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The Bittersweet Story Behind 'A Very Special Christmas'

Even after moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the record business, Jimmy Iovine always came back home to New York to spend holidays with his family. The Iovines loved Christmas, and their annual gatherings were a tradition.

When Iovine returned in the winter of 1984, things were different. This time, he came home to be at his ailing father’s bedside. On January 12, 1985, Vincent Iovine passed away at the age of 63.

A recording engineer who had worked with Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon, Jimmy Iovine feared he’d begin to associate Christmas with his father’s passing—a sense of despair and sadness that seemed contradictory to how he had always enjoyed the season. He decided he’d create a new memory. Less than three years later, in 1987, Iovine’s A Very Special Christmas album debuted.

It wound up being more than just a way of celebrating his dad, who loved the holidays: Iovine’s work would eventually raise more than $100 million for the Special Olympics.

Jimmy Iovine (second from right) with the record he produced for his father. Special Olympics

Benefiting the organization—which was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968 as a way for athletes with intellectual disabilities to participate in competitive sports—turned out to be a consequence of recording industry politics. Iovine was a major force in the business, but all his goodwill equity didn’t mean much when he began to solicit artists signed to different labels. Record companies were reluctant to “lend” talent out. The only practical way for Iovine to pursue his goal was to take money out of the equation: No one involved would make a dime.

It was Iovine’s wife, Vicki, who suggested the Special Olympics be the beneficiary. Vicki was a volunteer for the organization and knew Bobby Shriver, Eunice’s oldest son. Shriver and Iovine met with Jerry Moss of A&M Records and convinced him to cover the $250,000 in production and studio fees. Moss agreed.

Iovine’s next thought was to call Quincy Jones, who had produced the 1985 single “We Are the World” with an all-star group of artists. Jones was apparently stressed by the experience, and told Iovine he’d never clear the logistical hurdles. It was one thing for musicians to agree to do it; getting them all together in the studio was another matter.

Iovine, however, was determined. After Springsteen called to offer condolences, he was able to get the singer to contribute an unused B-side single, “Merry Christmas Baby”; he flew to Glasgow to record U2’s rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” while the band was performing a sound check before a concert; John F. Kennedy, Jr. was able to get Madonna for “Santa Baby.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shriver’s son-in-law, invited Jon Bon Jovi to participate. A fan of Arnold's movies, the singer agreed.

Iovine pulled every string he could. When he secured eight tracks, he thought it might be enough, but eventually decided to keep going. Run-DMC agreed to perform “Christmas in Hollis.” John Cougar Mellencamp did “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and promoted the album by telling the Los Angeles Times that he had a disease of the vertebrae as a child and was nearly physically disadvantaged himself. 

Iovine eventually gathered 15 tracks. For the cover, Shriver was able to get permission from celebrated artist Keith Haring to share his portrait of a now-familiar maternal stick figure without any licensing fees. 

A Very Special Christmas was released on October 12, 1987. Because of Live Aid, “We Are the World,” and other “aid” recordings, the media cautioned that people might be growing tired of charitable music projects. The Special Olympics didn’t know what to expect.

In the end, no amount of real or imagined charitable fatigue mattered. In March 1988, the Special Olympics received a royalty check for $5 million. A Very Special Christmas was a spectacular success, selling over four million copies through 2014 and spawning several sequel albums. It became the biggest benefit recording in the history of music, allowing Shriver’s organization to open satellite programs in Russia, Uganda, and in underprivileged areas of North America.

Iovine—who went on to co-found Interscope Records in 1989 and Beats Electronics with Dr. Dre in 2008—was pleased with the donation, but the project remained a love letter to his father. He left the series in the hands of others following the release of the second album in 1992.

"The only thing I know how to do in life, Bruce,” he once recalled telling Springsteen, “is make music. I'm going to make a Christmas album for my dad."

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
Matt Campbell/Getty Images

To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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10 Things We Learned From Vanilla Ice's 1991 Autobiography, Ice by Ice
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Vanilla Ice turns 50 on October 31, which will either make you feel very old or compelled to ask a nearby senior who Vanilla Ice is. The hip-hop artist was best known for To the Extreme, his 1990 album that sold 7 million copies, and its breakout single, “Ice, Ice Baby.” He also had a notable turn as himself in 1991’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze before attempting to reinvigorate his career as a Rasta-infused rapper with dreadlocks after his initial novelty wore off.

Before that happened, Ice (a.k.a. Robert Van Winkle) penned Ice by Ice, a 1991 “autobiography” that has no co-author byline but was probably written by a man named Randi Reisfeld, who is thanked by the rapper in the foreword for “putting my thoughts together.” At an economical 164 pages, it’s essential reading for anyone who wanted to know the name of Ice's signature hairstyle (“the beak”) or how women can grab his attention ("dressing super-sexy”). Here are 10 things we learned about the Iceman in this revealing paperback cash grab.

1. HE CUT HIS OWN HAIR.

Even at the height of his fame, Vanilla Ice wouldn’t trust just anyone to get near his trademark pompadour that he dubbed “the beak,” with lines shaved into the sides and a light stripe whooshing through the front. To maintain the look, Ice preferred a DIY approach. “I sit where there’s a mirror behind me and hold another mirror in front of me,” he writes. “That way I can see my whole head.”

