brothers. They played volleyball behind the Music Hall. (Image Credit: HipPostcard.com)
SHERRY // Do you recall any modifications being made during the recording session that differed from the original artistic vision?
JOHN // I don't recall any changes that were made during the recording session. Presumably, the songs were selected ahead of time and perhaps some of them were previewed by the Everly Brothers ahead of time. Mostly I remember we worked on timing so that when the tracks were taken back to the studio the Everly Brothers were familiar with the flow and timbre of the songs.
SHERRY // Were several takes necessary or was it a fairly quick process? Do you remember recording any material that didn't make the final cut?
JOHN // I recall that we did several takes on some of the songs in order to get the timing and sound just right. I don't recall if something didn't make the cut. I'm sure there were a couple we did that had to be left out due to the physical restraints of the album.
SHERRY // Did Don and Phil's manner leave you with any certain impression?
JOHN // They left us with the impression that they were ordinary performers like we were. There was both a professional and personal level of respect that I felt when they were at Boys Town. In a sense, while they were very famous, they didn't treat us like we were any less important than they were. They seemed genuinely interested in our situation and were committed to making the album right. They were committed to making the music be the best it could be and that made the experience special for us.
*The January 1963 issue of the Boys Town Times briefly mentions the Christmas album in a recap of the year's activities. The short paragraph is circled in yellow. (Image Credit: BoysTownAlumni.org)
Don and Phil Everly spent their formative years in Shenandoah, Iowa, about an hour from the Omaha suburb of Boys Town. It was a time of creative incubation where they learned the discipline and musicianship that would be integral to their success. It was in Shenandoah where their professional careers began as child stars during the Golden Age of Radio. When listening to "Little Donnie" and "Baby Boy Phil" on their family radio show on Christmas Day in 1946, I think of the Christmas album they would record a short distance away in Boys Town 16 years later.
Although the liner notes cite Everly lineage in Kentucky and their adopted home of Tennessee, they disappointingly fail to mention Shenandoah. Despite not being acknowledged by name, the small Iowa town's influence still profoundly shines through:
"Combined with the 33 voices of the young men of Boys Town, Don and Phil Everly have produced a poignant and thrilling sound that strikes directly both to the heart of the listener and to the heart of each song. This is a kind of music that has been with them - their heritage - since they were able to tell one tune from another. In returning to the songs of their boyhood, The Everlys sing as never before. The sound is pure, harmonic beauty."
It's truly a gift to connect with John and learn more about this beloved recording as well as Boys Town's choral institution and how they used music to benefit poor, orphaned and at-risk youth. I couldn't have found anything finer under my Christmas tree! And an even greater gift than documenting John's recollection is having the opportunity to share it, giving listeners a newfound depth of context and humanity in the music. Merry Christmas!
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