#23 – Melveen Leed – Christmas with Melveen

In the 1970s Melveen Leed forged a new path in Hawaiian music by combining traditional Hawaiian songs and hapa-haole classics with the sounds of her heroes in Nashville. Hawai`i’s answer to Connie Smith or Donna Fargo, Leed’s music was still somehow Hawaiian because of the material she chose. But these now countless albums (there might have been a dozen over a 15 year period) were produced by Charles “Bud” Dant who despite being based in Hawai`i previously had his roots in all kinds of music on the mainland. To achieve just the sound Leed was seeking, Dant enlisted a raft of Nashville’s finest session players – often referred to as the “Super Pickers,” guys who had backed everyone from Dolly Parton to Willie Nelson. But it would hardly be reasonable to import a dozen guys from Nashville to Honolulu for the recording sessions. So, instead, Dant sent Leed to Nashville where she could not only record with their best and brightest but also soak up a little down home spirit. Then Dant took those tracks into Honolulu’s Sounds of Hawaii studios where he added the Hawaiian touches – most notably, the steel guitar of Jerry Byrd (who, ironically, was not Hawaiian but himself an import from Cincinnati).

And now that you know how all of those classic Hawaiian country sides by Melveen Leed were made, forget all of it. Because Christmas with Melveen was a different affair entirely.

Many have since forgotten that before she was the “Hawaiian Country Girl,” Melveen was a pop and jazz singer who worked the hotels and nightclub of the Waikiki strip singing everything from Cole Porter to Antonio Carlos Jobim to native African fare. (Her latest, I Wish You Love, marks a return to her jazz roots.) So for her sole holiday release, still under the direction of Bud Dant, Melveen completely abandoned the country persona she created and instead reached deep into her bag of tricks to show us everything she can do and every influence that has ever weighted upon her. First there is her straight-ahead pop take on the Mel Torme and Robert Wells classic, “The Christmas Song” (my personal favorite Christmas song). Then there is her jazzier approach to what I have always simply called her “Bells Medley” (“Carol of the Bells,” “Silver Bells,” and “Jingle Bells”). (I hope you appreciate how she manages to continue to swing “Jingle Bells” mercilessly even as Bud Dant superimposes the 3/4 time counterpoint over her 4/4 jam.) And, the piece de resistance, Melveen’s surprising version of “Ave Maria” – a song we might never expect her to tackle, but she proves (as she always does) that she has the chops, at times approaching the gravitas of a Beverly Sills and the soulfulness of a Mahalia Jackson.

If for no other reason, I love Christmas with Melveen because it is one of the rare recordings on which Melveen in her many facets sparkles like the diamond she is – warranting this album a spot among the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i. Fortunately for all of us, Lehua Records has re-released this classic in the digital era, and you can find it on such services as Spotify and Rhapsody.

Next time: #22 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i 


Direct download: 23_Christmas_-__Melveen_Leed_-_Christmas_with_Melveen.mp3
Category:70s and 80s -- posted at: 6:41am EDT