the business of christmas music -- 12/1/15

Today's selection -- from The B Side by Ben Yagoda. Christmas music has long been big business for the recording industry:

"Seasonal songs [became a recording industry] commodity, especially when it came to the big kahuna of seasons. The trailblazer was Crosby's record of Berlin's 'White Christmas,' which annually made the top ten from 1942 through 1949 and topped out at number thirteen the next two years. The example was impossible for songwriters, publishers, and A&R men to ignore, and they made the postwar years the heyday of the holiday novelty number, producing scores of contenders each year. The most direct imitation of Berlin was 'Blue Christmas,' a country-and-western hit for Ernest Tubb in 1950 and for Elvis Presley seven years after that. But it turned out that the most successful Christmas records tended to have two common qualities: catchy, upbeat melodies and imagined unlikely scenarios for anthropomorphized yuletide characters. 'Frosty the Snowman' was a triumph in 1950 for the cowboy turned mainstream singer Gene Autry, and 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' for thirteen-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1952. The biggest Christmas song of all came about with Johnny Marks's 'Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' Gene Autry's recording, released by Columbia just before Mitch Miller's arrival at the label, shot to number one and had impressive legs.

Bing Crosby

"In 1950, Paramount was putting together a Bob Hope movie called The Lemon Drop Kid; based on a Damon Runyon story, it was an obvious attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Frank Loesser's Broadway hit Guys and Dolls. It was set in New York at Christmas, and the studio asked Livingston and Evans for a holiday number. Ever the efficient and compliant craftsmen -- and aware that their contract was up for renewal in a brutal time for studio songwriters -- they produced a simple but memorable song called 'Tinkle Bells,' about the Salvation Army workers on busy city streets. When Jay told his wife about it she said, 'Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word 'tinkle' means to most people?' The boys kept the melody and changed title to 'Silver Bells.' Bing Crosby and Carol Richards's recording, released before the film, was so popular that the studio called Hope co-star Marilyn Maxwell into the studio to reshoot a more elaborate production number. Hope made 'Silver Bells' his Christmas theme, performing it every year on his holiday television special. The website devoted to Ray Evans's legacy website lists 224 recordings of a song, from Clay Aiken through Stevie Wonder. And, yes, their contract was renewed.

"Another postwar holiday hit was 'The Christmas Song,' which is sometimes known by its opening line, 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.' Mel Tormé and Bob Wells had written it back in 1944, and it shared some of the wartime melancholy of Berlin's own chestnut and 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.' The first recording was by King Cole Trio, a jazz combo consisting of guitar, bass, and Nat King Cole on piano. The sharp-eared Johnny Mercer signed the group after cofounding Capitol Records, and the group produced jump jazz of the highest order, often featuring Cole's intimate, precise, and swinging vocals. Through 1946, the group charted with a half-dozen numbers, including 'Straighten Up and Fly Right' and '(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.' But they didn't crack the top ten until they replaced swing with sentiment. That word was part of the title of their first big hit, '(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,' which was number one for six consecutive weeks in the fall of 1946. 'The Christmas Song' was originally recorded with just the trio. But Cole, shrewd about the market, insisted on a new session, with strings and a harp. That version became a perennial classic."


Ben Yagoda


The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song


Riverhead Hardcover


Copyright 2015 by Ben Yagoda


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