White Christmas – Bing Crosby 1941
This song won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1942 when it appeared as part of the score of the movie Holiday Inn, and inspired another movie starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye called White Christmas. Ten years later it would also inspire Holiday Inn to establish a global motel franchise with the same name. Written by Irving Berlin (Israel Baline) who was supremely confident about the song’s appeal and who remarked at the time “ I have just written the best song that anybody’s ever written,” and at global sales of 50 million and rising, he was right! It has been covered by such diverse performers as The Drifters, Andy Williams, Elvis Presley (Berlin hated this version), Darlene Love, Lady Gaga and Otis Redding. Although Irving Berlin was Jewish, he celebrated the secular American Christmas, as did others like Johnny Marks (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Holly Jolly Christmas), Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn (Let It Snow), Felix Bernard and Richard B Smith (Winter Wonderland), and Phil Spector (A Christmas Gift To You), who vicariously enjoyed the Christmas traditions of their Gentile friends and colleagues and celebrated the season with their music.
Many versions of this song omit Irving Berlin’s original opening verse which was specific to the screenplay and included references to a person who is homesick and longing for more wintery weather “The sun is shining, the grass is green/ The orange and palm trees sway/ There’s never been such a day in Beverley Hills, LA/ But its December the twenty-fourth/ And I am longing to be up North”., not as catchy as “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas… . As the record was released US troops were entering war zones overseas, following that country’s declaration of war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and White Christmas resonated with GIs, away from home and facing an uncertain future.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas – Judy Garland 1943
Written by tunesmiths Ralph Blane (lyrics) and Hugh Martin (music) for inclusion in the Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis, the song was originally downbeat and melancholy, the family was relocating to New York from Missouri and Judy’s character Esther, was concerned that this would end her relationship with the man she loved played by Tom Drake, so the opening lines were “ Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last; next year we will be living in the past.” Director Vincent Minelli and his future wife Judy Garland, sensed that because the country was still at war, and troops overseas needed something more positive and uplifting, they directed the songwriters to come up with more encouraging lyrics, and they did, ‘Let your heart be light, from now on, our troubles will be out of sight”, Frank Sinatra later changed the line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough…” which became the standard lyric, and made it an even more uplifting yuletide song. Popular versions of the song include those by the Carpenters, Michael Buble, Christine Aguilera, Kylie Minogue, and Diana Krall
Silent Night – Bing Crosby 1944
In December 1818, Josef Mohr, the curate at the little Lutheran church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, north of Salzburg, in what is now Austria, discovered that his church organ was broken, the bellows had apparently been eaten away by mice. He shared his troubles with his good friend, Franz Gruber, the local schoolmaster and an amateur composer, Mohr gifted Gruber with a poem he had written two years earlier, entitled Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! Gruber then set about writing music to accompany Mohr’s lyrics, with only hours left before midnight mass on Christmas eve. At the Christmas mass the two friends, with Mohr playing his guitar, and a hastily-rehearsed choir, made sure there was music that night, when they gave the first public performance of Stille Nacht, or as we know it Silent Night. The songwriters below left to right – Rev Josef Mohr (1792-1848) and Franz Gruber (1787-1863).
The song was circulated throughout Europe by travelling folksingers and ultimately found its way to the USA in 1839, Bing Crosby’s version first appeared on Australian charts in 1944, where he had no less than 31 #1 hits in the period 1940-57, he re-recorded and released the song many times throughout his career, and it has been translated into over 300 languages. The first four bars of the song are in the same chord so encouraging others to re-interpret the song, and cover versions abound – Sinead O’Connor, The Three Tenors, Lou Christie, Barbra Streisand and Stevie Nicks have all re-invented this most famous of all Christmas carols.
The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole 1946
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/ Jack frost nipping at your nose/ Yuletide carols being sung by a choir/ Folks dressed up like Eskimos.…” was the lyrical opening to this song, written in the middle of a July heatwave in California by lyricist Bob Wells who showed it to jazz singer Mel “The Velvet Fog” Torme, who was impressed. Wells had tried to capture all the vivid memories of cold winters spent in New England and his mother had brought over a bag of chestnuts to stuff a turkey for dinner, further reinforcing his memories of colder months and the festive season. Thirty-five minutes later they had written one of the great traditional Christmas songs, which they gave to Nat King Cole, a black man whose silky smooth baritone voice had erased the racial barriers in music at the time. Cole recorded it for the first time in 1946 but a later recording by him which included strings became the big hit, and soared into the charts, opening doors for Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, and Ethel Waters, to put their unique spins on holiday classics. The song has featured in many movies, and numerous cover versions, including Andy Williams, Bing Crosby and even Justin Bieber have also charted with this one
Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt 1953
Eartha Kitt was a sultry nightclub performer who signed to 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 charts. 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.
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.
Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms 1957
Helms was a C&W/pop crossover performer who had previous hits with Fraulein and Special Angel, before Jingle Bell Rock, a song whose writing credits have long been disputed. Originally attributed to Joe Beal and Jim Boothe, guitarist Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland who played on the original recording session claimed authorship of the melody, and Bobby Helms who wrote the bridge “What a bright time, it’s the right time, to rock the night away…” have unsuccessfully mounted claims for a share of royalties for a song that sold over a million copies. It has become a seasonal standard, covered many times by various artists, and turns up on the soundtrack of Christmas-themed movies, it clearly owes a debt to Jingle Bells and was a rockabilly hit, not a genuine rock ‘n’ roll song
Santa Claus Is Back In Town and Blue Christmas – Elvis Presley 1957
Presley would release Elvis’ Christmas Album in 1957 and it was a global sensation, selling over 17 million copies at the time, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote the first song on that album, the delicious double entendre of Santa Claus Is Back in Town, where Elvis is the titular Santa Claus. But he has no sleigh, no reindeer, nor toys in his sack, but he is coming in a big black Cadillac, to descend down a young girl’s chimney!
Leiber and Stoller had just finished working with Elvis 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 with the famed Memphis Mafia – Scotty Moore, Bill Black, JD Fontana and the Jordanaires, when Leiber and Stoller responded to a last-minute request from Parker to provide a song for the album. When the two tunesmiths showed up 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.
Blue Christmas was written by Billy Hayes and Jay W Johnson and first recorded by Doye O’Dell in 1948, but Elvis Presley’s 1957 version of this mournful song about unrequited love, made the song internationally famous. He did a great bluesy version, ably supported by backing vocals from soprano Millie Kirkham, who would feature on many of Presley’s songs, and was often referred to as the Fifth Jordanaire. In 2010, it was the final song that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played during their Asbury Park Carousel House set, and it turned out to be the final song that Springsteen ever performed with saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
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 a global smash hit.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee 1958
Johnny Marks had already written Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Holly Jolly Christmas before he gave a thirteen -year-old Brenda Lee this song to record, but when released in 1958 it flopped. Lee recalled that she recorded the song in July with Nashville producer Owen Bradley who had dialled the aircon down to zero, brought in a Christmas tree, and evoked the seasonal spirit to get her in the mood, after Lee had scored a few solo hits the song was re-released and quickly became a Christmas classic.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer- Gene Autrey 1949 and Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry 1958
In 1938 Bob May was an advertising copy writer for Montgomery Wards department stores, living in Chicago and facing bankruptcy as the great depression slowly receded. His wife Evelyn was stricken with cancer, and their little daughter Barbara knew her mother was desperately ill, a cold, brutal winter had descended on the city, and their dingy two-room apartment was devoid of Christmas spirit. As Bob made up a bedtime story about a special reindeer with a bright red nose for Barbara, she was fascinated by this fictional character, a reindeer different from the others who had spurned him, and which seemed so real to this young girl . As they couldn’t afford presents for their daughter, Bob wrote and illustrated a homemade book about this special reindeer, as a Christmas present for his daughter, names like Raymond and Reginald were on a short list before Bob settled on Rudolph; sadly his wife Evelyn succumbed to cancer before Christmas Day. Bob attended a staff function at Montgomery Wards and revealed his storybook, the company President Stewell Avery agreed to purchase all rights to the story for a modest sum, and for the next six years over six million copies were given away to children who visited the stores. Publishers wanted to buy the rights and commercially develop the book for global distribution, and in a generous gesture of Christmas goodwill, Avery gave all the rights to the book back to May for nothing. In the following years the mass-marketing of the book made Bob May a very wealthy man, he re-married, and it was his brother-in-law Johnny Marks, who adapted the story into a song. Below – Bob May and his second wife Virginia with their children left to right Barbara (16), Christopher (8), Ginger (5), and Joanna (9)
But finding someone to record the song was problematical, turned down by Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, Marks pitched the song to cowboy star Gene Autrey who was also unimpressed, but he played a demo of the song to his wife Ina, who loved the song, and convinced Autrey to record it. It became the biggest-selling Christmas song of all time, after White Christmas, and has become as much a symbol of the secular fantasy of Christmas, as Santa Claus.
The provenance of Chuck Berry’s Run Rudolph Run has long been contested by Berry who was originally named as the composer, and then subsequently forced to include Johnny Marks, who wrote the original song Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, based on Bob May’s character, which had been a a hit in 1949. Berry’s song is clearly based on his 1959 hit Little Queenie, which was updated to reflect the favorite toys at the time : “Said Santa to a boy child “What have you been longing for?/ All I want for Christmas is a rock and roll electric guitar/… Said Santa to a girl child ”What would please you most to get?/ A little baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink and wet”
Berry had to recognize that Marks owned the character Rudolph and would have to share authorship with him, had he used the name Randolph, he would have been in the clear. The Beach Boys also borrowed a line from Berry’s song “Run, run, reindeer” in their seasonal hit Little Saint Nick, and had to settle out of court with Chuck Berry. It seems that there is something else in the air at Christmas other than charity and goodwill – litigation.