Big Joe’s History of Christmas Music
Every weekend we like to take a look back at the history of music, and with Christmas just around the corner I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few of the original Christmas Classics.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
In 1934, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town became one of the first new Christmas songs to gain popularity. Christmas songs before it were steeped in religion and passed on through generations as carols which people would sing while dancing and celebrating. Some traditional carols date as far back as the 13th century, but it wasn’t until the 30’s where Christmas songs found their place in pop culture.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town was first heard live on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. It’s told that he agreed to introduce this new song by songwriters J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie which other well-known artists of the time had rejected as being “silly” and “childish.” Santa Claus Is Coming to Town immediately had orders for 100,000 copies of sheet music the next day, and sold 400,000 copies by Christmas of that year.
The earliest known recorded version of the song was by banjoist Harry Reser and his band on October 24, 1934 featuring Tom Stacks on vocals.
Over 60 well known artists have recorded a version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, but Jersey’s favorite, of course, is Bruce Springsteen’s version.
Bruce first recorded this for a Children’s album titled, In Harmony 2, which was an album of Sesame Street songs recorded by popular artists. He would later record the version we all know and love, live, with the E. Street Band on December 12th 1975 at a concert in Long Island. This would be the B-side to My Hometown and became an instant Christmas favorite amongst fans.
The Christmas Song
The Christmas Song was written in 1944 by musician, composer, and vocalist Mel Tormé and Bob Wells. The song was written during an incredibly hot summer in an effort to stay cool by thinking cold thoughts.
“I saw a spiral pad on his (Bob Wells’) piano with four lines written in pencil”, Tormé recalled. “They started, ‘Chestnuts roasting…, Jack Frost nipping…, Yuletide carols…, Folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off. Forty minutes later The Christmas Song was written.
The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded the song early in 1946, and disregarding objections of his label Capitol Records, a second recording was made the same year utilizing a small string section, this version became a massive hit on both the pop and R&B charts.
Cole again recorded the song in 1953, using the same arrangement with a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, and once more in 1961, in stereo with orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael. Originally done for The Nat King Cole Story (a 1961 LP devoted to stereo re-recordings of Cole’s earlier hits), this recording was later appended to a reissue of Cole’s 1960 holiday album The Magic of Christmas and is arguably the most popular version of this Christmas classic.
Jingle Bell Rock
What do you get when you combine influences of 1950’s era Atlantic City and Texas? You guessed it! You get the holiday hit Jingle Bell Rock.
Composed by Joseph Beal, a public relations professional and longtime resident of Atlantic City, and James Boothe, a Texan writer in the advertising business.
The first recording of Jingle Bell Rock would be released by Bobby Helms in 1957 as sort of a rockabilly takeoff of the Christmas classic Jingle Bells. It was essentially one of the first to rewrite a carol into a brand new song with a modern sound. Since then it has been covered over 70 times and is especially popular amongst country artists.
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was introduced by Judy Garland in the musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the 1944 musical. It was written for a scene were Garland’s character, Esther, sings the song on Christmas Eve to cheer up her 5 year old sister. In the scene the young girl is upset that their father plans to move to New York City for a job promotion.
The original lyrics were so depressing that several involved, including Garland and the director of the musical, asked Martin to change some lyrics to make it more upbeat. Likewise, when Frank Sinatra decided to record his version in 1957, he too asked that lyrics be changed again to make the song less depressing. Martin listened and revised several lyrics for Sinatra, focusing more on happiness and celebration.
Of course, you can’t talk about the history of Christmas music and not mention White Christmas. White Christmas was written in 1940 by Irving Berlin and had become the best-selling single of all time with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide.
Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel. He told his secretary, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written, heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”
The first public performance of the song was by Bing Crosby, on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on Christmas Day, 1941. He subsequently recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers in just 18 minutes on May 29th, 1942. It was released in July as part of an album with six songs from the film Holiday Inn. At first, Crosby did not see anything special about the song. He just said “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
The song initially performed poorly and it wasn’t until World War II when it became highly requested especially through The Armed Forces Network. Since, it has done well every year and Bing Crosby’s original recording remains the most heard version to date.
So there you have it, a tiny history of how Christmas music found it’s place in pop culture and how these Christmas Classics paved the way for many many more. Have a Merry Christmas New Jersey and thanks for spending it with us!