Behind the Song: “Little Drummer Boy,” by Leslie Odom Jr.

While the world knows the name Leslie Odom Jr. for his role in the exquisite Broadway show, Hamilton, another perhaps just as monumental moment in the life was when he got a karaoke machine on Christmas day from his parents at 10-years-old. At the time, Odom Jr., who has since won Tony and Grammy awards, had begun riffling through his father’s records, but the portable karaoke machine – known as a “Singalodeon” – allowed him to record, harmonize and build songs. This experience proved invaluable who would bring the machine to his parents’ room and play them compositions at a young age. Now, just a few decades later, Odom Jr. is poised to release his latest LP, The Christmas Album, on November 6th. The 10-track record, composed during the COVID-19 quanratine, features original and standard standouts, including the song, “Little Drummer Boy,” which features the South African Mzansi Youth Choir. We caught up with Odom Jr. to ask him about his relationship to the song, what it was like working with the choir and much more.

How did you choose the songs on The Christmas Album and, more specifically, how did you decide to record “Little Drummer Boy”?
We had the challenge – in the middle of a bunch of challenges – of how we were going to make anything during quarantine. We thought about what we were inspired to look into – was there any inspiration? What were the creative juices saying beyond, you know, despair and anxiety? [Laughs] But we had the added challenge that we already put out a holiday project a few years ago that we loved. I love that Christmas album. On that album, I sang most – my favorite Christmas song in the whole word is, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” We opened that album with that. So, it was like, okay, we’re going to try and make a new Christmas album but what are we going to sing on it, you know?

So, we went back. We actually still had those lists from the first album. We went back to the lists and we added a few songs to that list that we wouldn’t have felt confident enough to attempt back then. We didn’t have the resources. We didn’t have the budget when we made that first album. But this album, after [Odom’s 2019 solo record] Mr, I said, yeah, we can add, “Last Christmas.” Because I think we can make a credible version of that, you know, with the resources and the people that we know now.

“Little Drummer Boy” has always been a favorite of mine. But whenever you make this list of classics of songs that you’ll cover, the challenge is always, okay, we have to make a version that is better or, at least, as good as my favorite version of this song. That’s the other challenge.

Did you look into the meaning or history of the song or, simply, what do you like about “Little Drummer Boy”? What does the song mean to you?
Yeah, you’re looking at when it was written. For sure. Every song is different. It’s like scripts, I don’t always do the same work for every one. To me, “Little Drummer Boy” offers a sweet memory of childhood of elementary school – middle school and elementary school choir. That song was a staple. There was rarely a Christmas concert that I wasn’t singing that song in my little boy soprano with 50 other kids. So, it was really nothing more than that. That was my memory of it. Which, in telling my producer that memory, that likely led him to wanting us to add the youth choir. That was his idea, adding the youth choir.  

There’s a long list of exceptional artists who’ve covered “Little Drummer Boy” in the past. Did that influence your desire to nail the song, too?
Well, yeah! There’s the Jackson 5 version, Whitney’s version, which was probably the biggest pop version that was in my head. It’s even in the Charlie Brown Christmas. So, those versions are in my mind – I’m thinking that we can’t do a version that’s any worse than those! If it’s not on the level, you know, then we just don’t put it on the record. Until we find a version that we think can live alongside one of those classic versions, we should pack it up.

What did the Mzansi Youth Choir bring to your recording of “Little Drummer Boy”?
We knew that we wanted it to be reimagined. We imagined that little drummer boy possibly in a different scene of the manger. Possibly that manger is in South Africa – just a different version of the scene. But it has the same humility, same sincerity. But we just imaged his drum a little different and then building a chorus of drums around him. That was, at least our idea. Adding the youth choir, we sent them a very stripped-down, bare-bones version of the song where I sang it straight down. We left a section for them. And then we knew we would sing the final chorus together.

But the truth is, they sent us back something that was so exceptional. They really had done a wonderful job and we had to up our game. We had to reproduce the track to be something that was worthy of what they sent us. So, we really owe so much to the choir. What they did was just so beautiful that we had to make the track better.

You seem to have a penchant for supporting kids, like those in the youth choir, including even writing a book for kids, called Fail Up. What inspires these efforts?
Especially in music, I get so focused and driven and I’m very hard on myself and there are times when I can – you know, even to me, it can seem silly. I’m not Bruno Mars. I’m not Bono, for God’s sake. You know what I mean? Who really cares?

I care!
Thank you, brother! But, you know, I remember – in a lot of ways, I’m doing it for that 13-year-old kid. I’m doing it for the kid that got the Singalodeon. I know that I would have known at 13- or 14-years-old about a Leslie Odom Jr. And it would have mattered to me what he was doing. So, for whatever reason, I’ve been gifted the resources and the opportunity to make these things and, so, I want to make them great. I want to make them excellent so that that kid can come after me and do even more excellent things.

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