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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Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.