Mary’s Boy Child – Harry Belafonte 1958
Harry Belafonte was the most famous Calypso performer of his generation, hits like Jamaica Farewell, The Banana Boat Song (Day-O), and Island in the Sun, ensured chart dominance in the mid-1950’s. Mary’s Boy Child was his most successful Christmas song, written by Juilliard-trained West Indian Jester Hairston, it tells the story of the birth of Jesus, and was performed by Belafonte using the patois and vocal cadences of West Indians. Although Belafonte was born in Harlem (NYC) of West Indian parents, his vocal interpretation of this song was unfairly criticised at the time for being disingenuous and pandering to white audiences by appropriating West Indian cultural traditions in a demeaning way.
When Mary’s Boy Child climbed to #1 in the UK, Belafonte became the first black male to have a #1 in the UK, the first to sell a million copies in the UK, and the first ever British #1 record to have a playing time that exceeded four minutes (4:12). He took it back into the charts again in 1959 and 1960, and a slightly modified cover version entitled Mary’s Boy child /Oh My Lord by Bony M was a #1 hit in 1978, and went on to become the 10th biggest-selling single of all time in the UK.
All I Want for Christmas is You – Mariah Carey 1994
This Motown-flavoured song has a simple message: Mariah Carey is not concerned about all the paraphernalia of Christmas – she just wants to be with her man. This was co-written and co-produced by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, who started off as Whitney Houston’s arranger and has co-produced and co-written many of Carey’s hits, including One Sweet Day and Hero. He also won a 1999 Grammy award for co-producing Celene Dion’s My Heart Will Go On.
Carey and Afanasieff wrote it in the summer of 1994, with him coming up with musical ideas on a piano while she developed the melody and lyrics. They set out to write an uptempo Christmas track in the style of Phil Spector’s girl group productions of the ’60s, Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), was an inspiration. They achieved their goal, creating a fun, bubbly and memorable seasonal song, although Afanasieff was worried that the arrangement was too basic, almost like a practice piece. But it’s simplicity ensured that it became a real earworm of a song, and although it was not released as a single until 1994, a year after Carey’s mega-selling album Merry Christmas had topped the charts around the world, when it charted #12 in the US and #2 in Australia and the UK, and it has returned to the charts at Christmas time on a regular basis ever since.
Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band 1972
John Lennon and Yoko Ono had pursued the cause of world peace for several years via billboards they had placed in major cities around the world that said “War is Over! (If you want it) in 1969, and the song Imagine, which was inspired by the concept that if enough people want something to happen, it will. Two years later they went into Phil Spector’s (pictured above with John and Yoko) Record Plant studio in New York in 1971, with Spector’s Wrecking Crew session musos including, Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, Hugh McCracken, Klaus Voorman, and the voices of the Harlem Community Choir, to record Happy Christmas (War Is Over). Though now a Christmas standard, Lennon originally penned this as a protest song about the Vietnam War, and the idea “that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. If people imagine that somebody’s doing it to them and that they have no control, then they have no control.” This same spirit was echoed fifty years later in the words of teenage Swedish environment warrior Greta Thunberg, when she called world leaders to account to get serious about dealing with climate change and its impact.The song was originally released on clear green vinyl with Yoko Ono’s Listen, The Snow Is Falling as the B-side, at the beginning of the song, two whispers can be heard; Yoko whispers: “Happy Christmas, Kyoko” (Kyoko Chan Cox is Yoko’s daughter with Anthony Cox) and John whispers: “Happy Christmas, Julian” (John’s son with Cynthia).
It is a very unusual Christmas song, instead of evoking sleigh bells and mistletoe, it asks us to think about those who live in fear, and collectively bring about the end of war. It was released in the US for Christmas, but didn’t chart, the next year, it was released in the UK, where it did much better, charting at #4, eventually, the song became a Christmas classic in America, but it took a while. Delta Goodrem famously included this song on her double-A side hit Predictable in 2003.
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – Jimmy Boyd 1953
Written by Brit Tommie Connor in 1953, who also wrote other seasonal favourites including The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot and I’m Sending a Letter to Santa Clause, Mitch Miller produced the record at Colombia for thirteen year-old Jimmy Boyd, who had to convince the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston that the song was not about infidelity. A little boy sees his mother kissing “Santa Claus” underneath the tree on Christmas eve, and wonders what his father would think of it, not realising that “Santa’ is his dad in Christmas costume. The song sold over 3 million copies, it has been covered by The Ronettes, Andy Williams, Jessica Simpson, Amy Winehouse to name but a few, and just before Boyd passed away in 2009 at the age of 70, he said “I personally liked the song, but I didn’t think anyone would buy it.”
