Happy Holiday: Al Seales, Billy Moore and music at Christmas
by Vibert C. Cambridge, Ph.D.
“Church bells are ringing,
Santa Claus on his way,
Happy Christmas to you dear,
“Happy Holiday.” Lord Melody & The Four Lords (1956)
A confident bass, a wailing saxophone, and a sensitive piano introduce “Happy Holiday.” When that quintessential Christmas song is heard, Guyanese at home and abroad feel the spirit of the season. What is so special about this song?
“Happy Holiday” was first issued as a 78 rpm record in 1956. During the middle to late 1950s, a shift was taking place in home entertainment. There was a movement away from Victrolas and other brands of 78 rpm record players to the smaller and lower cost 45 rpm players that could be “plugged” into the radio—the Eckos, KBs, Mullards, Normendies, Pyes, and Phillips.
The 1950s brought political changes to British Guiana and they also brought changes in the way Guyanese consumed music. The lower cost record players and the widespread use of “hire purchase” encouraged the proliferation of juke boxes. It also increased access to recorded music by Guyanese working class people.
This shift in the technologies for listening to music had other consequences, including the emergence of a recording industry and increased demand for more recorded music by Guyanese. By 1959, “Happy Holiday” was re-released as a 45rpm record.
The late Al Seales is intimately associated with the recording of “Happy Holiday” and the start of a recording industry in Guyana. He led Al Seales and the Washboards and later established the GEMS and the Caribbean GEMS record labels. Seales’ studio was well respected.
Important Caribbean musicians such as Lord Melody preferred to record their music at the studio at 40 Robb Street. The Mighty Sparrow’s first recording was also done there. Seales assembled a powerful studio band, The Caribbean All Stars, which included Bassie Thomas (pianist/arranger), Harry Whittaker (Alto sax), Sydney Prince (Tenor sax), Sabu Lall (bass), Simpson (bass), Messiah (Drums), Charlie Agard (Bongos), Rector Schultz (Guitar). He and his arranger Bassie Thomas experimented with a beat that reflected the intermingling of Guyana’s West Indian and Latin American heritage—the “Bion.”
It was in this environment that Lord Melody (Fitzroy Alexander) approached Seales with the lyrics for “Happy Holiday.” He wanted to produce a seasonal calypso to compete with Lord Kitchener’s “Drink a Rum,” which was the dominant Christmas calypso among West Indians at home and abroad. He was advised against going the calypso route but encouraged to use the “Bion” beat. Further, it was agreed that the Four Lords, which included Neville Rose and Billy Moore, would record the song. Rose was the lead singer and Billy Moore arranged the harmonies. Lord Melody’s is the voice of the famous spoken solo: “My darling, wishing you the best. You know that my love for you did last and will last for many more Christmases.”
The technology available to Al Seals in 1956 did not allow him to record multiple tracks and then mix a final product. He used one microphone—one of the best available at that time—an RCA Noiman. The recording required a complete performance by the musicians and the singers. This required coordination and professionalism. The recording has stood the test of time. Almost 50 years later, “Happy Holiday” remains not only one of the most popular Christmas songs in Guyana but also one of the best recorded pieces of music from Guyana.
“Happy Holiday” has been recorded and performed by several other artists. Neville Rose, who migrated to Brazil, is reported to have done a version with solo guitar there. Mark Holder did a reggae version. Ted E. Jones did a soul version, and Ray Seales, along with Trinidadian vocalist Cleo Hart, released an R&B version in 1995. For many, including this writer, the original is still the “boss.”
As we celebrate the season and reflect on the longevity of “Happy Holiday,” we must spend some time thinking about the creativity that produced it. Seales started his working life as a sailor on the Demerara River and was given a quatro by an Amerindian man. From the quatro he graduated to the banjo and joined the Washboard Orchestra in the 1920s.
As he acquired seniority and became a leader in the band, he took up the saxophone. His tutor was Gun Fernandez. Seales’ love for music was multidimensional. One of his first entrepreneurial ventures was a beer garden that featured a record player and a collection of contemporary jazz and pop records “which he got from old friends who were still working on ships coming from North America and Europe.”
This feature attracted a loyal clientele who constantly offered to buy the record player and the records. Seales, the entrepreneur who never drank or smoked, saw a business opportunity and a way to get out of selling alcohol. He opened General Electrical Musical Supplies (GEMS) at 40 Robb Street. After a few years, he purchased the property, which has remained in the Seales family since. Over the years the business grew from selling records and musical instruments to include a recording studio. Seales never established a pressing plant, so, his recordings were pressed by Melodisc in the United Kingdom.
