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Filmmaker John Waters puts his own spin on Christmas

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I guess it goes without saying that this is another strange and kind of stressful COVID Christmas. Today, we're going to take a few steps back in time and go deep into our archive to pull out some Christmas shows we love. Our first stop is 2004, when filmmaker and writer John Waters came on our show to play music from his album "A John Waters Christmas," a collection of entertaining and ridiculous Christmas songs that reflect his fascination with the odd and unusual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER")

TINY TIM: (Singing) Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose. And if you ever saw it, you would even say it grows.

GROSS: That's Tiny Tim. And it's one of the least unusual tracks on "A John Waters Christmas." Waters is best known for his midnight movie classic "Pink Flamingos," which earned him the title The King of Bad Taste, and his film "Hairspray," which was adapted into the hit Broadway musical. He's also written several collections of humorous, personal essays. Here's the opening track of "A John Waters Christmas." It's called "Fat Daddy (Is Santa Claus)". After we hear it, Waters will tell us who Fat Daddy was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAT DADDY (IS SANTA CLAUS)")

FAT DADDY: (Singing) I'm Fat Daddy. I'm Santa Claus. Whoa. Whoa. Yeah. I'm Fat Daddy, the reindeer boss. I packed my sleigh with goodies and toys. You know I'm on my way to greet all the good little girlies and boys. Oh, yeah. I'm Fat Daddy.

GROSS: That's "Fat Daddy," featuring Fat Daddy, from "A John Waters Christmas." John Waters, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JOHN WATERS: Thanks. Good to be here.

GROSS: Who is Fat Daddy?

WATERS: Fat Daddy was a DJ in Baltimore, one of the very most popular ones. In Baltimore in the early '60s, all cool white kids and all Black kids listened to Fat Daddy. It was really the first way that we heard rhythm and blues. He then went on "The Buddy Deane Show." He was very, very loved by the teen community and all the Black community in Baltimore, certainly. We had great Black radio stations in Baltimore, WSID, WEBB, WWIN. And sometimes if the weather was good, we could get WANN from Annapolis with Hoppy Adams, the only station that would play "What'd I Say, Pt. 2."

GROSS: So what were the criteria that you used (laughter) to select the records for "A John Waters Christmas"?

WATERS: Well, I wanted to have an album that - what it would be like if you came over to my house at Christmas and I got all my old records out and played you my favorite Christmas carols. I've always - I worked with a guy named Larry Benicewicz, who has this incredible record collection. I have worked with him since "Cry-Baby" on all my movies. And he helps me on Earth. He has these insane Christmas classics, my kind of classic. Certainly, I wanted to put songs on here that probably no one did know. Many of them - there's a few people know, like the Chipmunks and Tiny Tim, probably. But many of the other ones are almost unknown to most people. And I don't think any of these songs are campy. I think a few are awful. But they're so awful, they're perfect. And I don't think any of them really were hipster songs. I think that they were serious Christmas songs that somehow were just too eccentric or went awry for the regular public to ever...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: ...Really possibly have success with them.

GROSS: Let's hear another song from "A John Waters Christmas." This is a doo-wop track. It's called "Christmas Time Is Coming (A Street Carol)," performed by Stormy Weather. Why'd you choose this one?

WATERS: I chose it because it reminded me when - I first grew up in Lutherville, Md. And near where I lived was a segregated, little Black part of the community. And a lot of the people that lived there walked past my house at night singing a cappella. And I'd be, like, an 8-year-old kid, lying in bed at night, and hear it. And I use that in "Hairspray," the movie, very much, that image. And it just felt liberating to me to hear this music. And it sounded so beautiful outside my house. So it just seemed to be a Christmas carol that reminded me of that.

GROSS: All right. Well let's...

WATERS: And I had a very white Christmas, in all meaning of that word.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And this was a little bit different, and a little bit something that seemed more exciting to me.

GROSS: OK. So this is "Christmas Time Is Coming."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS TIME IS COMING (A STREET CAROL)")

STORMY WEATHER: (Singing) Christmastime is here. Christmastime is here. Christmastime is coming. There's snow falling on the street. The holidays are near - shoppers buying Christmas trees. We'll have a ball, dancing and all. Christmastime is here. Christmastime is here. The New Year's Eve is coming. We'll all sing the "Auld Lang Syne." I whisper in your ear, I'll be yours. So please, be mine. We'll have a ball, dancing and all. Christmas time is here. Christmas time is here. This is the time for love. This is the time for cheer.

