We’ve officially entered the holiday music season, where seemingly every other radio station, big box store and waiting room has dedicated its playlists to a 24/7 steady stream of Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Donny Hathaway and Mariah Carey. So much Mariah.
But if you’re listening to local Baltimore radio, the holly-covered auditory onslaught might be sprinkled with a three and a half minute bushel of homegrown Noel nostalgia.
“The fact that it’s continued all these years? No one is more surprised than me, ”said David DeBoy, singer and songwriter of 1981′s novelty hit “Crabs For Christmas.” If you grew up here like I did, you might remember the lyrics, about a Baltimore guy far from home, regaling a Texas mall Santa with his wish for the one gift he wants — the titular steamed crustacean.
But this was impossible, back in the dark ages before the Internet and readily available cross-country seafood delivery, so the Orioles cap-wearing man’s wishes are for not. Written admittedly as a naked play to get a hit on local radio, “Crabs For Christmas” sold more than 10,000 copies within four weeks of its release.
The song even today, with a healthy dose of Baltimorean touches — the O’s cap, a bowling league jacket, the word “Hon” — remains a gleefully goofy piece of nostalgia, which DeBoy explains in his new book “I Gave Baltimore Crabs (For Christmas).”
At the time he wrote it, DeBoy had been voicing commercials and jingles, vocally embodying elves, cows and other oddities. “Nobody ever hired me to sing with a beautiful voice about a bank,” he said, wryly. Between the jingles and acting in local productions, he set his sights on writing “a song that would get on the radio. And people write songs around Christmas.”
He was encouraged by the massive success of Elmo & Patsy’s 1979 song “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” about the fatal collision between an egg nog-drunk matriarch and a certain sleigh on Christmas Eve. “I thought ‘This is something I could do. This sounds like it was made in a basement by people who’d had a bunch of beers. I wasn’t gonna write ‘White Christmas.’”
What he wanted to write was something fun that would interest Baltimoreans, “and there ain’t nothing more Baltimore than crabs,” DeBoy confirmed, jokingly. He’s right. After spending most of my adulthood away from home, I came to sympathize with the song’s protagonist, pining for the hard shelled tastes of home. (I also admit to being one of those Baltimore seafood snobs who, when confronted with so-called “Maryland crab cakes” on out-of-state menus, goes “Really? We’ll see about that.”)
One of the most delightful traits of “Crabs For Christmas” and its subsequent follow-ups, is how they happily lean into all of the stereotypically, tacky Baltimore traits, including that distinctive accent, said Tracey Tiernan, who sang backup on several tracks on 2001′s anniversary album “Crabs For Christmas … for Twenty Years.”
“For years, I’d been trying to get that Baltimore vowel sound out of my voice, but David was like ‘Bring it on! Let your Baltimore flag fly,” said Tiernan, now a morning radio personality on Baltimore’s Bright FM.
DeBoy said that his path for success with “Crabs For Christmas” probably wouldn’t have happened now with the decentralization of radio ownership, “since their playlists come out of Los Angeles or New York.” But in 1981, he could cold-call local program directors and pitch his song “with the only reference I had being the phone book and going to the W section.”
“There would be a long pause, and they’d say ‘What’s it called again?,’” he said. “And I’d say ‘Crabs For Christmas’ and they’d say ‘Really? Is this like a real song, like on a record?’ And I’d say ‘I have a 45, all pressed up and I can drop by the office and play it for you.’ … And most said ‘Yes.’”
DeBoy said the song started getting requested on local radio, and then the 45 got gifted by Baltimoreans to friends and family out of town. By the end of that Christmas season, “Crabs For Christmas” had sold more than 10,000 copies. “I just wanted to create something fun about Baltimore. I thought ‘If I make enough money to cover the cost of the recording, that would be OK.’ I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
The song got new life a decade or so after its release in the 1990s, when DeBoy “got pulled into the world of the Baltimore Hons,” those larger-than-life beehived Baltimore ladies who’ve spawned their own festival and at one time a restaurant, Hampden’s former Cafe Hon, owned by Denise Whiting. He wound up hosting HonFest in Hampden and writing a new slate of Baltimore-inspired songs, including “I’m In Love, Love, Love With A Baltimore Hon.” That one was later adapted in 2020′s lockdown era as “My Baltimore Hon In Quarantine.” The song’s video, featuring Hons who “got out their wigs and their best outfits and joined in on the fun” by recording themselves at home has more than 55,000 views on YouTube.
Tiernan thinks that DeBoy’s longevity as a bard of Baltimorean lore is made possible by his love of the place. “He’s really a brilliant man. He gets us,” she said. “Baltimore is a small town with such a big heart, and my heart hurts to see how it shows up in the news. If you’re not from around here, you don’t get what a special city it is. But he does. I love his Baltimore.”
“Crabs For Christmas” isn’t the only local holiday novelty hit. There’s the 1960s “Fat Daddy,” by Baltimore DJ Paul “Fat Daddy” Johnson, and Brandon Walker’s “Chinese Food On Christmas,” a humorous ode to Jewish people who find nothing else is open on December 25. But it might be the most well-known. DeBoy laughed when I asked what he thought the song’s legacy was.
“I could never cure cancer, but I’m the guy who did ‘Crabs For Christmas,’” he said. “You just can’t take the Baltimore out of the Baltimoron.”