The American Christmas Songbook: “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1934)

The balloon of Eddie Cantor–the first to be based on a live person–in the 1934 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Image courtesy of NY.Curbed.com.

In 1934, radio star Eddie Cantor needed a new Christmas song to sing on a live broadcast during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He approached Leo Feist, a music publisher, who happened to have a song he had not yet published by composer John Frederick “Fred” Coots and lyricist James Lamont “Haven” Gillespie titled “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” At first, Cantor was unsure if “childish” appeal of the song would make it a hit, but his wife encouraged him to give it a chance. He was glad she did! Within 24 hours of the broadcast, 100,000 copies of sheet music had been purchased, and another 300,000 had sold by Christmas.¹ A studio recording by banjoist Harry Reese and his Orchestra (with vocals by Tom Stacks; Decca) had also sold over 300,000 copies overnight. Needless to say, it has remained an annual hit ever since. In 1970, Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. created a stop motion animated special based on the song for ABC, featuring Fred Astaire as the narrator S.D. Kluger and Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle.

While I could shower you with a list of celebrated recordings, I’d instead like to treat you to a guest blog by my colleague and dear friend, Rachel Evangeline Barham. She shares one of the most unusual interpretations of this jovial holiday hit and a glimpse of the man behind it:


Stumbling Upon the Musical Genius of Joseph Spence

As a professional singer, I have a pretty low tolerance for the “holiday” music that wallpapers America nonstop for the last month of every year (or, to my dismay, more than the last month). I’ve done my share of starting Christmas music rehearsals before Columbus Day, so musical holiday cheer is not a strong motivator for me. Maybe that’s why my first encounter with Bahamian guitar genius Joseph Spence was such an epiphany.

Joseph Spence playing for friends on his front porch. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

My spouse and I were sitting on the couch listening to a local radio show called Traditions with Mary Cliff: “folk music and things you can see from there.” Suddenly, the sounds coming from the radio were unlike anything we’d ever heard. I stared at him wide-eyed, and he scrambled for the volume knob. We listened in pure delight to Joseph Spence’s genre-defying interpretation of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

We set out to find out everything we could about him. It turned out that we were pretty late to the party. Joseph Spence lived from 1910 to 1984, and among those who cite his influence are Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, and the Grateful Dead. His songs were first recorded and brought to a wider audience in 1959 with the release of the Smithsonian Folkways album Music of the Bahamas Volume One: Bahamian Folk Guitar (below). This album features field recordings taken by Samuel Charters, whose personal interest in the varieties of music made by North Americans of African descent were seminal in bringing to light the influence of the blues on jazz.² His enthusiasm for such music led him to amass field recordings of now legendary folk musicians whose contributions may otherwise have been lost forever, including those done on Joseph Spence’s front porch.

One of the things that makes Joseph Spence’s recordings so delightful is his vocalizations. The actual lyrics of the songs occasionally make appearances, but they are overshadowed by the instantly recognizable scat style that employs his unique idiolect, influenced by the rhythmic lilt of Bahamian creole.³ As easy as it is to get lost in the pure joy of Spence’s vocal style, his guitar technique and facility with improvisation are truly remarkable. The first time Samuel Charters heard Spence, he thought there were two guitarists playing together,⁴ and many accomplished guitarists have found Spence’s plucking technique easy to admire but difficult to imitate. Spence’s fancy finger work on his sometimes out-of-tune guitar, the percussive effects of his vocal sounds, and his rhythmic beating on the body of the instrument make a complete one-man band. Now that’s holiday cheer.

Further listening:

Out on the Rolling Sea

Jump in the Line

The Crow


Rachel Evangeline Barham

¹Eddie Cantor is well known to DC-area listeners as the singer of “I Love to Spend Each Sunday With You (One Hour With You),” the sign-off song for WAMU’s long-running old time radio show “The Big Broadcast.”

²https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6363760/santa-claus-is-coming-to-town-ascap-list-most-performed-christmas-songs

³Rohter, Larry (March 18, 2015). “Samuel Charters, Foundational Scholar of the Blues, Dies at 85“. New York Times. [retrieved 12/7/2017]

⁴Bahamian English Resources: a clearinghouse for information on Bahamian English, www.cobses.info/BahamianEnglish/index.html [retrieved 12/7/2017]

⁵Thompson, Dave (2002). Reggae & Caribbean Music. Backbeat Books. 274–275.