GROSS: That's a track from the new CD "A John Waters Christmas." And John Waters is my guest.

There's a line in that song that sounds like the same line from the Dreamlovers' song "When We Get Married," we'll have a ball, dancing and all. I wonder who got it from who?

WATERS: I don't know, you know? Sometimes these songs, when I had the records, they didn't even have the dates on them. Some were later than you thought and some were much earlier.

GROSS: Yeah.

WATERS: There's a song on here, "Happy Birthday, Jesus," by Little Cindy that's one of my favorites. And I have no idea when that movie came out. Is Little Cindy alive? Does she know she's back out there in front of the public...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: ...Because you listen to that song, and my imagination gets carried away. I think of, maybe, like, in the South somewhere in some pitiful, little recording studio. And Little Cindy may be the JonBenet of her community, and has been forced to come in there and sing this song in a torn Rhoda Penmark party dress. And even the mistakes are left in. There's only one take with Little Cindy. She didn't get a second take. And that's, to me, the most fascinating piece of the song is trying to picture Little Cindy singing "Happy Birthday, Jesus." And later, Patti Page covered that song.

GROSS: Why don't we hear it? This is...

WATERS: OK.

GROSS: This is Little Cindy, "Happy Birthday, Jesus (A Child's Prayer)".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JESUS (A CHILD'S PRAYER)")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A house so quiet and humble. A child beside her bed, her hands clasped tightly. It's time to pray, so she bows her little head.

LITTLE CINDY: Happy birthday, Jesus. Momma said that you was near, and that had a birthday this time every year. She told me how you listened to every word we say, and that you hear us calling in the night or in the day. She explained how bad they hurt, those awful, naughty men, but said you let them do it for girls like me what sin. She said about the manger they took and put you in. I'd let you have my blanket if I was here back then. She said that you were watching everything we do. Her...

GROSS: That's another track from the CD "A John Waters Christmas." And John Waters is my guest.

What were the records that you loved and hated most on the radio Christmastime when you were growing up?

WATERS: I always really hated "The Little Drummer Boy." I wish Ol' Dirty Bastard...

GROSS: Rum pum pum pum.

WATERS: I wish Ol' Dirty Bastard had recorded that before he died. I think it would have been a great Christmas album. I hated the corny ones you just heard over and over, like the Muzak versions. I like, sometimes, when they did a punk rock version of it or if the Chipmunks did it. Or I always like to twist on it. "Santa Claus Is A Black Man" to me is the mother lode of all crackpot Christmas carols, not because I believe "Santa Claus Is A Black Man" is such an odd idea. It was just such an odd, great Black Kwanzaa song that came out. And I remembered it from Baltimore. And I really, really loved it because it starts with a kid singing. And then the dad comes in. And then the mother comes in, and she sounds amazing. And it's almost like you expect the Chipmunks to come in, which they do on another record. The Chipmunks are a great presence in my life. We can get to that in a minute.

GROSS: We should hear "Santa Claus Is A Black Man." And so this is something you grew up with?

WATERS: Well, I heard it in the '70s on the radio and loved it.

GROSS: So yeah, you were already a filmmaker.

WATERS: I was already on pot.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: I probably heard it on marijuana at that period of my life. And it was such a great song to me. It seemed liberating so much. And when you hear it today, when he says, Daddy, he had an afro like yours. Happy Kwanzaa. Oh, it's just great to me. It's just very, very touching to me.

GROSS: "This Is Santa Claus" is a black man from the new CD "A John Waters Christmas." And it's performed by Akim and the Teddy Vann Production Company.

WATERS: Yup. And Akim is the kid. And I guess Teddy Vann's the dad, I would imagine.

GROSS: All right. Well, I guess we'll never really know unless somebody calls us and tells us.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: Please, Little Cindy, if you're hearing this, call. What's the number?

