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Season's Greetings

September 14, 1997|Steve Hochman

Bobby Shriver is the custodian of one of the top charity album franchises of all time. The two "A Very Special Christmas" collections, released in 1987 and 1992, have sold a combined total of more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and brought in more than $40 million for the Special Olympics, which was founded by his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Sporting such megastar names as Madonna, U2, Sting and Whitney Houston, they rank as Nos. 1 and 2 among the multi-artist Christmas albums listed by charts-tracker Joel Whitburn in his "Top Pop Albums 1955-1996" book. Volume 1 continues to sell around 200,000 copies annually, while the follow-up is not far behind.

But when A&M Records Chairman and CEO Al Cafaro suggested nearly two years ago that they should make a third one, Bobby Shriver wasn't too receptive.

"I said, 'You're crazy,' " Shriver recalls. "These things really take a lot of work."

Shriver finally came around, though, and a third "Special Christmas" album is due next month. The lineup includes Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige, Sting, Hootie & the Blowfish, Tracy Chapman and a rap phalanx of Puff Daddy, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Mace, Onyx, Salt-N-Pepa and Keith Murray fronted by Rev. Run of Run-DMC. All of the artist and record company proceeds from the project will be donated to the Special Olympics.

Advance reception for the album is already high. Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records, previewed the rap all-stars track recently on L.A. radio station KKBT-FM (92.3).

"The phones just went crazy when we played it," says Simmons of the track, which is built around the slinky "Santa Baby," which itself had been done by Madonna on the 1987 album. "The new version is updated a bit, about people being good enough to come to the ghetto and give a little."

Several tracks provide a few surprises. Former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell has done a version of the hymn "Ave Maria" with the band 11. Patti Smith contributed "We Three Kings," with her distinctive poetic twists. No Doubt's punk-ska take on a seasonal standard is titled "Oi to the World." The Smashing Pumpkins and Blues Traveler both offer original compositions.

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