Composer Irving Berlin had a habit of staying up all night, writing songs. According to Mark Steyn’s A Song for the Season, Berlin summonsed his secretary one morning in 1940 saying: ‘Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!’
That tune was White Christmas, which if you think about it, must have been a challenging assignment for the Jewish-born composer. The song first surfaced in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. It was not an immediate success, but became a major hit by the end of 1942 as its wistful melancholia and homely images resonated with US forces caught up in WWII.
White Christmas is officially the best-selling song of all time (although there was a debate about that when Elton John recorded Candle in the Wind as a tribute to Lady Di). Fifty million copies of Bing’s version – which features a quaint second verse in which Bing does solo whistling – were sold. There have been 100 million copies sold, once the 632 cover versions are taken into account (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, P.J. Proby, Perry Como, Darlene Love, The Drifters, Karen Carpenter, Lady Gaga, the Crash Test Dummies and the Chicago Gay Men’s Choir, to name but a few). Full list at
According to songfacts, though most songwriters would have done hand-stands if Elvis Presley recorded anything they wrote, Berlin called the King’s 1957 cover a “profane parody”. His staffers were told to call radio stations and ask them not to play it.
Darlene Love was one of the few to sing Berlin’s original first verse (with its images of Los Angeles in summertime), on Phil Spector’s 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You. The first verse is missing from most popular versions including Crosby’s hit, which was initially released on a 78 record with its endearing opening line, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
For the benefit of people under 60, a 78 was a heavy record made of shellac with one song on each side. It was played at 78 revolutions per minute, which accounted for the ‘scrtch scrtch’ sound, which 50 years later was adopted by DJs like a new idea.
My pop music history contact, Franky’s Dad, takes eclecticism to high art by playing two records on Christmas Day, the aforementioned Spector album and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. If you’re not familiar with Spector’s album, it is a collection of well-known Christmas songs sung by groups like the Ronettes and The Crystals, orchestrated with Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. It is said that a then unknown Cher features on backing vocals. The album has lasted and you can even find a downloadable version on Amazon.
As we are now straying into Bah Humbug territory, here’s the tip: if you are faithful to the Christian traditions of Christmas or are just sentimental about it, do not click on the links marked BH as they may offend.
There are myriad examples of musicians taking the piss and lapsing into bad taste and obscenity at Christmas-time. Among them are songs by Kevin Bloody Wilson, Tenacious D, Eric Idle, Weird Al Jankovic, Spinal Tap and Ren and Stimpy. Look them up if you must.
The thing about writing a Christmas song, be it melodic schmaltz like White Christmas or nuanced satire like the 2015 offering by Kate Miller Heidke and The Beards, there’s the potential there for a recurring earner.
In the movie About a Boy, Hugh Grant plays dissolute playboy Will Freeman, who gets by on the royalties from his late father’s one-off Christmas song, Santa’s Super Sleigh. The film was based on a book by Nick Hornby and subsequently spawned a TV series which only vaguely follows the plot line.
The real life royalty winner, White Christmas ($A50 million), is topped in earnings status only by Happy Birthday, written in 1893 by the Hill Sisters and said to have earned $A62 million in royalties, according to a BBC4 documentary. Even if those figures look impressive, that’s not what you’d call huge earnings for the songwriter. The earnings for Irving Berlin and his heirs from that one song amount to $480,000 a year since 1940.
Kate Miller-Heidke’s I’m Growing a Beard…, recorded with Melbourne band The Beards, despite its bouncy insouciance, can be interpreted as a feminist rant against the waxing fad (which is hopefully waning), but also has a go at blokes who wax (so they can wear spandex and go bike riding). Fear not, it’s for a good cause. If you pay for a download of the song (BH), the money goes to Bowel Cancer Australia.
If you were wondering why Christmas songs are cluttering my mind this particular Friday, our acapella choir, Tapestry, has a concert scheduled for this Sunday. We had a warm-up on Wednesday at the local nursing home.
Our repertoire is sufficiently high-brow to please the discerning music lover (Veni Veni Emmanuel, How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a beautiful Australian carol The Silver Stars, but with some old chestnuts tossed in – Rudolph and We Wish You A Merry Christmas).
If you dig around, you’ll find secular songs which have become popular for their own unique spin on Christmas. Franky’s Dad, who maintains a pop trivia website nominated Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy. You know the one: Joe’s in prison and he’s written to his brother Dan to make sure the gravy gets made right, although lots of other family emotions are stirred in with the flour, salt, red wine and tomato sauce. Likewise, Shane McGowan and Kirsty MacCall’s Fairytale of New York takes emotions on a sleigh ride. If it’s a message of peace you’re after, John and Yoko’s So This is Christmas is just about right, even if it sounds a lot like Stewball.
Twisted Sister’s Heavy Metal Christmas is, dare I suggest, more entertaining than any of the excruciating versions of TTDOC inflicted upon us by well-meaning carollers who persist with all 12 verses (and the five golden rings). BH
And for the pianists among the FOMM readership (there’s at least 40 exponents of the piano forte), here’s a Boxing Day challenge – an arrangement of Sleigh Ride in 7/8 time by John Eidsvoog.
Ah yes, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a cat song, so we offer this one, also curated by Huffington Post. Just to prove that all the best ideas originated in New Zealand (Neil Finn, whitebait, pavlova, Buzz Bars, jet boats, me (actually, he’s originally a Scot – Ed) , the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band), editing animal noises into something approaching a melody was done to good effect in the 1960s by the Ashley Clinton Sheep’s Choir. The latter’s classic version of Po Kare Kare Ana is still floating around on a 2012 Kiwiana compilation.
This is attributed to the Jingle Cats – of necessity an instrumental.
Wishing you all the best for Christmas and 2016. Friday on My Mind returns on January 8.