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Alfred Shaddick Burt (April 22, 1920 – February 7, 1954) was an American jazz musician who is best known for composing the music for fifteen Christmas carols between 1942 and 1954. Only one of the carols was performed in public outside his immediate family circle during his lifetime.
Burt was born in Marquette, Michigan. His family moved to Pontiac, Michigan when he was two after his father, Bates Burt, became pastor of an Episcopal church there. At the age of 10, having shown an early interest in music, Alfred received his first musical instrument, a cornet, as a present from his parents. Though he would learn to play several other instruments, including the piano, Alfred spent most of his life playing cornet and trumpet in bands and orchestras, with a special interest in jazz.
A tradition that the elder Burt had begun upon moving to Pontiac in 1922 was the creation of a Christmas card, which he sent to family members and parishioners. On these cards were original Christmas carols, with both the words and music by the Reverend Burt. For the family Christmas card in 1942, Bates asked his son to write the music for that year's carol, "Christmas Cometh Caroling." From then on, Alfred would write the music for the family's Christmas cards, and the "Alfred Burt carols" were born.
World War II and aftermath
During World War II, Burt served as an officer in the United States Army, stationed at San Angelo, Texas. While there, he served with the Army Air Force Band and filled in with the Houston Symphony as a trumpeter. His father sent him the lyrics for the 1943 and 1944 carols from Michigan, and Burt completed the music from his base.
Burt married his childhood sweetheart, Anne, on October 13, 1945. Finally earning his discharge in early 1946, he formed a short-lived band; after its demise, he and Anne returned to Michigan to spend time with his father. Burt then resumed his career in New York, where he was a teacher and composer.
The 1947 Christmas card was the last collaboration between Alfred and Bates Burt; Bates died of a heart attack early in 1948. Alfred and his wife chose to continue the family Christmas card tradition in his honor.
Burt joined the Alvino Rey Orchestra in 1949. Meanwhile, Anne remained in Michigan, where the Burts' only child, Diana Bates Burt, was born on March 8, 1950. While she was pregnant, Anne, in consultation with Alfred, asked an old family friend, Wilha Hutson, the organist at Bates Burt's church, to write the annual Christmas poems, which Burt then would set to music. The Burt-Hutson collaboration continued until Burt's death.
Over several years, as the Burts' circle of friends grew, the Christmas card list grew from 50 to 450 people. But still, the carols remained unknown outside the Burts' mailing list.
That changed with the 1952 carol, "Come, Dear Children". Burt finished writing the music during a rehearsal with the Blue Reys, the vocal group with Rey's orchestra. He asked them to sing it so he could make sure the harmonies worked; they liked it so much that they asked Burt if they could sing it at the annual King Family Christmas party. It proved to be a hit among the partygoers, and served to introduce Burt's carols to Hollywood.
Illness and death
Through the early part of 1953, Burt complained of a persistent virus and fatigue. Eventually agreeing to a thorough examination, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He spent his final months in California. For the first time, his carols were going to be recorded.
James Conkling, husband of Donna King Conkling, and at that time the president of Columbia Records, was informed of Burt's failing health and organized the project, assembling an all-star choir of Hollywood singers to perform Burt's four-part harmonies. Recording sessions for the older carols took place in late 1953 in the North Hollywood LDS Church with Burt present. Meanwhile, to fill the album, Burt was assigned four new carols. One of them, "O Hearken Ye," was sent on the 1953 family Christmas card.
Burt finished the last of his carols, "The Star Carol", on February 5, 1954. Less than 24 hours later, he died. "The Star Carol" would be used on the final Burt family Christmas card that holiday season.
First recordings of the carols
Twelve of Burt's carols were released in time for the holiday season of 1954 on a 10-inch vinyl album called The Christmas Mood (Columbia CL 6336). The album was credited to "The Columbia Choir", conducted by Bud Linn and produced by "Edwin L. (Buddy) Cole", as the LP jacket credits him, who was at that time the husband of Yvonne King Cole. The "Christmas Mood" was recorded by the Columbia Choir under the direction of Grafton (Bud) Linn at St Michael's and All Angels Episcopal church, on Coldwater Canyon Ave. in Studio City California of which Al and Ann were members.
The album remained in print for several Christmas seasons. In 1955, the original 10-inch LP was reissued with a new catalog number (CL 2546) as part of Columbia's short-lived "House Party Series," which was designed to keep the 10-inch album alive, even as most labels released most of their new LPs on 12-inch discs. In 1957, the album was reissued once again, this time on a 12-inch LP as CL 1051, with some instrumental arrangements by Ralph Carmichael.
Capitol Records artists Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians and Nat King Cole recorded Burt's carols. In 1958, Ford recorded "The Star Carol" for his first full-length album of Christmas music and named the entire album of songs after it. The Star Carol (Capitol T/ST 1071) peaked at Billboard #4 in the Christmas season of 1958-59 and reappeared on either the main LP charts or the special Christmas charts for a decade thereafter. In 1959, Waring recorded the Christmas LP The Sounds of Christmas (Capitol T/ST 1260), and six of the Burt carols appeared on it: "Caroling, Caroling," "O Hearken Ye," "Jesu Parvule," "The Star Carol," "Come Dear Children," and "This Is Christmas" (the latter also known under the name "Bright, Bright the Holly Berries"). Finally, Cole recorded "Caroling, Caroling" on his 1960 album The Magic of Christmas (Capitol W/SW 1444), which was reissued under the title The Christmas Song in 1963 and has remained in print ever since. Simon and Garfunkel recorded The Star Carol in 1967, but their recording was not released until 1997.
The first recording of all 15 of Burt's carols was in 1964 by the Voices of Jimmy Joyce called This Is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols (Warner Bros. W/WS 1566). The original Columbia Choir album did not include "Christmas Cometh Caroling," "What Are the Signs," and "Sleep Baby Mine."
Other recordings of Burt's carols include Simon and Garfunkel's 1967 recording of "The Star Carol", Kenny Loggins' version of "Christmas Cometh Caroling", George Winston's 1982 rendition of "Some Children See Him", and James Taylor's 2004 recording of "Some Children See Him".
In 2001 Burt's grandniece, the composer Abbie Betinis, revived the family tradition of sending Christmas cards with an original carol each holiday season, which she also introduces each year on Minnesota Public Radio.
- "Christmas Cometh Caroling" (1942)
- "Jesu Parvule" (1943)
- "What Are the Signs" (1944)
- "Ah, Bleak and Chill the Wintry Wind" (1945)
- "All on A Christmas Morning" (1946)
- "Nigh Bethlehem" (1947)
- "Christ in the Stranger's Guise" (1948)
- "Sleep Baby Mine" (1949)
- "This Is Christmas" (also known as "Bright, Bright, the Holly Berries") (1950)
- "Some Children See Him" (1951)
- "Come, Dear Children" (1952)
- "O, Hearken Ye" (1953)
- "Caroling, Caroling" (1954)
- "We'll Dress the House" (1954)
- "The Star Carol" (1954)