“Let’s have a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas just like we used to know”*
Actually it all started with Bing Crosby. But what, in popular music, didn’t? Last year, when “Silent Night” turned 200, I wrote that Crosby was initially hesitant to record music connected to such a traditionally sacred holiday as Christmas but once he did many artists followed suit, though it took a few years for the practice to catch on.
Bing recorded “Silent Night” and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” in the early 1940’s and they were both significant hits. How significant? To this day, these two songs by Bing still rank among the biggest-selling records of all-time. And while other singers of Crosby’s ilk soon followed his lead – there are excellent Christmas songs recorded by big bands – it was another dozen years before Christmas music performed by pop artists became commonplace.
By the end of the 1940’s, though, we can see examples of rhythm and blues artists cutting songs of the season, some in their own style and some more traditional. By the dawn of the 1950’s, the trend became popular enough that these records were showing up on the R&B charts and even the pop charts. And here’s an interesting thing about Christmas music. When done well, these records were hits and enjoyed chart runs in November, through December and even into January, when all the festivities are over. Often, though, the same records would be released the following season and ride the charts again. Some of the bigger Christmas records charted for four or five Christmases after they were initially released. The fact that these songs began attaining evergreen status made the practice popular with many artists.
I – being a simple, innocent soul – always like to think that artists record Christmas music because of their love of the season. Surely they themselves have cherished memories of Christmases past when they and their families would sing carols and enjoy many of the traditions of the season. When these singers go into the studio to record “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bells”, a large part of the motivation comes from their desire to contribute their voices to the Christmas music canon and to basically pay homage to the season. But I have to admit that many of them must have been thinking that, if they recorded a catchy tune, they would have a market for that tune every, single year. Every Christmas, their song would be bought, played on the radio and appear on the charts. Christmas music is good business, too.
Let’s take a look at some of these perennial chestnuts, some you know well and some you may have missed. I’ve actually chosen twelve songs – so it’s the “Twelve Songs of Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas”.
Merry Christmas, Baby (1947) — Our earliest recording is a rhythm and blues number by Johnny Moore’s 3 Blazers featuring pianist Charles Brown. While Johnny Moore has been lost to the mists of time, it is Brown who is revered today as the creator of this mellow number. Songwriter Lou Baxter needed to have one of his songs recorded so he could raise the money for an operation he needed. Brown looked through a stack of Baxter’s songs and chose “Merry Christmas, Baby”, adding his own embellishments. Baxter then gave the song to his friend, Moore, who Brown played with; it is Moore, as the band leader, who is credited as co-writer with Baxter. “Merry Christmas, Baby” has become a Christmas standard, being recorded countless times by artists such as Chuck Berry, Booker T. and the MG’s, Mae West (?!), Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King, Billy Idol, Sheryl Crow, Donna Loren, the Monkees and John Legend. Bonnie Raitt helped revive Brown’s career in the late 1980’s and she and Brown duet on “Merry Christmas, Baby” on the charity album A Very Special Christmas 2.
White Christmas (1949, 1954) — The Ravens were an influential vocal group in the mold of the Ink Spots and enjoyed success in the early days of the R&B charts. In 1949, they lent their dulcet tones to one of the most oft-recorded songs in history. The Ravens’ bass singer, Jimmy Ricks, is featured and the arrangement was utilized later on for a couple of notable recordings. It reached #9 on the rhythm and blues charts in January of ’50 which surprises me – Christmas was over for that year! Later in 1950, the Ravens hit with “Count Every Star”.
In 1954, the Drifters took “White Christmas” to #2 R&B. This version featured on lead the great Clyde McPhatter, who would go on to have a successful solo career. The Drifters adopted the arrangement used by the Ravens with some added touches which is significant because, two years later, Elvis Presley would record “White Christmas” in a style that borrowed heavily from the Drifters’. Presley’s recording raised the ire of composer Irving Berlin who called it a “profane parody”. Berlin would never have heard the two earlier versions we’ve mentioned because they had only been played on “black” radio stations. Canadian Michael Bublé used the Drifters’ arrangement on his version, a duet with fellow Canuck Shania Twain on Bublé’s 2011 album Christmas. You could argue, then, that the anonymous arranger of the Raven’s 1949 version had his work performed 62 years later by Bublé and Twain.
