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Listen to The First Family of Song
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With the holidays upon us, it's a given that we will soon be inundated with photo cards of loved ones near and far, usually dressed up in some variation of either Christmas versions of vivid Cosby Show style sweaters or matching color schemes to rival that of a sports team. And these annual mementos arriving in our mailbox each and every year have become a favored tradition that allows us to witness the passage of time as appearances change, new faces enter the picture as the years go by.
Yet, instead of leaving us with simply a thin stack of seasonal snapshots, for two decades (the '60s and '70s respectively) America's First Family of Song provided us with seventeen television specials including twelve holiday specific programs that brought those photographs musically to life. Long before video cameras became a staple of family celebrations from the '80s onward and we embraced the idea of family sing-alongs (or sync-alongs) complete with matching apparel or their infamous sweaters as witnessed on The Cosby Show, the King Family gave us the real thing.
Although they also starred in specials which focused on other holidays and/or seasons, it was their distinctly authentic family themed Christmas creations filmed in October but aired closer to the date during those two decades that really set them apart. And garnering an audience in the '60s and '70s was no small feat, when you consider that it was essentially an era of variety shows ranging from Carol Burnett to Laugh In to extraordinarily lavish musical specials featuring stars like Mitzi Gaynor, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and others.
However, the four original Grammy nominated beloved King Sisters transferred their background performing in the recording studio as a Big Band sensation and in their appearances in Hollywood films to the silver screen with a very unique twist on TV's new variety special craze. Rather than fill their hour long programs with celebrity guest stars singing their latest chart toppers or tying in appearances with an upcoming feature film, the King Sisters chose a more natural approach.
Reasoning that it's how they would be spending the holidays anyway since the Kings always emphasized the importance of learning an instrument from childhood up through adulthood and music was a very real part of their conversation with one another, the King Sisters opted to build a show around their entire family.
While the family freely admits in this fascinating documentary that some have labeled the specials “corny,” there was nothing phony about the Kings themselves. Instead of annual televised family reunions nor the type of insensitive reality show gimmicks we see employed on television today, within just a few notes contained in this informative documentary you intuitively sense their true enjoyment and love for one another.
This being said, when you discover that the Kings young enough to be in school had to work eight additional hours every day for rehearsal after their classes finished, the succinct but revealing comment that the teen members in the special have come to appreciate their involvement more with age seems very understandable.
Just as in the classic programs, which found the extended family children broken up into two distinct age groups of the adorable, unaffected King Kids and the tight-knit King Cousins who reveal that they were together so much they feel closer to siblings, in the documentary they're largely interviewed in groups by age.
And throughout this extremely well-edited documentary accompanied by a wonderful full length special that recently aired on PBS from the producers of last year's similarly themed classic TV celebration of Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle, the Kings are introduced to another generation to celebrate the 45th anniversary of their original TV appearance.
Bound by their love of one another as well as the groundbreaking musical experimentation they created in the spirit of the original King Sisters who were pioneers of four-part harmony, singing in rounds, and their Uncle Alvino Rey's magical sounding guitar, it's fascinating to see the footage of twenty-five to roughly forty relatives in the vintage footage through their eyes today.
Although I realized that I'd been mildly acquainted with the Kings as the Sisters appeared in a recent Esther Williams film I reviewed for a Turner Classic Movies/Warner Brothers set as well as being unknowingly familiar with the King musical legacy via their relatives who have formed the successful, critically acclaimed indie rock band Arcade Fire, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more.
Additionally I appreciated their gorgeous harmonies which hearkened to a Pet Sounds era Beach Boys and the fact that like the Boys or a modern day example or Rufus and Martha Wainwright, when relatives sing together, the result is harmonious magic. Yet more than that, I was also incredibly moved by what has easily become the family's most cherished memory of the 1967 special.
A standout in the documentary that's sure to drive you to tissues, luckily the “reunion” moment is again repeated to powerful emotional effect without the narrative interruption in the extra feature on the DVD. In this unforgettable segment, we witness the heartrending surprise of their Aunt Alyce who was unexpectedly greeted with the return of her Vietnam veteran son Ric during her tearful rendition of “I'll Be Home for Christmas” that she'd been singing to his framed photograph.
Similar to the family's adherence to the idea that not only did they avoid egos and the fears of upstaging one another with their gorgeous harmonies, it's immediately evident that not only did their sound benefit by singing together but that their relationship did as well. Moreover, it grew stronger with each successive note, song, or special with their unique legacy of a very rare version of a Christmas card shared by the Kings with audiences who kept tuning in year after year.
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