Arguably, the most unexpected download of this year’s holiday season is the long overdue re-issue of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards’ version of the Christmas classic "Run Rudolph Run." Although Richards recorded the track in 1976, it was not until two years later, in 1978, when advance promotional copies were serviced to the press and to radio for airplay in the United States, prior to its release at retail. A second pressing ensued, in late 1979 for U.S. retail, while a UK release had been issued earlier, in February of that year. The song was also released in Japan and in other selected countries in 1979. As had previously been the case with numerous Rolling Stones albums and singles, the release date of Richards’ version of "Run Rudolph Run" varied from country to country. 1978 had been a busy year for the Stones and for Richards, with both the release of "Some Girls," and their tour in support of the album.
In addition to confusion created by fans who misunderstand the difference between advance promotional availability and actual retail release dates, along with the variations that occur between countries, and other unrelated factors, such issues can complicate establishing the actual release date of a past recording. As a result, uncertainty has surrounded the exact release dates for this single, and of countless other recordings. Subsequent to the inception of Soundscan in 1991, with its strict policies that include new music releases being made available at retail solely on Tuesdays, there are now many less variables that ensue when documenting American release dates.
Prior to using Soundscan to track retail sales and to serve as a basis for compiling chart numbers, there are many additional factors that have added to the confusion that surrounds the exact release dates of many discs. These include such practices, as was the case in many instances, of multiple pressings of the same single, not to mention new pressings from different years for the artist’s same track, errors on the part of record company employees, release practices that varied from record label to record label, prior and subsequent "regional releases," with releases of many singles in one part of the country, and then later in another, master recordings being acquired by other record companies, and then re-released, in addition to countless other factors that have often prevailed regarding a significant number of older releases. Therefore, if you want, you could argue yourself into a tizzy over such questions as, "Does anyone have the actual retail ship date? Or did it get whacked by a bunch of pirates on the "Black Pearl?"
The Chess Records promotional copies for Berry’s version of "Run Rudolph Run" did not even include a date imprinted on them, nor did its commercially released counterpart. It was a common practice at many record labels to not even print a date on their 45 RPM discs, as was the case with classic Chess Records Chuck Berry hits including "Maybelline." This being the reality of the ongoing changes in the music business, I was not terribly surprised when one major label actually paid me to compile a discography for them, including release dates, of one of their signings that is one of the most successful recording acts of all time.
Part of what makes this re-issue remarkable is that Richards’ recording of "Run Rudolph Run" was solely available commercially as a 7-inch 45 RPM single. It was never commercially available on CD, and it had been out of print for over 25 years, until its recent holiday release as an itunes download. The song has been recorded by a wide range of artists, a few of whom include Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bryan Adams, The Grateful Dead and Dave Edmunds. It was Chuck Berry’s Chess Records version, however, that inspired Richards. Berry’s version of the song was recorded on September 9, 1958, as was the single’s B-side, "Merry Christmas Baby." Berry would not return to the studio until a month later, to record "Little Queenie" and "That’s My Desire."
With the Rolling Stones having released versions of classic Chuck Berry numbers including "Little Queenie" and "Carol," that Richards should record "Run Rudolph Run" was not surprising. Atypically, the track was not written by Berry, who wrote most of his own songs. Richards’ longtime love for Berry’s music, as well as his admiration for Johnny Johnson, Berry’s late, great, one-time pianist, who Richards inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001, has been well-documented, and played out on stages by Richards for over forty years. When inducting Berry into the Hall in 1986, the Rolling Stones guitarist remarked, "I lifted every lick he ever played."
Do not, however, expect any further Christmas offerings from Richards, who recently stated in an interview with drummer extraordinaire Steve Jordan on Sirius Radio, "It would be selling out."
In tune with one more of his longtime loves, there is a B-side on Richards’ 45 RPM of "Run Rudolph Run," his version of Jimmy Cliff’s hypnotic reggae track, "The Harder They Come." Richards would continue to express his longtime love for roots reggae in the studio through numerous recordings that include his work with the Wingless Angels, on their self-titled album, Max Romeo’s "Holding Out My Love To You," his extremely challenged relationship with late Peter Tosh, various works he recorded with the Stones, as well as reggae-influenced tracks that he recorded with his group, The X-Pensive Winos. "The Harder They Come" was later covered by artists as diverse as Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer and Willie Nelson on his 2005 "Country Man" album. It was the seminal 1972 Perry Henzel film, "The Harder They Come," that brought this reggae anthem into mainstream consciousness.
In addition to "Run Rudolph Run," this month, Richards simultaneously released, for the first time ever, his version of Toots And The Maytals’ "Pressure Drop." He recorded the song in 2003 at the Dangerous Music studio in New York City while he was recording the track "Careless Ethiopians" for the Toots album, "True Love," that would be released the following year. "Pressure Drop" had been originally recorded and written by Frederick "Toots" Hibbert in 1969.
The New Year may result in the creation of more future classics from Richards, who recently announced that he will eventually get back together with the X-Pensive Winos.
Like the newly updated artwork for Richards’ itunes downloads, which now includes his Mindless Records logo, these two classic tracks, like the alcohol that Richards is seen drinking on its ’70’s era black and white photo, are mighty fine vintage.
PHYLLIS POLLACK lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog.