The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Classics
Christmas has been celebrated for centuries around the globe, but the modern Christmas song like the iconography of the holiday itself was perfected in the good old U.S.A.
Over in Europe, Christmas songs were written to be sung in church or taken door to door when people went caroling. In America, soon-to-be cherished Christmas songs were written and recorded for radio shows, motion pictures and television specials and even as straight-up pop singles (as you will discover below, the story told by one beloved holiday song was actually commissioned by a department store). None of this diminishes the songs themselves; the greatest tunesmiths in history all wanted to have American holiday hits, and their work has ended up partially defining Christmas for the entire world. The following songs can even illustrate the success of our cultural experiment. Three of the songwriters cited below are Jewish, one is Italian American, one was born in Puerto Rico, and two are Englishmen with proud Irish roots.
These Christmas songs were from everyone and written by everybody. Keep reading to discover the stories of these songs.
The Jackson 5, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"
The modern American Christmas song starts right here. Did you think this was an ancient folk sing-along from Bavaria? This was written in 1934 by the peerlessly named J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie for a holiday-themed episode of Eddie Cantor's radio show. People started clamoring for it the minute it hit the airwaves. They bought up 100,000 copies of the sheet music so they could perform it at home, as well as about a million copies of records that included the tune, including Tommy Dorsey's (a million copies was a enormous number back when many people didn't have record players and many rural folks didn't yet have electricity). It's worth mentioning that millions of kids have become somewhat paranoid thanks to the song's alarming revelation that Santa Claus monitors our every waking hour and decides who to define as naughty or nice. The Jackson 5's recording of it is included here since Michael's soaring vocals make the song sound more celebratory than, well, menacing.
Bing Crosby, "White Christmas"
This beloved classic was written by (http://www.rhapsody.com/irving-berlin)[Irving Berlin], who used the nostalgic images of East Coast winters to try to cool off during a brutal summer heat wave. Crosby sang the tune in the 1941 musical Holiday Inn, but it took a couple of years to really take off and become a defining American holiday song. It remained so popular throughout the rest of the 1940s and '50s that Crosby even had another movie crafted around it, this one titled (you guessed it) White Christmas (which, being in color, now gets shown more than Holiday Inn). Berlin, a songwriting genius, tapped into the yearning and memories of Christmas past, capturing the fact that kids look forward to the coming of Christmas while adults secretly yearn for the holidays of long ago. The song became one of the 20th century's biggest sellers and one of its most recorded songs. Its influence is felt in many other holiday tunes …
Nat "King" Cole, "The Christmas Song"
… such as this beauty, penned by Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Often subtitled "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," it was crafted during a brutal Los Angeles summer, when Wells -- like Berlin, above -- wrote the opening stanza as a poem to try to cool himself off (this was before air conditioning, folks). Torme saw the words, exclaimed "Holiday song!" and started writing the music and fleshing out the rest of the lyrics. Torme's friend Nat Cole was the first to record it. He turned it into a big hit, using it to propel himself from being a hip crossover jazz pianist to becoming one of the most beloved pop singers of any era.
Frank Sinatra, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
Many seemingly timeless American holiday songs were written during World War II, when millions of families were torn apart and Christmastime was often etched with worry or outright heartbreak. Hugh Martin wrote this song for Judy Garland for the 1944 movie Meet Me in Saint Louis, which was a portrait of a pre-war family in more innocent times. The melancholy melody originally had a different set of lyrics that were so bleak Garland refused to sing them. Martin rewrote the song to highlight the Christmas angle, though it still has heartache and separation at its core. The lyrics "One day soon we all will be together/ If the fates allow/ Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" were changed to conclude with "Hang a shining star across upon the highest bough" with Sinatra's famous recording (Sinatra probably didn't want his own kids committing suicide).
Gene Autry, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
People often complain about Christmas becoming overly commercialized, but darn if American business didn't help perfect our collective vision of holiday nirvana. Coca-Cola came up with the image of a jolly, red-dressed Santa Claus that we all hold dear, for instance. In 1939, 34-year-old Robert L. May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward, created a giveaway book for the department store that detailed the ugly-duckling story of a little red-nosed reindeer named Rudolph. A decade later, May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, turned the poem into a song, and Hollywood cowboy Gene Autry roped it and rode it into the land of eternal holiday radio rotation. Autry's single went on to sell 25 million copies (!!!) -- which is still well shy of Crosby's record with "White Christmas." This should clue you into why everyone cuts holiday songs.
Eartha Kitt, "Santa Baby"
Once upon a time, the female gold-digger (she was pretty much exclusively female) was considered an amusing pop-culture figure in books, movies, songs and early television. Basically, a gold-digger is an attractive woman who reaps fox furs and convertibles from top-hatted millionaires who have more disposable wealth than self-control (gold-diggers still pop up from time to time, especially as villains in children's movies like The Parent Trap -- or in Kanye West songs). This tune was tailored specifically for Eartha Kitt, who had a stage act in which she humorously impersonated a vamping minx. Kitt became the perfect vehicle for a rare combination of gold-digger satire song and much-played Christmas song. When she recorded the number at age 26, just before Christmas of 1953, it almost instantly became the defining hit of a career that would go on to flourish until her passing in 2008.
Ray Charles/Betty Carter, "Baby It's Cold Outside"
While "Santa Baby" wittily alludes to carnal concerns, "Baby It's Cold Outside" offers everyone a chance to leer through the mistletoe. This duet was never actually meant to be a holiday song. Master tunesmith Frank Loesser -- who won a Tony, an Oscar and the Pulitzer Prize! -- wrote the number so that he and his wife could perform it as a duet at parties. After a few years Loesser, knowing from good songs, sold it to MGM, which used it in a 1949 musical comedy called Neptune's Daughter. The song became an instant smash with four competing duos simultaneously battling it out on the charts (the hippest ones paired Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Jordan, and Margaret Whiting with Johnny Mercer). Instead of rejoicing in its success, Loesser's wife was angry that "their song" was trotted out to the masses at a profit (the fact that this actually angered her may partially explain the couple's eventual divorce). If you doubt that this one still works its special kinky magic look no further than the sweet shower-room duet between indie pop princess Zooey Deschanel and comedy king Will Ferrell in Elf.
Vince Guaraldi, "Christmastime Is Here (Instrumental)"
The first Charlie Brown Christmas special has became an annual TV institution, but it was considered a daring roll of the dice during the mid-1960s, when it aired for the first time. The animated special was created by a small San Francisco production house that worked closely with Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz. Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi had grown up in San Francisco's once-thriving Italian American community and was a hip and humorous part of the city's cool jazz scene. He was hired to do the score for the Charlie Brown cartoon because the filmmakers loved his left-field hit single "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." Guaraldi's rollicking "Linus & Lucy" and the shimmering "Skating" have become rare instrumental Christmas standards, but it's "Christmastime Is Here" that indelibly meshes with images of a sunken-hearted Charlie Brown. The song was also recorded with vocal accompaniment by a children's choir, but it doesn't have the same pull as the majestically melancholy jazz instrumental. It's also used to good effect in wintry scenes from The Royal Tenenbaums.
Jose Feliciano, "Feliz Navidad"
Jose Feliciano was born blind in Puerto Rico and moved to New York City's Spanish Harlem as a child. A prodigiously talented guitarist with an appetite for everything from classical music to bop to rock and beyond, Feliciano first broke out in the N.Y. folk scene, and was also embraced by jazz audiences. In 1968 he crossed over as a pop star with a Latin recasting of "Light My Fire," but his career was damaged when he became the first performer to transform the structure of the national anthem at the World Series (something that sports fans are used to experiencing these days). Feliciano's Latin recasting of "The Star-Spangled Banner" effectively got him blacklisted from a majority of American airwaves until his 1970 bilingual Christmas album, Feliz Navidad, returned him to the country's good graces. The title track, which Feliciano has described as a "bridge between the two cultures that are so dear to me," earned him heavy radio play in the U.S., and it went on to become the biggest Christmas song in the Spanish-speaking world (it has also entered the Top 25 of the entire globe's most popular Christmas songs).
John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime"
John Lennon was a self-proclaimed TV addict and a lover of commercial jingles and advertising slogans. He and Yoko put up Christmas billboards in 1969 that read (in part) "WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It)." In 1971, Lennon and Ono turned the slogan into a song, which went Top 5 and has gone from being seen as controversial to being widely covered. Maybe the sentiments seemed corny in the post-Vietnam War era, but they are sadly timely once again. Paul McCartney, usually the more sonically experimental ex-Beatle, was deep in his oddly overlooked synth-pop period when he cut "Wonderful Christmastime" in 1979. The more practical of the two, Macca goes for the clear-eyed holiday sentiment that "The party's on/ The spirits up/ We're here tonight/ And that's enough." Macca's single didn't originally chart in the U.S. (it was probably too weird and synthy for American radio at the time), but by the early-'80s era of the Thompson Twins, Cyndi Lauper and Duran Duran, it no longer sounded out of place on the radio. Today, it's much covered by indie pop bands and electronic acts.