The American Christmas Songbook: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943)

President Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Germany, Dec. 11, 1941.

Today marks the 76th anniversary of the United States’ official declaration of war against Germany and Italy, thereby putting the US at war with all three Axis powers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had resisted bringing the US into battle as long as he could, but his hand was forced as a result of the surprise Japanese attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory, on December 7, 1941–“a date which will live in infamy.” Two weeks following the attack, the Selective Training and Service Act was amended to require all men between the ages of 18 and 64 to register for military service. By the end of the year, the number of enlisted soldiers nearly quadrupled, from approximately 450,000 to over 1.8 million. By the end of the war in 1945, that number had grown to over 12 million.¹

Thinking of all those brave service personnel separated from their loved ones for the holidays, songwriters James Kimball “Kim” Gannon and Walter Kent penned a ballad in the summer of 1943 titled “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” In the song, which reads nearly like a letter from a deployed soldier, the singer promises to be home in time for Christmas:

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

The first edition of sheet music, which credits Buck Ram in addition to Kim Gannon and Walter Kent.

When Bing Crosby recorded the song for Decca in 1943 with the John Trotter Orchestra, the label was hesitant to release it due to concerns over the ultimate couplet, in which the singer confesses: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas / if only in my dreams.” This sobering lyric was a stark reminder to the millions of separated families that they may not be reunited for Christmas, or indeed, ever again. Nonetheless, the song proved to be a huge success, especially among the troops. It became the most widely requested song at U.S.O. Christmas shows, and in a poll conducted at the conclusion of the war in 1945, troops selected Bing Crosby as the person who did the most to boost morale.² In December 1965, Crosby’s recording comforted those serving even farther from home when it was piped, by request, to astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell aboard the Gemini 7 spacecraft.³ “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” immediately charted and remained there for eleven weeks, peaking at #3. Despite its success, the song was banned on BBC radio in fear that it would lower morale.⁴

A bit of controversy arose following the success of Crosby’s recording. Songwriter Sam “Buck” Ram, along with his publishing company Mills Music, filed a lawsuit claiming that the song was stolen by Gannon and Kent after Ram had shared it with them in December of 1942. Ram copyrighted a song by the same title that year, though musically and lyrically, the two songs were completely different. Still, the court sided with Ram, awarding him a share of the royalties and a songwriting credit.⁵

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has been recorded by countless artists since Bing Crosby. Perry Como offered his own take in 1946 (single, RCA Victor), and Frank Sinatra recorded his in 1957 (A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, Capitol). My favorite recording, yet again, is The Carpenters‘ (Christmas Portrait, A&M, 1978). More recently, She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) included a nostalgic rockabilly-style cover on their 2011 album, A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge, 2011). A friend recently introduced me to a soulful version by the up and coming Leslie Odom, Jr., from his album released last year, Simply Christmas (S-Curve, 2016). Wherever you find yourself this holiday, there is a version of this entry from the American Christmas songbook to make you feel at home…if only in your dreams.


¹https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-us-military-numbers

²https://www.uso.org/stories/1905-uso-tour-veteran-bing-crosby-was-a-hit-overseas

³https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000010/

http://mentalfloss.com/article/50178/11-reasons-bbc-has-banned-hit-songs

⁵Collins, Ace. Stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001.

The American Christmas Songbook: “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” (1951)

No, that isn’t a typo. The actual title of the song as it was given by composer Meredith Wilson in 1951–despite the first line of verse–is “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas.” Don’t believe me? Here it is in the 1951 Catalog of Copyright Entries from the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress:

And for most early commercial recordings, that is the name that appears on the label. The original recording was released by RCA Victor in September 1951 sung by Perry Como and the Fontane Sisters and backed by the Mitchell Ayers Orchestra. However, the second interpretation, released by Decca a month later, is more well-known today. With vocals by Bing Crosby and Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires and an accompaniment by John Scott Trotter’s orchestra, the classic track starts with a quote from “Jingle Bells” (N.B.: If you want your Christmas song to be a hit, quote “Jingle Bells.”). Even The Chipmunks got the name of the song correct on their Christmas album, Christmas with the Chipmunks (Liberty, 1962; see right), as did Johnny Mathis on his 1986 album Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (Columbia). Mathis’s cover, made famous by its inclusion in the 1992 holiday box office hit Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (20th Century Fox), competes with Crosby’s 1951 version as the most popular recording of the song.