GROSS: (Laughter). Well, here's the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA CLAUS IS A BLACK MAN")

AKIM: (Singing) Hey, you want to hear something that's outta sight? You know what? I found you last night just when momma turned out the lights. I went in the living room to see what the noise that woke up me. And I saw him by the Christmas tree. Santa Claus is a Black man. Santa Claus is Black man. And he's handsome like my daddy, too. Santa Claus is Black man. Santa Claus is a Black man. And I found out. That's what I'm telling you. Momma must have met Santa Claus before 'cause they started dancing all on the floor. And I saw his face at the door. Santa Claus is a Black man. Santa Claus is a Black man. And he's handsome like my daddy, too. Santa Claus is Black man. Santa Claus is a Black man. And I found out. That's what I'm telling you.

Daddy?

TEDDY VANN: Yes, Akimmy (ph)?

AKIM: Do you know what happened last night?

VANN: What happened, Akim?

AKIM: Well, I saw Santa Claus. And do you know what?

VANN: What, Akimmy?

AKIM: He looked a lot like you. He was handsome.

VANN: I can dig it.

AKIM: He was Black.

VANN: Right on.

AKIM: He had an Afro. He was really outta sight. Now I'm going to tell everybody that I saw Santa.

VANN: Well, that's pretty cool.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Santa Claus is a Black man. Santa Claus is a Black man.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2004 interview with John Waters after the release of his album "A John Waters Christmas." We'll hear more with him after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GUIDE DOG GLEE CLUB'S "JOY TO THE WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating Christmas Eve in our archive. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with filmmaker and author John Waters in 2004 after the release of his album "A John Waters Christmas."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Did you ever believe in Santa Claus?

WATERS: Yes, I did believe in Santa Claus. There's a picture of me - my parents have a picture of myself sitting on Santa Claus's lap. Yes, I believed it. Sometimes, I'd get confused and wonder if Santa Claus knew my guardian angel. I always knew the Easter Bunny was a lie. All children do. But Santa Claus I did believe in. And eventually, you hear things in school. And it is weird that your parents lie to you about all that early. But I guess it's fair. It's a good belief. I had always - I do like Christmas for real without irony. So obviously, I had a happy home at Christmas.

There's a picture in my parents' scrapbook that always sort of sums up what my life was going to be like. I guess I was about 10 years old. And I'm under the tree with my presents. And on one hand, I have a hand puppet because I had asked for that, and I was a puppeteer at children's birthday parties at the time. And in the other hand is "The Genius Of Ray Charles," the...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: ...Album that I had asked for. And it's such a weird picture because my parents went and bought me that album. And I guess that showed that even though they knew then I wasn't fitting in that they were supportive, as they knew how to be at the time.

GROSS: Let's hear another track. And this is this is a real strange one. This is one of those, like, really strange singing voices. It's, I think...

WATERS: It is a nasal one?

GROSS: Yes, I think...

WATERS: I love a nasal voice. Is it "Sleigh Bells, Reindeer And Snow?"

GROSS: Yes.

WATERS: I love her. I think she has - I love a nasal voice. You've got a cold - come over to my house and sing to me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And it all started from Rosie and the Originals. Remember that song "Angel Baby?"

GROSS: Oh, sure.

WATERS: (Singing) It's just like heaven.

And also Shirley of Shirley & Lee, who's maybe one of my favorite female vocalists in the history of rhythm and blues. So I think they started a school of nasal voices. And this little moppet either has a cold, or she's in the same school of singing. I'm not sure which.

GROSS: So here's "Sleigh Bells, Reindeer And Snow," sung by Rita Faye Wilson, from "A John Waters Christmas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEIGH BELLS, REINDEER AND SNOW")

RITA FAYE WILSON: (Singing) The ground is covered with white. Santa's coming tonight with dolls and toys for girls and boys and a merry ho, ho, ho. There'll be sleigh bells, reindeer and snow and a Merry Christmas. Santa's bringing his sled painted yellow and red. Mom and dad are feeling glad because tonight they know there'll be sleigh bells, reindeer and snow. He'll ride across the house tops and stop at every one. He'll climb down all the chimneys, but you've got to be good, or you won't see him. Better jump into bed, cover over your head. And lie there still until you hear that merry ho, ho, ho with his sleigh bells, reindeer and snow.

GROSS: So, John Waters, what made this track worthy - either good enough or bad enough to be included on "A John Waters Christmas?"

