Those ubiquitous Christmas CDs parked at cash registers didn't begin with Starbucks.
As music buyers of a certain age will remember, there was a time when these impulse purchases were tied to whitewalls, not white vanilla mochas. During the 1960s and '70s, the Goodyear and Firestone tire companies peddled annual Christmas albums in their stores, usually for a dollar each, to customers who waited to get their tires changed or wheels aligned.
The LPs were assembled by major labels like RCA and Columbia, and included performers like Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr., the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Stan Getz, Isaac Stern and Mahalia Jackson.
Lately, nostalgia-fueled Internet discussions have emerged around the merits and availability of these old LPs. A scan of eBay and Amazon turns up dozens of original Firestone and Goodyear LPs for sale. Part of their allure is about scarcity: these albums never made the jump to the CD or download format.
David Feinauer is the co-owner of Christmas LPs to CD, a seven-year-old family business near Cincinnati, OH that transfers old LPs to CD and MP3 formats and sells them for between $20 and $35. He said that the tire companies’ albums are consistently his top sellers, often because they contained songs not available elsewhere.
“We have people who will buy particular ones because there’s one song they want,” he said, noting how Goodyear's "Great Songs of Christmas Vol. 8" featured a rare Tony Bennett version of “What Child is This.”
Feinauer said the tire company LPs were the brainchild of Stanley Arnold, a music industry consultant who approached Goodyear in 1961 with the idea of a “premium record,” as it was called. At first the company was skeptical, but in the first year, Columbia did 100,000 pressings of the first release for mid November. By Thanksgiving they were sold out. The next year they sold 200,000 copies. Customers were limited one per visit.
By 1966, Goodyear sold 15 million albums, according to a Billboard report. “A great deal of special recording is commissioned for such an album," Arnold told the publication. “Recording teams were sent to England to record Barbra Streisand and Pablo Casals was flown in from Puerto Rico to participate.”
Classical highlights from the 10-volume Goodyear series included Isaac Stern's "Ave Maria," Andre Previn's "The Holly and the Ivy" and Eileen Farrell's "Conventry Carol." Firestone often specialized in opera singers like Franco Corelli (singing "Oh Holy Night") and Roberta Peters ("Ave Maria").
Firestone was apparently less skilled at branding. “A lot of them have absolutely no marks on the record or jacket that say Firestone," said Feinauer. "It was only on the shrink wrap.”
The series featured a mix of secular and sacred Christmas pieces, and remarkably, always had both classical and non-classical artists. They had run their course by the mid 1970s.
“It’s the memories,” Feinauer said of their appeal. "I’m surprised by how many people not only say, ‘I enjoyed it,’ but ‘I want to share this with my children and grandchildren.’"
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