The Grand Hotel in Yarmouth, NS, overlooking Frost Park. The original hotel was demolished in 1966. Card postmarked 1905, courtesy of YarmouthHistory.ca.

Okay, so we’ve cleared up the question about the name of the song. What remains unclear is what location Wilson may be describing in his lyrics. Residents in Yarmouth, a small coastal village in Nova Scotia, believe that “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” is about their town. According to local legend, a famous composer spent an extended vacation there in the late 1940s and rented a room in the Grand Hotel in the center of town. Across the street from the hotel is Frost Park, and both were adorned with large Christmas trees each December. Wilson lyricized: “There’s a tree in the Grand Hotel / One in the park as well / The sturdy kind that doesn’t mind the snow.” Furthermore, a five and dime (thrift shop) was located just down Main Street, which was lined with large candy canes. “Take a look in the five-and-ten / Glistening once again / With candy canes and silver lanes aglow.” Unfortunately, there is no record of an M. Wilson checking-in at the Grand around that time (though he could have used an alias). However, he was known to visit the area on occasion.¹ Another possible inspiration is the Park Inn Hotel (now operating as the Historic Park Inn) in Wilson’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa. This famous landmark, constructed in 1910, is the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the world, and sits adjacent to the city’s Central Park.

Valerie Lee and Laurence Naismith in the original production of Here’s Love. Photo courtesy of Sony Music Archives.

Wilson went on to write three Broadway musicals. His first and most successful was The Music Man (1957). The second, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960), also met high acclaim. The third, however, was not as successful. An adaptation of the 1947 classic holiday film Miracle on 34th Street, Wilson’s Here’s Love opened on October 3, 1963 in the Schubert Theatre and closed the following July. For the show, Wilson reused “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” which he had written twelve years earlier, combining it with a new song “Pinecones and Holly Berries.” Perhaps this mash-up will give you a fresh look at this treasured number from the American Christmas songbook.


¹http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/34852-christmas-looks-lot-yarmouth-classic-tune and http://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/maritime-town-may-have-inspired-well-known-christmas-carol-1.1605892

 

The American Christmas Songbook: “Silver Bells” (1950)

In the summer of 1950, Paramount Pictures approached Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, a songwriting duo with a knack for writing hit numbers for films and theme songs for television series (Bonanza and Mr. Ed). Paramount was working on the film The Lemon Drop Kid, which is set in New York City in the days leading up to Christmas. Thus, the studio felt the picture needed a Christmas song, and they wanted it to be sung by the leads Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. Initially, Livingston and Evans were less than enthusiastic. In a 2005 interview recorded for NPR, Evans recalled: “…[w]e figured–stupidly, thank God–that the world had too many Christmas Songs already.”¹ They were also nervous that another flop would result in Paramount terminating their contract, which was up for renewal.

Their inspiration came from a little bell that sat on one of the gentlemen’s desks. It reminded them of the bells rung by men dressed as Santas on street corners collecting donations for the Salvation Army.² Their original title for the song was “Tinkle Bells,” as their tiny bell made a tinkling sound when rung. When Livingston shared the draft with his wife, she encouraged them to consider replacing “tinkle” to avoid awkwardness with the word’s euphemistic usage. Heeding Mrs. Livingston’s wise advice, they changed the title, reworked some of the lyrics, and delivered “Silver Bells” to the studio. The number was simply staged by director Sidney Lanfield, with the cast standing in a choir-like formation and singing it straight through.

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Image courtesy of Penn Libraries (University of Pennsylvania).

