do Holly Jolly Christmas sung by Burl Ives, Rockin' Around
The Christmas Tree sung by Brenda Lee, and Rudolph The Red-Nosed
Reindeer sung by Gene Autry all have in common? Yes they're
all traditional pop tunes replayed every Holiday Season, and yes
they've all been recorded many many times by dozens of other artists,
but that's not the answer I'm looking for. Nope. The answer I'm
looking for is that all three songs were composed by one man- -Johnny
may know the story of Rudolph. Before he became a major league
baseball team owner (The American League's Anaheim Angels) and broadcast
mogul (many radio and TV stations), Gene Autry was not only a box
office star of Saturday Matinee Oaters (Westerns), he was a major
recording artist- -Had the number one hit on You Are My Sunshine
back in the early thirties. (The song's composer, The Two-Time Governor
of Louisiana, Jimmie Davis, just recently passed away at the age
of 101.) One sometimes forgets that standards have composers! (And
that composers have standards!!) Just for your catalogue of "Best
Of" albums, I would suggest you add Gene's Greatest Hits- -impeccably
played and sung "Western Swing" of the thirties and forties- -The
real deal --Lots of hits- -And because so many were recorded for
movie soundtracks, the recordings are excellent, having been recorded
on movie soundstages in the old Hollywood "three-track" system.
back in 1949, Gene was in the studio to record four songs (remember-
-all live in those days) and they had cut three, and still had a
block of their time not used up (How often does THAT happen!!).
So they started to talk over which of several submissions they might
do to fill the time. They figured the song would probably end up
on the "B" side of the record (78 rpms in those days) so it didn't
much matter. Gene's wife, Ina Mae, was at the session, and while
she wasn't officially part of the creative team, she was partial
to one of the songs which had been discussed and rejected. Well,
you can guess the rest. Nobody involved wanted to do Rudolph,
but to please the Missus, Gene finally gave in and said "Okay".
What did it matter? It was only going to be a "B" side, not an "A"cut.
Thank you Mrs Autry!!
Marks enjoyed considerable success in the "Holiday Music" field
his entire career. The Brenda Lee original cut in 1958 continued
to chart every year for the next few years, as do all the big-time
seasonal standards. White Christmas by Bing Crosby, written
by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn in 1942, won the
Academy Award for Best Song, and continued to chart for the following
TWENTY years, something NO OTHER SONG has ever come close to doing.
It was for all of those years and most since, the biggest selling
single ever (over 30 million copies).
guess the point is that good holiday songs have staying power. Angels
We Have Heard On High wins for all-time longevity. Telesphorus,
Bishop of Rome, A.D. 129! That's right ONE-TWENTY-NINE. Make that
One-Thousand-Eight-Hundred-Seventy-One years ago. Now THAT'S staying
power. (Glor-or-i-or-ior-ia!!) Makes a piker out of Greensleeves,
which, as What Child Is This? only dates from 1642, or the
Coventry Carol which first appeared in 1591, or Good Christian
Men Rejoice, by John Weddeburn, 1540. Relative newcomers such
as Handel's Joy To The World (1742), or Jingle Bells,
written by a Unitarian Minister named John Pierpont born in 1785
hardly deserve a mention!!
think I've made my point. You want to write a hit with staying power?
no longer an easy thing to do, not that writing a hit ever was.
Almost all of the good pop Holiday tunes were written during one
twenty-five year period, from about 1940 until 1965- -A few before,
a few since, but most of the ones we sing every year were written
then. Why? Hmmm…It's a bit complicated and it's all cultural- -what
we were then and what we've become. Check the copyrights and you'll
see I'm right.
the invention and popularity of the phonograph about a hundred years
ago, all "hits" were available only as sheet music (DUH!), dating
back about fifty years before that. Listen To The Mocking Bird
was the big hit of 1854, and is generally thought to be our first
Number One Hit song. Before that there were favorites, but nobody
kept track of sales. Both Stephen Foster (Old Folks At Home,
Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races) and Daniel Emmett (Dixie)
sheet music began to be demonstrated by piano players and singers
along New York's "Tin Pan Alley" in the 1890s, and the concept of
new hit songs took off, it was mostly for inclusion in popular live
vaudeville reviews. It was still a decade or two before radio would
make songs into instant national classics. By the end of the 1920s,
established radio performers and talking pictures created a demand
for new material at a pace never before seen. And this began to
include seasonal Holiday music. At first, pop artists such as Bing
Crosby who were Christian did smooth renditions of the established
Christmas Carols. Others did "winter" tunes, such as Jingle Bells,
but there was no real pop Holiday Hit until 1934 when J F Coots'
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town was a smash. A few tunes followed
in the next few years, but it wasn't until The War years, when longing
for home and hearth was at its peak during the Holiday Season, that
tunes about the season really began to arrive EVERY season. Some,
like 1946's Mel Torme classic The Christmas Song, better
known by its first line "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire",
will no doubt be sung for centuries to come, just as are all the
other biggies mentioned earlier. I'm not so sure about all the Christmas
Classics during that 25 year period.
just for yuks, what do you suppose the biggest-selling hit was during
that time period, not counting Rudolph and White Christmas,
as Casey Kasem would say "During the rock era"? Yup. You feared
it was true: The Chipmunk Song from 1958. Ross Bagdasarian
recording as David Seville, had had a novelty hit the year before
called The Witch Doctor in which he used the variable speed
of a reel-to-reel tape recorder to pitch his voice into the stratosphere,
and sing along with himself. He duplicated the effect the next Christmas,
more correctly TRIP-licated the effect, to create Simon, Theodore,
and Alvin- -The Chipmunks. This smash novelty hit on Liberty Records
won three Grammy awards, and was the only Number One Hit of the
"rock era". Other mainstays, such as Jingle Bell Rock by
Bobby Helms, charted for many years after its debut in 1957, but
never peaked any higher than Number Six in Billboard. Oh, and you
should know this- -The names of the three top executives at Liberty
Records in 1958? Right! Simon, Theodore, and Alvin.
the sixties progressed, a secularism permeated the culture, so that
even though The Beatles made Christmas greeting recordings to play
on radio, most acts of the newer rock idiom did not make Christmas
albums, although they still may have released their biggest product
of the year just in time for Holiday gift-giving. Country and Adult
Contemporary artists still did Christmas albums, but because of
the segmenting of radio formats during the seventies and eighties
and today, you are less likely to hear actual new Christmas or Holiday
music on a regular basis in any given year as once was the case
before radio chopped itself into "Country", "CHR", "Alternative",
"Classic Rock", "Hot AC" and whatever else. For those too young
to remember, Top Forty music stations of thirty years ago played
a great variety of music all mixed together- -they all did- -except
jazz or classical- -so that you often had to sit through, say, Al
Martino to get to a Rolling Stones song. The new song about "AM
Radio" by Everclear tells this story very well.
when you think there's no way to ever do something new, someone
"Lets The Dogs Out" or urges you to "Always Wear Sunscreen", or
whatever, so it's up to you. Writing a song this Holiday Season
that you can pitch for next year could be your greatest present
to yourself. Go for it.
by the way, Happy Holidays.