WATERS: Well, I don't think it's bad enough at all to me. I think it's one of the most unironic songs on it. I think it's catchy. I think she has a lovely voice, a touching voice. It's kind of a lonely Christmas song but kind of a beautiful song in maybe a neighborhood I've never been to or maybe a part of America that is isolated or remote. But at the same time, I think it's joyous. I think she's - she has a lovely voice. And I - you know, I'd like to be with her at Christmas. And I - and that's why I brought her voice, so she can come into other people's homes because I mean it for real. She is the best of what you're supposed to celebrate at Christmas. It is a joyous sound. Now, to me, joyous is always not hackneyed. It's not too sentimental, or it's overly sentimental, but it's something that's new to you. I always like to discover a new voice, a new sound. And this certainly was a new voice to me.

GROSS: Now, let's reminisce some more about John Waters' Christmas past. What's one of the best and worst gifts you've ever gotten on Christmas?

WATERS: Well, books are always the best present, you know, always, especially because I collect books. And I have a library. And I actually have a registry at my office. It's like a bridal registry where - because people always don't know what to get me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: So they call. And I have all prices, whatever you'd like. Here's the different selections. So I get really good presents at Christmas. I think my friend Dennis Dermody, who's a film critic for PAPER Magazine, gave me my favorite. He found for me something that I had been looking for. After "Peyton Place" came out - and you and I have talked about "Peyton Place" and other shows. But but after the movie came out, the television show - after it was totally exploited, there was a series of cheap paperback books based on "Peyton Place," not written by Grace Metalious. But there was 20 of them, like "Love At Peyton Place," "Horror At Peyton Place." They were the cheapest paperbacks.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And he found on eBay, buying them one at a time, all of them. I think that was the best Christmas present I ever got.

GROSS: OK, it's time for another track from "A John Waters Christmas," your new CD. And I'm going to go with something very conventional here...

WATERS: OK.

GROSS: ...Because most of the records we've been hearing - we don't really know the genealogy of the recording 'cause they're, like, found records. But this is Alvin and the Chipmunks, which you say figured prominently into your childhood.

WATERS: Yes.

GROSS: I think everybody who grew up in - I guess it was, like, the late '50s - grew up with Alvin and the Chipmunks. Why do you care about them?

WATERS: Well, I think they're sexy, actually.

GROSS: You think they're sexy?

WATERS: I like a - yeah, a bad boy in a band. Actually, in real life, if people talk fast, I'm turned on. I'm always hoping that someone will be talking so fast if they go into chipmunk talk - and then I can ask them to marry me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: I have the hots for the Chipmunks, Terry. It's a hard thing to explain. I like a bad boy in a band. Wasn't that Alvin? There was also fake Chipmunks that tried to rip off their title called the Squirrels. They were lower-level Chipmunks. I love the idea - sometimes, I can make all my records be sung by the Chipmunks if you just play it at the wrong speed. The difference is the Chipmunks - the music is at the right speed. The voice is at the wrong speed. So I've always been fascinated by them. I want them to continue. The Chipmunks can't die. I don't get why there's not new Chipmunks songs. I've just always been fascinated by them from the moment I heard them. They even did a punk rock album that was quite good, too, that came out in the '70s.

GROSS: The Chipmunks did a punk rock album?

WATERS: Yes. "Chipmunk Punk," it's called. I have it.

GROSS: Really?

WATERS: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, gosh.

WATERS: So I want them to do a rap album. Wouldn't the Chipmunks rapping be great?

GROSS: So this is Alvin and the Chipmunks singing "Sleigh Ride" from the new CD "A John Waters Christmas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEIGH RIDE")

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: (Singing) Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling, too. Come on - it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you. Outside, the snow is falling, and friends are calling, yoo-hoo. Come on - it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you. Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up. Let's go.

GROSS: Thank you so much. Merry Christmas.

WATERS: Same to you. And Happy Holidays and Kwanzaa.

GROSS: (Laughter). And thanks for being with us.

WATERS: Thanks, Terry, for having me.

GROSS: My interview with John Waters was recorded in 2004 after the release of his album "A John Waters Christmas." After we take a short break, we'll get back into our archives and hear some of the Christmas recordings the Beatles made for their fan club and listen back to a 1988 concert of Christmas songs by the late jazz singer Susannah McCorkle. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEIGH RIDE")

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: (Singing) Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up. Let's go. Let's look at the snow. We're riding in a wonderland of snow. Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up. It's grand just holding your hand. We're riding along with a song of a wintry fairy land. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.