Hey Santa Claus (1953) — The Moonglows are a legendary doo-wop group owing to their timeless 1954 recording of “Sincerely”. But it’s the second single they ever released we look at here. “Hey Santa Claus” was the B side of another great Christmas song, “Just a Lonely Christmas”. I hate to admit that I first heard “Hey Santa Claus” when it was used in the film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).
A Christmas Prayer (1955) — The Penguins are another doo-wop group with an iconic recording. Their “Earth Angel” is one of the pillars of this golden era. The pleasant “A Christmas Prayer” was their third single.
Jingle Bell Rock (1957) — Along with “Blue Christmas”, this record by Bobby Helms is perhaps the most enduring country/rockabilly Christmas song ever. Co-written by an advertising man, “Jingle Bell Rock” was a hit for Helms, entering various charts and still charting in January (again after Christmas!) of ’58. Get this, though; Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock” was the #8 song in the US in January…of 2019!! This means that this song holds the record for taking the longest time – after initially entering Billboard’s Hot 100 chart – to make it to the Top Ten; 60 years, four months and two weeks. This song has also been a hit for Hall and Oates and many country artists.
It’s Christmas Once Again (1957) — Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers is another notable act from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. They were unique in that lead singer Lymon was barely 14 years old when the group had a hit with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. Frankie’s handlers began to separate him from the Teenagers and the sedate and gentle “It’s Christmas Once Again” was the B side of Frank’s second solo single. By this time, however, poor Frankie was addicted to heroin. Success eluded Lymon as a solo artist and he died of a heroin overdose in 1968 in Harlem. He was only 25.
Run, Rudolph, Run (1958) — Johnny Marks gave the world “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and then penned these further adventures of Santa’s lead man. Chuck Berry recorded “Run, Rudolph, Run” (commas optional) in 1958 and it has been heard every Christmas since then. As a basic 12-bar blues work-out, this tune lends itself easily to a driving rock treatment and has been recorded countless times; Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Ray Cyrus, Sheryl Crow, Canadian Bryan Adams, Lulu, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Keith Richards, Jimmy Buffett and many, many others.
The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)  — Alvin and the Chipmunks were a creation of David Seville (stage name of Ross Bagdasarian). Seville himself sang the songs credited to his cartoon creation, varying the tape speeds to come up with the different voices of Alvin, Simon and Theodore. While “Christmas Don’t Be Late” from 1958 could be considered just a “novelty song” – and the Chipmunks themselves a novelty act – this song was incredibly popular and successful when first released. It actually hit the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – it is the only Christmas song to do so. It also won – get this – THREE Grammy awards; think of all the great artists who have won less. In the era of downloads, only two other Christmas songs have been downloaded more than this one. Sidebar: watch for Ross Bagdasarian playing the piano-playing songwriter with Alfred Hitchcock for a butler in Hitch’s Rear Window.
Santa Won’t Be Blue This Christmas (1960) — Jimmy Charles gave us the great “A Million to One” and for that we will always be grateful. That same year of 1960, he released two Christmas records, the first being “Santa Won’t Be Blue” b/w “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and the second was a song called “Little White Mouse Called Steve” (?!). “Santa Won’t Be Blue” is a charming number that tells of a silly lovers quarrel that made Saint Nick sad when he caught wind of it. But the kids have patched things up and this will make Santa happy when he arrives this Christmas Eve. Charles is still alive as of this writing, aged 77.
