Singer-songwriter Chris Allen describes his late father as a "Cleveland-centric" guy. About 10 years ago, he asked Allen to write him a Cleveland Christmas song. Allen and his sister Molly worked up four of them and then threw a big Christmas party to which they invited their musician friends. They played the four original tunes they had penned as well as a few choice covers, recorded them and delivered them on a CD to their father as a Christmas gift.
"It was the best Christmas party ever," Allen recalls one night over a few Christmas ales at the Lizardville in Rocky River that's near his westside home. "When we played "Merry Christmas Baby" at the party, the whole room filled with people, and it was great. It was incredible. The whole place was going crazy. We recorded it the Sunday before Christmas and we mixed it the next day. We had 40 copies to hand out to friends and family members on Christmas day. We had seven or eight songs total on it and called it Real Good Christmas Time."
Allen says the resulting album impressed his father.
"That year, I gave the disc to my dad and he thought it was a mix tape and then he realized we made it," he says. "He couldn't stop listening to it."
That recording session signaled the birth of the Ohio City Singers, a ragtag local act that plays Christmas songs at area bars throughout the month of December. It's truly become the gift that keeps on giving; each year the band seems to have more offers to play private parties and special events. And each year, the group usually delivers a new album. This year, it's already played a show in Kettering, Ohio, with a 90-piece youth symphony. And it has upcoming gigs booked at Vosh in Lakewood (Dec. 7), the Akron Civic Theatre (Dec. 13), Second April Galerie & Studios in Canton (Dec. 14), Roc Bar (Dec. 21) and Stone Mad in Ohio City (Dec. 22). It'll record the show at Roc Bar, the club on the east bank of the Flats, for a live album.
After continuing to throw house parties and record on the fly, the band finally decided it was time to head into a proper studio. It enlisted the talents of local producer Don Dixon (R.E.M., Smithereens) to help cut the first official record.
"I needed him to organize the chaos," Allen admits. "He's good at capturing what we sound like. He's good at orchestrating the backing vocals. It takes a lot of time and concentration. We have 10 people who can all sing. You have to make the most of that. He was really good at tightening that down. It's nice because we can record anywhere. He can bring that gear and get it down and mix it."
And because Dixon plays so many different instruments, he's become a sort of secret weapon.
"As he was producing it, he would add things like glockenspiel," says Allen. "Nobody else had a glockenspiel so by default he became our glockenspiel player. He's filled in on keyboards. I always wanted to have a multi-instrumentalist. He's the king daddy of extra flavor."
Allen started planning this year's new album, A Town Called Christmas, back in January. He and fellow Ohio City Singer Austin "Walkin' Cane" Charanghat would meet once a week to work on the songs.
"I've been living Christmas all year," says Allen. "I didn't do a solo album this year. Austin ["Walkin' Cane"] and I got together every Monday starting in January. We recorded in May and finished in June and started doing 'Christmas in July' parties."
For Allen, the perfect Christmas song is something that exudes good vibrations and captures the holiday's festive side. You won't hear the Ohio City Singers singing a song about what it's like to be all alone on Christmas. And you won't hear too many ballads either. The group likes to rock hard. Even their song about eggnog has a rock 'n' roll vibe.
"We start with the title and melody and then work everything else into it," he says of the songwriting process. "We rock. We try not to subscribe too much to what a Christmas song should be. It doesn't have to have sleigh bells. Our rule is that the song should be positive and convey something about what we love about that time."
My favorite Christmas song is 'The Christmas Song' as sung by Nat King Cole. He was playing non-stop in my house when I was a kid. He is Christmas and that's the perfect Christmas song."
The Ohio City Singers don't cover Cole's song, but they do throw in a few covers during live shows. Notably, the group likes to play campy Christmas tunes such as "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Heat & Snow Miser."
Once the songs were all written, the guys headed up to Suma Recording Studios in Painesville to cut the record. Allen hadn't been there in years but was pleased to see that little had changed.
"It looks and smells exactly the same as it did when I went there in 1997 for the first time," he says. "I told [owner] Paul [Hamann], 'I love what you did with the place.' He just laughed. He's a great engineer. We love going out there. It's tough to do it there when we could just record at my house. It's nice to record to tape and get that nice warm digital sound. We could play live and did guitar, drums and lead vocals at the same time. That's nice to be able to do that."
The album commences with the call-and-response tune "Memories of Green and Red" and then delves into Springsteen-like territory with the roots rocking title track. Low-key tunes such as "I Got a Feeling about Christmas" and "Winter's on the Run" offset rambunctious numbers like "Holiday" and "A Season for Believing."
In addition to playing a handful of gigs and parties, the band has created its signature Christmas ale, dubbed Snow Days Christmas ale. The locally based Portside Distillery is brewing up a batch that will be on tap at the Southside in Tremont and available at the Roc Bar when the band performs there on Dec. 21.
"Dixon called me the other day and says, 'What's going on?'" Allen says. "I told him I was still waiting on the disc. He said, 'No. With the beer. Anyone can put out a CD.'"
Allen describes the beverage as "a malt with some Christmas seasonings and ginger and honey."
"I didn't reinvent the wheel," he says. "I just made a bowl of stuff that felt like Christmas and we wrote down the amounts. I'm excited about it."
If this all suggests that Allen is a big fan of Christmas, it's because he is.
"I do love the Christmas season," he admits. "I wouldn't be writing these songs if I didn't. It was really special when I was growing up. I love the snow and I love the seasons. I love the whole thing. We have so many people come up and tell us that our songs have become their kids' Christmas music. It's really flattering to hear that."