Filming on The Lemon Drop Kid wrapped up in August of 1950. In October of that year, ahead of the film’s premier, Decca released “Silver Bells” as a single with vocals by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards, backed by an orchestra conducted by John Scott Trotter. By December, it had become a smash hit, causing Bob Hope and fellow producers to worry that the bland scene in the forthcoming film would be a disappointment to audiences. Hope arranged for his friend, comedy writer Frank Tashlin, to come up with a more elaborate staging of the number, and the cast and crew returned to the lot to re-shoot.³ The result is a scene that, though peppered with some regrettable racist humor, made “Silver Bells” an instant holiday classic.

It is easy to see why “Silver Bells” is so appealing. The tune is catchy and easy to sing, with lyrics full of sentimental descriptions of Christmastime in an urban setting. The genius of Livingston and Evans’ composition is that the verse and chorus, when sung together, create a nice counterpoint. They also created a counter-melody to give the chorus some variety when it is repeated. Thus, “Silver Bells” can be arranged many different ways. In addition to the Bing Crosby recording, some other notable tracks have been offered by Doris Day (single, Decca, 1950), Johnny Mathias (Merry Christmas, Jon Mat Records, 1958), and the recently deceased Jim Nabors (Christmas, Columbia, 1972). For something a little different, enjoy this heavy metal cover by Twisted Sister (from Twisted Christmas, Razor & Tie Recordings, 2006). No matter how hard you like to ring them, “Silver Bells” chimes in as a favorite entry for many in the great American Christmas songbook.


¹https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5068947

²Evans refers to the bell on the desk in his 2005 NPR interview, while Livingston referred to the Salvation Army’s Santas in a 1988 interview with American Songwriter Magazine (July-August 1988).

³http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/453448%7C453708/The-Lemon-Drop-Kid.html

The American Christmas Songbook: “Sleigh Ride” (1948)

A Brush for the Lead, an 1867 lithograph by Thomas Worth for Currier and Ives, 19th-century American print company mentioned in Parish’s lyrics. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The sound of mid-20th-century Americana was perhaps best captured by composer Leroy Anderson, the son of two Swedish immigrants. Among his most notable “light-orchestra” works are The Syncopated Clock (1945), The Typewriter (1950), and Bugler’s Holiday (1954). However, his most famous composition is the energetic and playful Sleigh Ride, which he first began to sketch while vacationing in the summer of 1946 at his wife’s family’s cottage in Woodbury, Connecticut. Yet again, a wintertime song was born out of the desire to escape unpleasantly high temperatures. Anderson would not finish the work until February 1948. Sleigh Ride was premiered by the Boston Pops Orchestra on May 4, 1948 with Arthur Fiedler conducting. Since then, it has been known as the BPO’s signature piece. They recorded it for RCA Victor the following year, and just like the holiday-neutral “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”, it was immediately became a Christmastime standard. Anderson’s wife Eleanor recalled hearing it playing in department stores in New York City in December of 1949. She explained: “Leroy didn’t set out to write a Christmas piece when he wrote Sleigh Ride. His intentions were to convey the entire winter season through the imagery of a sleigh ride, much in the way that Mozart did with his piece of the same name.”¹ Chances are, if you’re one who seeks out commercial Christmas music, you’ve heard Anderson’s more deliberately holiday work, A Christmas Festival, a medley of traditional carols that he composed in October 1952.

Phil Spector’s iconic Christmas album was released the same day President Kennedy was assassinated – November 22, 1963.

The lyrics for Sleigh Ride weren’t written until 1950, and they were not by Anderson. Mitchell Parish, who added lyrics to several instrumental classics by Anderson and other composers, used the existing title and melody to pen a musical invitation, where the singer is welcoming the listener to come along on a ride through a wintry paradise. Parish sums up the scene he paints in the line “It will nearly be like a picture-print by Currier and Ives” (see a sample print above). Again, Parish’s original lyrics make no specific mention of Christmas, though some artists, such as The Carpenters and Air Supply have substituted “Christmas party” in the line “There’s a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray.”

The first recording with Parish’s lyrics was released in 1950 as a single by the Andrews Sisters. In 1963, another female vocal trio, The Ronettes, recorded a Motown style version for A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records (see left; later released as A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector) that replaces Anderson’s imitated horse whinny on trumpet with an authentic one and includes no fewer than five key changes! Speaking of excessive modulations, Andy Williams’ version from Merry Christmas (Columbia, 1965) includes snappy back-up vocals and brass fills a la Burt Bacharach.  That same year, the instrumental rock group The Ventures included a cover on their Christmas Album (Capitol Records, 1965).