Merry Twist-mas (1961) — The Marcels are another beloved act from the golden age. Their version of “Blue Moon” from 1961 has few parallels when we discuss the best records of this era. Me, I always think 1961 is late for the arrival of such a doo-wop standard but I have learned that this genre was very much alive as the ’50’s gave way to the ’60’s. The Marcels did all of their business in the period of 1961-1963 and the first of these years saw them release 5 singles, the last of which was “Merry Twist-mas”. As the name implies, it was a Twist-based song that simply celebrated the joy of the season in a way that the kids of the day could relate to. This is a delightful little nugget from the past.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (1958) — And here’s Johnny Marks again. Although he was Jewish, Marks wrote many Christmas songs. We’ve already mentioned a couple and now we add to the list with “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and this song that Brenda Lee – all of 13 years old – recorded in 1958. Nashville legends Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph play on this recording. It took until 1960 – when Lee became a big star – for the song to catch on, reaching #14 that year. 2014 started a new era that no longer kept a separate chart for Christmas music and that year “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” found itself on the Hot 100 chart again after fifty years; it has shown up on this chart every year since, peaking at #9 in 2018. This helps illustrate the “evergreen” point I’m hoping to make here – this 60 year old Brenda Lee song was actually in the Top Ten again. In the era of music downloads, “Rockin’ Around” is the 5th most downloaded Christmas song of all time.
Santa Claus is Coming (1962) — Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were a popular R&B group who were rock ‘n’ roll pioneers owing to their string of sexually suggestive hits charting the exploits of “Annie” in the early 1950’s. After a dry spell, they re-emerged in 1959 with a hit record, the flip side of which was called “The Twist”. With a little quid pro quo chicanery between record labels and Dick Clark, Chubby Checker put out a version of this song that became iconic, stealing Ballard’s thunder. In 1962, Hank and the Midnighters released a killer 45 containing two excellent Christmas songs. The A side, “Christmas Time for Everyone But Me”, is a grinding number with a stellar vocal from Hank. But the B side is an energetic tune called “Santa Claus is Coming”; “well, I been good, I ain’t been bad. Santa is comin’ and I sure am glad”. I found these two tracks on an R&B Christmas compilation cassette but “Santa Claus is Coming” is hard to find info on as every search of the title references “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”.
This initial period of great rock ‘n’ roll Christmas records also included some of the greatest LPs of Christmas music ever made. Also, the success of the Chipmunks also lead to a plethora of poor novelty Christmas records. Goofy songs at Christmas, though, are excusable as Christmas is a lot about children anyways. Some LP highlights include the biggest-selling Christmas album ever, Elvis’ Christmas Album. Actually one of the biggest selling albums of all-time – never mind Christmas – this record made a huge splash when released in 1957. The kids ate it up though some in the establishment were outraged that a rock ‘n’ roller would attempt venerable Christmas music and also the hymns that were on King’s record. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” from this LP is one of Elvis’ finest recordings.
Johnny Mathis was one of the biggest-selling album artists of this golden era, right up there with Presley and Sinatra. His 1958 record Merry Christmas peaked at #3 in the year of its release and subsequently charted every year for the next 5 Christmases. This fine program of Johnny’s smooth and mellow yuletide offerings has also become an evergreen and one of the biggest-selling Christmas albums.
A lightweight little number I stumbled on a few years ago is Holiday for Teens by the duo Paul and Paula from 1963. This record – while not great – is a charming artifact that takes you right back to this innocent age. I mean, “Holiday Hootenanny”?! Lovely. Listen for “A New Year, A New Ring”. Charming.
The holiday seasons of 1963 and 1964 saw two of the most significant albums ever released in the pop idiom. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector was a unique release by the man who was in the middle of transforming popular music. Producer Spector assembled the artists on his label, Philles Records, and employed his crack team of session musicians to create a patented “Wall of Sound” record of seasonal favourites. It has regularly ranked on lists of the greatest albums ever made. It also bears the sad distinction of having been released on November 22, 1963 – the very day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The first direct descendant of this record came the following year from the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album was built by Brian Wilson in homage to the previous record by Wilson’s hero, Phil Spector. Both of these albums sit at or near the top of the list of great Christmas albums and are considered the prototypical Christmas records.
These formative years for Christmas music have proved to be a golden age for this music. Since the mid-’60’s, other artists have added notable songs to the canon but it seems that every Christmas a lot of us will always come back to songs like the ones we’ve discussed here. You never really get tired of hearing them and the memories they can provide add to them an enduring luster. Evergreens, indeed.
* Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas – George Thorogood & the Destroyers (1983)