The Quick 10: Stories Behind 10 Famous Christmas Songs
It might seem a bit early to start referencing Christmas songs, but I figure if the retailers can do it, so can I. And I do sincerely apologize for anything that gets stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
1. White Christmas. Irving Berlin knew he had just written a classic - when he asked his secretary to take down the song he had just written, he said, "I just wrote the best song I've ever written. Hell, I just wrote the best song anyone's ever written!" Bing Crosby sang it on his radio show in 1941 and recorded it in 1942. It was the best-selling single in any music category until Elton John's version of Candle in the Wind for Princess Diana took over in 1998.
2. The Christmas Song. The words in the song are so evocative of winter, you would assume that they were written over a mug of cocoa sitting by a fireplace or something. But nope - it was written during a heat wave in California. Mel Torme dropped by his friend Robert Wells' house, where Wells was supposed to be writing songs for a couple of movies. Instead, Mel walked in and Wells had written down "Chestnuts roasting... Jack Frost nipping... Yuletide carols... Folks dressed up like Eskimos," because he was trying to think cold. Mel thought it was a great idea for a Christmas song, so the two of them knocked the song out in 40 minutes.
3. Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The earliest known public airing of this song was in November, 1934 on a radio show. It was an instant hit - it sold 100,000 copies of sheet music the very next day, and more than 400,000 by Christmas.
4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas first appeared in the Judy Garland musical Meet Me In St. Louis. But the lyrics were kind of depressing: they included, "Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it may be your last," "Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more," and "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." The lyrics have changed over the years - Dean Martin rewrote that last lyric for Frank Sinatra's album A Jolly Christmas, and that's the version we probably know best: "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."
5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by a Montgomery Ward employee in 1939, for the company. Johnny Marks decided to adapt the character to a song, which pretty much made it an instant hit - he was responsible for other Christmas songs like I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree and A Holly Jolly Christmas. It was first sung by Harry Brannon, but the 1949 Gene Autry version is probably the one you know and love (or loathe, depending).
6. Like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Silver Bells was originally in a movie too - The Lemon Drop Kid. It was sung by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. The best part, though, is that the song started out being called Tinkle Bells... until the songwriter was telling his wife about his great new song and she informed him that tinkle was what little kids did when they peed. The song was inspired by Salvation Army workers ringing bells outside in the snow.
7. Frosty the Snowman was pretty much written to capitalize on the success of Gene Autry's Rudolph rendition (it was released just one season later). I'm partial to the versions Jimmy Durante recorded to go with the 1969 T.V. special, myself.
8. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. Husband and wife duo Elmo and Patsy recorded the song in 1978 and it started circulating in the San Francisco area. It only took a couple of years to become a cult hit. However, Elmo and Patsy divorced, so in 1992, Elmo recorded it solo. He also released a sequel in 2002: Grandpa's Gonna Sue the Pants Offa Santa. I feel like he tried to capitalize on that one about 20 years too late.
9. The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late). Another earworm, I think. I don't even know all of the words but I can guarantee I'm going to have the tune in my head for the rest of the day. All I know is, "I still want a Hula-Hoop." Anyway. Recorded in 1958 by David Seville himself, Ross Bagdasarian, the song sold 4.5 million copies. Jason Lee recorded a version when he played David Seville in the 2007 movie Alvin and the Chipmunks.
10. Santa Baby, the song about wanting lots of extravagant items for Christmas, was first recorded in 1953 by Eartha Kitt, AKA Catwoman. Lots of people have covered the song - Madonna, famously, but also RuPaul, LeAnn Rimes, Natalie Merchant, Kylie Minogue and (go figure) The Pussycat Dolls. I have no doubt Eartha Kitt's is the best. The song was co-written by Joan Javits, the niece of Jacob Javits, a New York Senator.