Album art featuring Anderson from a 2001 CD from the British label Jasmine.

There are some other fun re-imaginings of Sleigh Ride available online. Here is a jazzy piano arrangement by John Eidsvoog in 7/8 meter (think 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3)! Ella Fitzgerald’s snazzy rendition from her album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (Verve, 1960) sets the perfect mood for a yuletide cocktail party. For me, nothing beats Leroy’s original orchestration–and the masses seem to agree! From 2009-2012 and then again in 2015, ASCAP² reported that Sleigh Ride was the most popular piece of Christmas music, with the 1950 Decca recording with Anderson conducting “His Pops Concert Orchestra” being the most frequently played in 2010. That’s scientific data validating that this enchanting piece has earned its spot in the American Christmas songbook.


¹Quote from the Leroy Anderson Foundation website. Mrs. Anderson was most likely referring to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Die Schlittenfahrt” (No.3 in C, Trio from Three German Dances, K. 605), but she could have also been thinking of Die musikalische Schlittenfahrt, formally Divertimento in F Major, by Wolfgang’s father, Leopold.

²The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers–the agency that monitors public performance of copyrighted music. Leroy Anderson Foundation.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Some Children See Him” (1951)

The cover of the 1951 Burt family Christmas Card, which included the carol “Some Children See Him.” Courtesy of AlfredBurtCarols.com.

If you’re a songwriter, and you want to give a one-of-a-kind Christmas gift, what do you give? A brand new Christmas carol, of course! And between 1942 and 1954, that’s exactly what composer Alfred Burt did. Carrying on a tradition started in 1922 by his father, the Rev’d Bates Gilbert Burt, Alfred composed a new Christmas carol to be included in the Burt family Christmas card. These festive songs remained undiscovered outside of the friends and family who received the annual card. All that changed in 1952 when Burt asked the Blue Reys, the vocal ensemble of Alvino Rey’s orchestra (which Burt, a jazz trumpeter, had joined in 1949), to sing through that year’s carol, “Come, Dear Children.” The group was so impressed that they performed it and a few other of Burt’s carols at the King Sisters’ Christmas party that year. With exposure to the Hollywood music scene, word of Burt’s carols began to spread. James Conkling, president of Columbia Records, arranged to have the carols recorded by a professional choir at the North Hollywood Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Burt, whose health was rapidly deteriorating due to lung cancer, composed four new carols to fill the 10″ LP, one of which, “The Star Carol,” was included in the 1954 Burt family Christmas card. The resulting album, The Christmas Mood (Columbia) was released in time for the 1954 holiday season. Unfortunately, Burt passed on February 7 of that year and was not able to see the project to completion.¹

Shawnee Press published Burt’s original arrangements for SATB choir in two sets.

While Alfred Burt’s carols may not top most people’s lists of holiday favorites, a few have been covered several times over the years. One is the tender and chant-like “Some Children See Him,” written in an unusual 5/4 meter with an almost modal, folk-like melody. With verses crafted by Burt family friend and church organist Wihla Hutson, the heartwarming song reminds us that children from all races “[w]ill see the baby Jesus’ face / Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, / And filled with holy light.” Powerful words, especially considering the song was composed in 1951–less than a decade after the end of World War II, at the height of the Korean War, and at dawn of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Xenophobia and racial tensions in America were strong, and Hutson’s verse stressed that we should learn from the innocence of children that love and tolerance is more powerful than hate and fear.

Following the release of The Christmas Mood, “Some Children See Him” was covered by Andy Williams on his album Merry Christmas (1965, Columbia). Three years later, Perry Como recorded it for The Perry Como Christmas Album (1968, RCA Victor), but it was ultimately cut from the album and not released until 1999, when RCA compiled a collections of Como’s greatest holiday hits. More recently, James Taylor included an intimate and heartwarming rendition on his first Christmas album in 2004 (Hallmark limited edition), which Columbia then re-released with a slightly altered track listing two years later (pictured right). Ten years later, Kenny Rogers recorded the track as a duet with Alison Krauss for his album Once Again It’s Christmas, modifying the tune to fit a more conventional triple meter.