Ice was so demanding of his follicles than anything less than perfection would be met with self-banishment. “I don’t like to be photographed unless my hair is perfect—that’s why you’ll see pictures of me in baseball caps a lot.”

2. HE DOESN’T CRY.

“I don’t cry and I don’t know why,” Ice explains. Even when he shattered his ankle as a teenager in a motorcycle accident, Ice didn’t get weepy. The only time he confesses to feeling even a passing sensation of tears is when he was handed plaques for having a platinum record. “My eyes got watery … it’s as close to crying as I’ve ever come.”

3. HE GOT STABBED IN THE BUTT AND LOST FOUR PINTS OF BLOOD.

Vanilla Ice in a Miami Football T
Scott Harrison/Getty Images

As Ice’s popularity grew, much was made of his claims that he grew up in rough parts of Miami and Dallas, where he joined a street gang after his stepfather relocated his family for a job opportunity. Some observers accused him of embellishing his background in order to appear more like a hardcore street urchin. Ice bemoans the fact that he’s felt compelled to pull down his pants to show off the scar on his butt from a knife attack at age 18. According to the rapper, a street fight turned ugly when an attacker pulled a knife and sliced open his thigh and buttocks, requiring an extended hospital stay after he lost four pints of blood. “What they did was put this thing that looked like a Q-tip with alcohol on it down inside my leg to plug up the artery,” he writes. (He didn’t cry, though.)

4. HE WORE MISMATCHED SNEAKERS TO SCHOOL.

Growing up, Ice bounced from school to school, admitting he wasn’t very interested in formal education and jarred by having to be the new kid on a regular basis. To offset that sense of isolation, he began showing up in increasingly outlandish outfits, including wearing mismatched shoes. “I’d wear a boot on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other,” he writes, “wear blue jeans with one leg long, the other leg cut off, stuff like that.”

5. IF HE HAD A PROBLEM, HE REALLY WOULD SOLVE IT.

Ice maintains that he was never comfortable sharing his feelings with others. His mother, who was single until marrying his stepfather when Ice was eight years old, tried to put him into therapy to address his troublemaking ways at school; Ice refused to talk. “I never needed to talk to anyone to solve my problems,” he writes. “A lot of people need someone to talk to, but I’ve never been able to open up and do that. Never could, never will. That’s just the way I am. And that’s just exactly where the ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ hook came from—‘If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it.’”

6. HE WOULD SOMETIMES USE DIRTY WORDS.

Jana Birchum/Getty Images

Engaging in rap battles growing up, Ice would occasionally deploy some profanity—not because he necessarily wanted to, but because his competitors had started it and he needed to keep up. “The thing is, I wouldn’t do it unless some other rapper started cursing and dissin’ me and the crowd started liking it,” he writes. "'Cause if the crowd starts liking the cursing part, that means to win you’re going to have to curse back at them.” Ice maintains in the book that his raps were clean on his records because “I don’t need to put in dirty words to express myself.”

7. HE WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS VANILLA M.C.

Ice got his start performing at City Lights, a dance club in Dallas owned by future manager Tommy Quon. With “Robert Van Winkle” not having a ton of appeal on a marquee, Ice decided to take the nickname given to him as a teenager when he was beatboxing and rapping in his neighborhood (“Vanilla M.C.”). But Quon pointed out that there were already a lot of “MCs” in the music business, including M.C. Hammer and Young M.C. “You know, your raps, your rhythms are really smooth, smooth as Ice, in fact,” Quon told him. Writing that “it sounded okay to me,” Vanilla M.C. became Vanilla Ice.

8. HE WAS DRAWN TO WOMEN FOR THEIR LOOKS.

Not one to sanitize his image for the masses, Ice admits that his primary concern when dealing with the opposite sex is whether he finds them attractive or not. “My first impression of a girl, whether I’m going to be drawn to her or not, is based on her looks. I know it’s not fair, but then I see what her personality is like.”

Once Ice establishes a woman could engage him intellectually while still “dressing super-sexy,” he enjoys entertaining them at fine dining establishments. But not too fine. “I like candlelit romantic restaurants, but not those where the menu is so fancy that I don’t know what I’m ordering.”

9. HE GOT AN OFFER TO APPEAR IN A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET SEQUEL.

Vanilla Ice and Kristin Minter star in 'Cool as Ice' (1991).
Universal Home Video

Ice’s career could have gone in multiple directions following the success of To the Extreme. He filmed a cameo in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel and had his own starring vehicle in 1991’s Cool as Ice. In between those projects, Ice was offered a small role in a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, presumably to be murdered by Freddy Krueger, “but I didn’t have room in my schedule to take time off for it.” 

10. HE WAS STALKED BY A SATANIST.

We’re cheating slightly, since Ice doesn’t disclose this fact in his book, but it’s still worth noting. At height of Ice mania in the 1990s, the rapper told Rolling Stone that a woman began following him around in an attempt to convert him to Satanism. Ice first noticed the woman at Wembley Stadium when she flashed him in a trench coat. (See: number 8.) Later, the same woman followed him to Japan and left a book under his hotel door: a Satanic Bible, with a personal message to join the flock. Why? Because his birthday falls on Halloween.

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