Dozens of new Christmas albums are released every year. Nearly all of those albums are comprised mostly of covers of traditional Christmas carols or popular holiday songs, with one or two original tunes thrown in for good measure. While nearly every artist tries to put an original spin on the well-worn classics, many of our favorite holiday tunes are already linked to a particular artist.
For example, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” has been recorded many, many times, but the version by Nat “King” Cole remains the definitive one. In much the same way, “Feliz Navidad” will always be Jose Feliciano’s holiday song. And no matter who records it in the future, “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” will always remain a John Lennon and Yoko Ono wish for peace.
There are, however, a handful of holiday songs that have been commercially successful for more than one artist. The difference is usually the arrangement. In other words, it’s the same song, but a different tune.
Here are three classic Christmas songs that were successfully recorded in decidedly different versions.
One of the most melancholy Christmas songs ever recorded is Judy Garland’s original version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1943, and featured in the 1944 film “Meet Me In St. Louis,” the song is a sad wish and a prayer for better times to come. In its first draft, the song was deemed a bit too sad.
When presented with the original version of the song, Garland, her co-star Tom Drake and director Vincente Minnelli complained that the song was depressing. Garland pointed out that the minor key melody made the song sound sad, and the scene it was to be sung in the film was even sadder. With the original lyrics, she worried that the audience would be so depressed they would start leaving the theater.
Decide for yourself if she was right. Here are the original lyrics:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas /
It may be your last /
Next year we may all be living in the past”
Or how about this festive line?:
“No good times like the olden days /
Happy golden days of yore /
Faithful friends who were dear to us /
Will be near to us no more.”
Though he resisted, lyricist Hugh Martin eventually made several changes to make the tone of the song a bit more hopeful. For example, the lines:
“It may be your last /
Next year we may all be living in the past”
“Let your heart be light /
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight”
Judy Garland recorded the song with the new lyrics. But even with the changes, the song was still too melancholy for some.
In 1957, Frank Sinatra wanted to use the song for a holiday album he was recording entitled “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.” Sinatra loved the song, and had already recorded a version for his 1948 album “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” that mirrored Garland’s melancholy version. But since his album’s working title was “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra,” Sinatra asked Martin to revise the song, especially the line, "Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow.”
He reportedly asked Martin, “Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?”
Martin changed the lyrics, and, with a few exceptions, it is usually this “happier” version that has been covered year after year.
Here are a few of the original verses, with the “happier” substituted lyrics in parentheses:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas /
Let your heart be light /
Next year all (From now on) our troubles will be out of sight.”
“Someday soon (Through the years) we all will be together /
If the fates allow /
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow (Hang a shining star upon the highest bough) /
So (And) have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
The ever-popular “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written in 1934 by J. Fred (John Frederick) Coots and Haven Gillespie.
The story goes that Gillespie wrote a draft of the lyrics and presented them to Coots, who was able to compose the melody in ten minutes. After it was refined and finished, Coots brought the song to his publisher, Leo Feist Inc. They liked it, but considered it strictly a children’s song and did not expect much from it.
Coots offered the song to singer Eddie Cantor, who debuted it on his radio show in November 1934. It became an instant hit. The morning after the radio show there were orders for 100,000 copies of sheet music, and, by Christmas, sales had passed 400,000.
The original arrangement was recorded in popular versions by Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters in 1947, Frank Sinatra in 1948, and Perry Como in 1959. The Four Seasons recorded a stylized rock version in 1962 that hit #23 on the Billboard charts.
A big change for “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” occurred with its appearance on “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.” Spector wrote an arrangement of the song for the girl group the Crystals that altered the chorus. It stretches the first syllable of the word “Santa” in the chorus, rather than the word “town” at the end of the line.
The Jackson 5 used the Spector arrangement for their 1970 Christmas album, but most famously, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded a live version of the song in 1975 using the arrangement. The song was officially released in 1985 as a B-side to "My Hometown," a single from the “Born in the U.S.A.” album, but by then the song had already become a popular holiday favorite on FM radio stations around the country. Both versions are still used, but the Phil Spector arrangement is favored by pop, rock, and R&B artists.
Bing Crosby's recording of “White Christmas” is not only the most popular Christmas song ever recorded, it is by most counts the best‑selling single in recording history, having sold over 50 million copies to date. Interestingly, in composing “White Christmas,” Irving Berlin didn't specifically set out to write a Christmas hit.
While writing the tunes for the film “Holiday Inn,” he was obliged to create a song for every official holiday of the year. “White Christmas” was one of the bunch, although it’s most likely that Berlin had written the song months or even years earlier and had it stored away for future use. Bing Crosby premiered the song on his NBC radio show, the “Kraft Music Hall,” on December 25, 1941. Unfortunately, no recording of this broadcast survived World War II.
Crosby formally recorded the song for Decca Records on May 29, 1942, with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra. The film "Holiday Inn" was released in August that year. A song of peace and yearning for home, “White Christmas,” connected with a war-torn public during the darkest days of World War II. By the end of the War it had become the biggest-selling single of all time. Crosby’s recording hit the charts on Oct. 3, 1942, and rose to #1 on Oct. 31, where it stayed for eleven weeks. The song topped the charts again in 1945 and January 1947, and has returned to the Top-40 over a dozen times since.
The most familiar version of “White Christmas” is not the one that Crosby recorded in 1942. The 1942 master was damaged through frequent use, so Bing was called back to the Decca studios on March 19, 1947, to re-record “White Christmas.” Every effort was made to reproduce the original Decca recording session, including enlisting the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers. The resulting re-issue is the one that has become most familiar to the public.
Many of Crosby’s contemporaries and followers, including Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, and Dean Martin recorded “White Christmas” with a similar arrangement. In 1954, however, the Drifters recorded an upbeat, R&B/doo-wop version showcasing lead singer Clyde McPhatter and the bass vocals of Bill Pinkney in a version that is radically different from the original. The song broke into the Top-100 of Billboard’s pop chart, and went Top-10 on the R&B chart.
Elvis Presley liked the Drifters’ version of “White Christmas,” and recorded a similar version for his 1957 release, “Elvis’ Christmas Album.” When composer Irving Berlin heard Elvis’ recording, however, he tried to have the song, and the entire album, banned from radio airplay.
Berlin referred to the song as a “profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard,” and ordered his staff in New York to telephone radio stations across the country, demanding the song be discontinued from radio play.
Apparently, Berlin was unfamiliar with the Drifters’ version, which was played mainly on black radio stations at the time. While most U.S. radio stations ignored Berlin's request, at least one disc jockey was fired for playing a song from the album, and most Canadian stations refused to play the album.
Today, the original arrangement remains the most popular, but artists like Michael Buble have recorded “White Christmas” using the Drifters’ arrangement in recent years as well.
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