Abbie Burt Betinis, composer and great niece of Alfred Burt. Image from AbbieBetinis.com.

Though Alfred passed away in 1954, the Burt family tradition lives on! In 2001, Alfred Burt’s great niece, Abbie Burt Benitis, renewed her uncle’s legacy of sending Christmas greetings complete with new carols. Now a professor of composition at Concordia University in Saint Paul, MN, Benitis has set music to texts written by her Uncle Alfred, her Great-Grandfather Bates, and Wihla Hutson. Her mother, Emily Burt, has helped each year in the creation and mailing of the cards. Last December, Benitis sat down with John Birge of Classical Minnesota Public Radio to talk about the Burt family tradition and share her new carol for Christmas 2016, “Sing Him to Sleep.” How remarkable that this talented family continues to add new music to the American Christmas songbook!


¹More information about the Burt family tradition of annual carol writing can be found at AlfredBurtCarols.com.

The American Christmas Songbook: “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” (1945)

Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. Courtesy of Getty Images.

On Friday, we learned how composer Mel Tormé and lyricist Bob Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” in an attempt to get their mind off the blistering heat Los Angeles was experiencing in July of 1945. Apparently, they weren’t the only songwriting team in town inspired by the triple-digit figures on the thermometer to dream about winters up north. Over in an office on Hollywood and Vine, the not-yet-famous Broadway composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn decided that rather than spending the hot summer day at the beach, they would craft a tune about winter weather. The result was “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” It’s hard to imagine that a song dedicated to frozen precipitation was composed in 100+° temperatures in Southern California.

The first edition of sheet music for “Let it Snow” with a photo of Vaughn Monroe.

The song sets the scene of a fellow who is reluctant to head out into a snowstorm after spending a romantic evening with his sweetheart. He suggests that, since there’s no immediate need for him to leave, the two stay by the warm fire, pop some popcorn (that he had evidently brought with him and withheld until that point), and turn the lights down low. It seems she obliges, as the final verse mentions the fire slowly dying and how they’re still “goodbye-ing.” This vignette sounds awfully familiar to, but much less morally questionable than, the exchange between two lovers in Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Loesser wrote his tune a year earlier (in 1944), but it was not recorded until he sold the song to MGM in 1948 to be used in their upcoming film, Neptune’s Daughter (more on that in a forthcoming post). It’s possible that Cahn and Styne may have heard the song at one of Loesser’s Christmas parties before writing “Let it Snow,” but it’s rather unlikely.

“Let it Snow” was quickly handed off to vocalist and big band leader Vaughn Monroe to record for RCA Victor. It was released in time for Christmas 1945 and reached #1 on the Billboard Best Sellers chart by late January. It’s a lovely recording, complete with full, brassy big band spectacle, but it’s not the most familiar version to ears over seventy years later. Woody Herman released his own arrangement with his orchestra for Columbia Records that reached #7 while Monroe’s was at #1, but it is also unknown to most modern listeners. More popular recordings include Frank Sinatra and the B. Swanson Quartet’s (single, Columbia, 1950), Jo Stafford and the Starlighters’ (on Happy Holiday, 1955, Columbia), and Ella Fitzgerald’s (on Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, 1960, Verve). However, the cover that has best stood the test of time, with its recognizably cheerful piccolo duet in the first few bars, is Dean Martin’s recording featuring an orchestra led by Gus Levene from the 1959 album A Winter Romance (Capitol). The album includes other Christmas standards, as well as Styne and Cahn’s warm-weathered counterpart to “Let it Snow,” “The Things We Did Last Summer.” Much like A Winter Romance, “Let it Snow” was not created with intentions of it becoming a Christmas hit. In fact, nothing explicitly holiday-related is mentioned in the lyrics. Nonetheless, the song has become an essential number in the classic American Christmas songbook.