Little Saint Nick – The Beach Boys 1964In 1964 the Beach Boys produced what became a definitive festive album titled The Beach Boys Christmas Album, which featured original Beach Boys songs mixed with traditional Yuletide fare. Little Saint Nick was written by Mike Love and Brian Wilson and charted in 1963 before the album was released. Cars were a common theme in early Beach Boys songs, notably Little Deuce Coupe which was the template for this song, as it envisions Santa’s sleigh as a candy apple red Nordic Hot Rod with a 4-speed gear shift. The lyric line “Run, run, reindeer” was copied from Chuck Berry’s song Run Rudolph Run, with a slight change in the words to avoid copyright issues, and at 1.59 minutes, Little Saint Nick was both short and sweet. Berry’s song had been based on his early hit Little Queenie, but this ran into copyright issues with the composers of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and had to be settled out of court.
Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt 1953
Eartha Kitt was a sultry nightclub performer who earned a record deal with RCA in 1953, whereupon they set about trying to play up her image as a sophisticated vamp, and had her record a French song called “C’est Si Bon (It’s So Good),” which put her on the radar. At the end of 1953, Joan Javits and Phillip Stringer wrote Santa Baby for Kitt, and it became a holiday hit and Kitt’s most famous song. Javits came up with the lyric “Santa baby, just slip a sable under the tree, for me,” and Springer quickly came up with the music.
Along with I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, this was one of the first Christmas novelty songs, which up to that time had tended to be nostalgic reflections on holidays or children at Christmas. But Santa Baby dialled up a more sexy, knowing, and decidedly more material angle on the festive season, as Kitt sings about how she’s been good all year and expects some very expensive gifts including a fur coat, a yacht, and a diamond ring, there were no surprises when the Material Girl Madonna produced a great cover version of this song in 1987.
Santa’s Coming for Us – Sia 2017Aussie singer/songwriter Sia wrote and produced her fourth album Everyday Is Christmas, with her long-time collaborator Greg Kurstin in 2017, the lead single was Santa’s Coming For Us, a jazzy jam of a record that hit #1 on the US Adult Contemporary charts, #9 on US Billboard, and #39 in the UK. The song’s retro video features real-life celebrity couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard hosting a Xmas Eve party; Henry “The Fonz” Winkler” and All My Children actress Susan Lucci feature as the grandparents, while comedian J.B.Smoove, is the titular Santa.
Step Into Xmas – Elton John 1973
In her biography Elton John In His Own Words Susan Black quotes Elton thus: “The Christmas single is a real loon about and something we’d like to do a lot more of. We’ve never written a song especially tailored to be a single.”
Many Christmas singles are best forgotten, but this one has real merit, meaningful words by Bernie Taupin (pictured below with Elton John), and a typically strong melody from Elton. They wrote it as a thank you card to their fans; 1973 had been a particularly good year for Elton, the song was written on a Sunday morning and recorded in the afternoon at the London Trident Studios. The single was released in November 1973 and received heavy airplay although it only reached #24 on the UK chart; It may have done better but buyers may have been put off by the B Side Ho! Ho! Ho! (Who’d Be A Turkey At Christmas)
Santa Claus is Back In Town – Elvis Presley 1957Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this song for Elvis in 1957 just after they finished working with him on songs for his film Jailhouse Rock. Elvis liked working with the duo, but the increasingly paranoid “Colonel” Tom Parker was a malevolent presence, who despised anyone who got too close to his meal ticket. Elvis was working on his first Christmas album when Leiber and Stoller showed up at the studio and Parker scowled, “You got the song?” The duo explained that they couldn’t have, as they had just gotten the call and had rushed right over. Parker sneered, “Write it right now!” and the songwriters went into a utility closet and wrote the song in under eight minutes, upon receiving the song Parker sneered “What took you so long?” to which Jerry Lieber replied, wait for it, “Writer’s block!” Parker didn’t even crack a smile.
Little Drummer Boy – Bing Crosby and David Bowie 1977
This was originally a Polish Christmas carol which was translated into English in 1941 by Katherine Davis, and titled Carol of the Drum. It found its way to Dot Records (USA) where producer Henry Onorati and arranger Harry Simeone revised several of the lyrics and added finger cymbals and backing vocals to produce what became Little Drummer Boy. It was a hit for the Beverley Sisters (UK) and the Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Guards in 1972, but it would become a famous duet in 1977, when Bing Crosby and David Bowie sang the song on Crosby’s Merrie Old Christmas Special, filmed in London.The old crooner Bing Crosby was 73 and the glam rocker Bowie was 30, Bowie was reluctant to participate, but his mother was a big Crosby fan and she encouraged him to appear, he insisted on the song being re-arranged with him singing the words “Peace On Earth” and some additional lyrics as a counterpoint to Crosby’s vocals, and he further insisted that the song never be released as a single. The unique pairing of the cross-generational duo produced a Christmas classic, unfortunately Crosby died before the special aired, which drew even more attention to the song, bootleg copies of the duet leaked out and RCA subsequently released it as a single in 1982, when it climbed to #3 in the UK; a disgusted Bowie left RCA soon after.