The GEMS studio made many of the seminal Guyanese and West Indian recordings. Among these was Doreen Gravesande’s “Ting a ling,” which is considered the first recording of a ping pong and voice in the West Indies. “Ting a ling” is another example of the “Biaon” beat developed by Seales and his arranger, pianist Bassie Thomas.
Seales recorded Norman Beaton of the influential group the Four Bees. Their recording of “Melvina,” like “Happy Holiday,” remains popular after almost 50 years. It was the first song by a Guyanese to top the Trinidad and Tobago charts during a carnival season. The Gabby/Eddy Grant rearrangement put it back on the charts in the 1990s.
Before recording “Happy Holiday,” GEMS had released King Fighter’s “My Xmas Card,” the studio’s first original Christmas song. After “Happy Holiday,” it released “Xmas Season” by The Four Bees, featuring Gloria Beaton, wife of the late Norman Beaton.
Al Seales’ recording studio was a magnet for Guyanese and Caribbean artists. Seales was known and respected for his innovation and his quest for perfection. These qualities attracted Billy Moore and the Four Lords to the studio. Moore was trying to develop tight harmonies in Guyanese popular music. His success is evident in “Happy Holiday.”
Seales’ work caught the attention of other music recording pioneers in the West Indies. He is reported to have advised Mr. Khouri who was then setting up Federal Records in Jamaica. He also gave advice to Mr. Harrison when he was establishing WIRL in Barbados and Mr. Cook who established the COOK Label in Trinidad and Tobago.
The exploration of the recordings of GEMS has only just started. Seales’ role in bringing Indo-Guyanese into the mainstream of Guyanese popular music during the 1960s and 1970s will be the subject of a separate feature in the future.
Although Seales passed away in 1995, his spirit lives on. At the symposium on Guyana’s musical heritage during Folk Festival 2003, GEMS Music, Seales’ music publishing company awarded the first GEMS Musical Appreciation Award to the Folk Festival Organizing Committee. The award will now be an annual feature of the Folk Festival, recognizing innovation and the quest for perfection by Guyana’s musicians at home and abroad.
As we prepare for the season of joy and renewal that is celebrated all across Guyana by all of Guyana’s peoples, let me share with you the memories of Christmas in the Seales household by his son Ray, the well respected music producer/saxophonist:
“Every Christmas morning my father would wake up Robb Street with “Drink a Rum:” by Lord Kitchener, blasting loud from the sound system. Monkey, Barney and Big Nose Eddie would [emerge] from Metropole Cinema yard. Mr. Boyer next door would open his windows. The Fernandes family across the street along with the Goodings and Dr. Chan-A-Sue and Mrs. Hugh, would start to move around. And then the beautiful aroma of pepper pot and garlic pork blending with some nice home made break would fill the air.
My father’s next selection would be a bit more mellow. ‘Little Christmas Tree’ by Nat Cole, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ by Belafonte and ‘Happy Holiday.’ Johnny Mathis and Jim Reeves were included.
By the end of the morning, the musicians started to trickle in. Billy Moore was always the first to arrive. He had to give the cook-up a test run. Sydney Prince (tenor sax), Duff (pianist), Sabu Lall (Bass), Messiah (drums), Charlie Agard (Bongos), and Rector Schultz (guitar) [would come too].
The X-mas jam would kick off at GEMS. These were great times. Our Christmas was family, friends, foods, and nuf, nuf music.”
The members of the Guyana Folk Festival Committee wish all Guyanese at home and abroad best wishes for the season and the New Year. We look forward to continuing this series of features and seeing you at Folk Festival 2004. In the meantime, “Happy Holiday.”
The CD “Is We Ting” features “Cool Dive” and “Ting a Ling,” two compositions associated with Al Seales and GEMS recording studio For details on the CD visit http://www.guyfolkfest.org/
E-mail from Ken Corsbie, December 13, 2003
Bernard Heydorn. Longtime Days. Newmarket, Ontario: Learning Improvement Center, 1998.
Ray Seales. “The making of popular Guyanese music.” Available online at http://www.gems-av.com/themakingofpopguyanesemusic.htm Accessed December 13, 2003
E-mails from Ray Seales, December 13, 14, and 16, 2003.
Telephone interview with Ray Seales, December 14, 2003.
Telephone interview with Pritha Singh, December 13, 2003.