I enjoy Dean, Bing, and Nat King as much as anyone, but my preferred holiday playlist is heavy on silver belles. Give me the glittery marshmallow world of Darlene. Give me Peggy singing in three-quarter time and Dolly getting drunk on apple wine. You can keep your Elvis; I’ve got my Ella to keep me warm.
Give me Mariah, who is to a stretched-out syllable what Michelangelo is to marble and whose 1994 Christmas album may go down as her masterpiece. It’s full of transcendent moments (that octave change in “O Holy Night”? Fall on your knees, indeed), not least of which is the twinkly glockenspiel solo that opens her timeless homage to love’s torment, the song that puts the “jingle” in jingle bells, the “slay” in sleigh bells, and the “pep” in the peppermint latte you instinctively crave when you hear it, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
But don’t throw a snow globe at me: While Mariah’s megahit is one of the greatest holiday bops of all time, it is not the greatest “All I Want for Christmas Is You” of all time. That title belongs to a moody ballad by a New Orleans band called Vince Vance & the Valiants. Perhaps you know it—maybe you even love it. It landed on the Billboard country charts six times in the 1990s, and LeAnn Rimes and Kelly Clarkson both covered it. But it’s not a track you’re likely to hear on today’s prefab playlists of “Christmas classics” featuring Michael Bublé and Wham! (no disrespect to Bublé). Andy Stone, whose stage name is Vince Vance, once told a Times-Picayune reporter he could live off the song’s royalties if he “wanted to live poor.”
Incidentally Stone, who co-wrote the song, sued Mariah Carey for $20 million earlier this year, calling her version a derivative work. You don’t have to be a legal scholar to know the case was thinner than ice on a frozen pond in Louisiana. The two tunes sound nothing alike, and Stone dropped the suit last month. If anything, his version owes a debt to certain love songs of the fifties and sixties (like the oft-covered “You Belong to Me”). It’s a potent musical cocktail that goes straight to the heart—a slow dance at the sock hop overlaid with nineties saxophone riffs and the gutsy country stylings of an anonymous female vocalist. Where Mariah’s lonely lover preens, the Valiants’ diva pines. But who was she?
Let’s dive into obscure Southern music history. Vince Vance & the Valiants is a long-running rock-and-roll revue whose members—with the exception of Stone—have revolved as often as Vance’s nightly wardrobe. So when a little-known singer from Dallas stepped into a Nashville recording studio in 1989 on her twenty-seventh birthday and served up the group’s new Christmas number with the clear, twangy tone of Tammy Wynette and the bluesy edge of Janis Joplin, she was just doing her job.
You’d have to consult Google to learn that the singer is Lisa Layne, and she worked as a doo-wop girl with the Valiants from 1986 to 1990 before spending the next twenty-five years as a Patsy Cline tribute artist. Her name isn’t attached to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” She never earned any performance royalties. In the music video, a lip-syncing model cozies up to Vance’s signature shock of hair (Layne makes a cameo as the blonde behind the perfume counter). The video is an amazing blend of nineties nostalgia and NOLA flamboyance, but to truly understand why I’m pitting the tune against the World’s Favorite Christmas Song, you’ll want to listen to it some dark December night driving alone, letting Layne’s voice and that sultry sax wash over you, thinking about the person you’re missing.
Over the years, Layne has given periodic interviews about her small but indelible contribution to the Christmas canon, and I couldn’t resist asking for one more. We chatted while she was on the road (she still tours, mostly in Texas, finally as herself), and she revealed that the vocals were captured on the recording session’s first run-through, on what’s called the scratch track. “Vince Vance & the Valiants, they were rock and roll. I dragged in the country,” she says of the song’s style. “The feel of it, the vibe, the groove—devil take me now, that came out of me.”
She said no one in the band figured the recording would amount to much—but then they brought the tape to a radio station in Tyler, Texas, their first tour stop after Nashville. “This was back when they had regular phones,” she says. “Before the song was over, the whole switchboard was glowing.”
As the song made rounds on the airwaves, some DJs made a point to introduce it with the words “featuring Lisa Layne.” Spotify does not extend the same courtesy, but in a full-circle moment for Layne, one radio station is ready to give her the spotlight: 650 AM WSM, the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry. This Saturday, thirty-three years after she delivered the powerhouse vocals of a sleeper holiday hit, she’ll return to Nashville to perform it live and around the world, joining singer Gene Watson on the Opry stage. “I am beside-myself tickled,” she says of the gig. “Gene said, ‘Lisa, I want everybody to know who recorded that song.’”
So this year, give me Kacey drawling “Mele Kalikimaka” and Karen crooning the “Christmas Song” (alongside some other Carpenter). While Frank hangs a star on the highest bough, I’ll be with Judy, muddling through somehow. And finally, give me Lisa standing at the mic on country music’s greatest stage for the first but hopefully not the last time. Andy Stone may not be getting his millions, but justice—sprinkled with a little Christmas magic—will be served.