The American Christmas Songbook: “The Christmas Song” (1945)

Another November has come and passed, and though the church has not yet even begun observing the season of Advent, chances are that you’ve already been listening to (of your own volition or not) Christmas music. In fact, Sirius XM satellite radio subscribers could begin tuning into its two most popular Christmas stations, Holiday Traditions and Holly, on November 1. That’s a bit too early for me personally, but I recall seeing several friends post on Facebook about how happy they were to be hearing yuletide favorites once again. And frankly, who can blame them? This year, more than ever, the lyrics to Jerry Herman’s “We Need a Little Christmas,” (from Mame, 1966) come to mind:

For we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing,
Ringing through the rafters,
And we need a little snappy
“Happy ever after”
We need a little Christmas now!

And thus, I’ve decided to share posts over the next 16 business days leading up to Christmas in which I’ll shed some light on the conception of some of our most beloved Christmas melodies. As I am admittedly one who can grow tired quickly from hearing the same tunes recycled, re-imagined, and replayed over and over again, I thought that you, like me, might find a new appreciation for them by learning the stories of their origins.


Mel Tormé with the King Cole Trio. Courtesy of Getty Images.

We’ll start with a classic that most people know by the opening line rather than the title, The Christmas Song. According to the composer, Mel Tormé, he and his lyricist partner, Bob Wells, wrote the song in about 45 minutes on a particularly hot July afternoon in 1945. Tormé recalls, in his 1988 autobiography It Wasn’t All Velvet, that he entered Wells’ house in the San Fernando Valley and found a writing pad on the piano with four lines of verse:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos

By the time Wells greeted his guest, Tormé had already began setting the verse to song. What started as a mental escape from the crushing Los Angeles heat quickly became a lush ballad that was destined for fame. The songwriting duo were so pleased with their spontaneous work that they immediately drove over to Hollywood and performed it for their manager, Carlos Gastel. Among Gastel’s other notable clients were Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, and the legendary Nat King Cole.¹

Cole fell in love the melody immediately, but it wasn’t recorded until a year later, on June 14, 1946, at WMCA Studios in New York City for then-four-year-old Capitol Records. This recording, however, was immediately shelved and only released in 1989–by accident–when Rhino Records included it in a compilation album.² It features only the King Cole Trio with Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on bass. Cole insisted, at the displeasure of Capitol Records, that the Trio re-record it two months later, this time adding four strings, a harp, and drums. The organization of the music is essentially the same, with the opening chords played by the strings instead of the piano and Moore’s quote from “Jingle Bells” played with major seventh chords at the end. Perhaps still unsatisfied–probably because he had previously sung the grammatically incorrect “reindeers” in the earlier recordings–the King Cole Trio (now with Buddy Cole taking Nat’s place on the piano, John Collins on guitar, and Charlie Harris on bass) recorded the song again in 1953 at Capitol’s studios in Hollywood, this time with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. This version quickly replaced the August 1946 recording for use on radio and compilation albums, but it is still not the recording most often heard today.

The definitive recording was captured nearly eight years later on March 30, 1961, at Captiol’s studios in New York City for inclusion on the album The Nat King Cole Story, a collection of his hits re-recorded in stereo. This version features a full orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael with orchestrations by Charles Grean and Pete Rugolo. The improved recording technology produced a significantly better cut, with much warmer vocals from Cole and a better balance with the orchestra. The same dramatic opening from the strings and the signature closing “Jingle Bells” quote on the guitar from the very first cut remain. This would be Cole’s last studio recording of the song that he made a hit–he passed away in 1965 at the age of 45 from lung cancer.

Since then, the song has been covered dozens (if not hundreds) of times. Mel Tormé recorded many renditions himself, and for an appearance on The Judy Garland Show in 1963, he added an introductory verse with new lyrics and concluded by singing, with Garland, the second half of “Here We Come A-wassailing.” My favorite version, which should come as no surprise to my friends, is from The Carpenters’ 1978 album, Christmas Portrait (A&M). Please enjoy this video of Karen lip-syncing it for their 1977 ABC television special, The Carpenters at Christmas.

Come back Monday when we’ll learn about another song that was inspired by LA’s summer heat wave of 1945!


¹Tormé, Mel. It Wasn’t All Velvet: An Autobiography. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Viking, 1988.

²Various artists. Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits, 1935-1954. , 1989. Sound recording. The liner notes indicate that this is the August 1946 recording with strings, but the track used was in fact the June 1946 recording with only vocals, guitar, and bass.