Collecting Holiday Memories

By Melissa Knueven


JMR with a sampling of his remarkably diverse collection of more than 1,000 holiday records and CDs.

For John Morris Russell, performing at the Taft Theatre is like coming home for the holidays. Before JMR was the acclaimed Cincinnati Pops conductor, he served as the Associate Conductor of the CSO. From 1997 to 2003, he helmed the beloved Christmas spectacular “Home for the Holidays” at the Taft Theatre; in 2012, he reprised the program with the Pops to make a recording, which he considers to be his “greatest professional achievement.” The album, the first of the Pops’ to be recorded under the Fanfare Cincinnati label, is a collection of festive classics from a variety of genres. “I wanted to make a Christmas album for the world. To me, that was Home for the Holidays.”

  Below: A selection of the mixtapes JMR prepared for family and friends

Long before JMR was conducting the Cincinnati Pops in a recording studio, he was using a record player hooked up to a cassette player to make festive mixtapes for his family and friends. At first, it was simply a way to share the holiday spirit with those closest to him; he would sit down a few weeks before Christmas and copy his favorite recordings from his personal collection to a few tapes, and send them out as gifts. Eventually, the tapes were in such high demand by those who had heard them, he had to begin the process in October—the final year of his holiday mixtape distribution saw 300 copies. The tapes were so loved by those who received them, that some of JMR’s friends still keep cassette players for the sole purpose of listening to the mixes.

Each mix reflects what was going on in his life during that period: “Some of the tapes have a calm and relaxed feel, while others are upbeat and bouncing off the walls.” A collection of tapes starting in 1994, when he met his wife, Thea, spans the remaining decade and details their relationship with songs that represent their Christmases together. Another recording features a cry from his infant son; it is the perfect illustration of the personal nature of the tapes and also of the reason the tradition came to a halt: “When the kids came, there was no time for it anymore.”

Whenever JMR feels nostalgic for his holiday music-mixing days, he can just dig into his astonishingly huge and remarkably diverse collection of over 1,000 holiday records and CDs. The collection stems from his love for the holiday season and what it represents. “My Achilles heel is that I’m endlessly positive and optimistic. Every year at Christmas, I have a renewed hope that people can love each other and just get along. Christmas music represents that hope, which humans have and have had for thousands of years.” His collection includes music from all over the world, tracing time and culture through different arrangements of classic tunes. “Some of these songs are ancient. Think of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,’ which has been around for centuries. What’s great about holiday music is that, every year, someone takes something old and makes it new. ‘Emmanuel’ has been mixed with the old French carol ‘Patapan’ to make it new, while elsewhere you may find ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ played on a Japanese koto. Lately, I’ve been interested in tracing American history through Christmas music. Spirituals and folk songs were created from little bits of music that would come over from Europe, and we would make these snippets blossom into something else.”

A Firestone-sponsored album of favorite carols

JMR’s love for holiday music stemmed from his childhood, when his dad would go to get snow tires put on the family car and come home with Firestone and Goodyear-sponsored Christmas records. “These companies used to partner with labels like RCA and Columbia, and the records included major artists. It was an incentive to winterize your car!” Including the Firestone and Goodyear records, there are a few standouts in JMR’s collection. A Festival of Carols in Brass by the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble inspired a young JMR to become the conductor he is today: “I used to listen to that album over and over. I heard the piccolo trumpet arrangement and thought, ‘that’s what I want to do!’” In fact, those familiar with the Holiday Pops program will recognize an homage to that recording—the last track was “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which is always the closing song for the concert.

JMR’s most prized record, however, is Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Colin Davis. “We played this every Christmas morning. It was the very first.”

JMR with his most prized record: Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Colin Davis