The Brothers Shriver at work
Christmas of champions
December 23, 1999
Web posted at: 5:41 p.m. EST (2241 GMT)
By Shayla Thiel
Special to CNN Interactive
(CNN) -- Every time you switch on the radio these days, you can hear a musical variety of holiday cheer being spread by the rock star du jour -- Madonna's "Santa Baby" and U2's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" are radio-wave mainstays in late December. Although you might suspect a growing commercial exploitation of the Christmas spirit, there's a special story behind these hits.
Since 1996, these and more than 80 other holiday songs have been recorded by stars as part of "A Very Special Christmas," an album series the royalties of which are donated entirely to the Special Olympics organization.
This year's release, "A Very Special Christmas Live from Washington, D.C.," is the fourth in a string of albums that has brought the international organization tens of millions of dollars to dedicate to the lives of the mentally and physically challenged.
The 1999 CD was recorded at a private White House concert in celebration of the Special Olympics 30th anniversary and features an original holiday tune from Eric Clapton as well as rocking renditions of traditional Christmas music from Sheryl Crow, John Popper, Mary J. Blige and others. Like the preceding "Very Special Christmas" albums, the new live-concert offering was produced by Bobby Shriver, son of Special Olympics founder and board member Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Five years ago, Bobby Shriver and music-industry stalwarts Jimmy and Vicky Iovine teamed up with the idea of hiring rock stars to record original and traditional Christmas tunes for the benefit compilation album.
After about "400 phone calls," Shriver says he persuaded Madonna, U2, Stevie Nicks, Bruce Springsteen and Sting to contribute to the album, which went on to become one of the best-selling of the holiday season.
Better watch out, better not cry
Although the process has become easier with each album, Shriver says building a compilation is still arduous. It often takes months for artists to decide upon the songs they want to record. And they frequently change their minds -- even up to the time that they're in the studio recording it.
"I think it's a natural way the creative process works, and that is fine," he says. "It's very worthwhile."
A live album is even more a guessing game. Brother Tim Shriver, president and CEO of the Special Olympics organization, says he wasn't sure the "Very Special Christmas" tradition would carry through this year in its live incarnation.
"The (White House) show was such a home run, and we hoped we'd get a live album from it, but the chances in my mind were about 10 or maybe 20 percent," he says. "Having it work out sounding as good as it does was just a miracle. It's a tough one to call which song is my favorite -- it's just such a great piece of music."
Bobby Shriver agrees.
"The thing is so dependent on the vitality of the moment," he says.
The brothers say they're committed to recruiting stars in the years to come to contribute to the benefit project.
"It's such a great album for us to be associated with -- there's such a sense of birth and hope and possibility," Tim Shriver says. "It's completely consistent with our organization and our commitment to making the lives of individuals joyful, hopeful and full of possibility."
Fresh Cuts: Christmas album review round-up
December 17, 1999
Review: Garth's ho-hum holiday
December 7, 1999
Televised chestnuts: Christmas present
November 29, 1999
A Very Special Christmas 4
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