Friday, December 1, 2006

Christmas hits of the 50s



Gene Autry, along with Roy Rogers, was the best known singing cowboys from movies and television. Besides Autry’s many popular western hits, like "Back in the Saddle Again," Gene also sang several perennial Christmas song classics including "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," written by songwriter Johnny Marks in 1949. A year later Gene Autry was back in the charts with “Frosty the snowman”, then later he co-wrote with Oakley Haldeman, "Here Comes Santa Claus."



UK song writer Tommie Conner could not get anyone in the UK to record his Christmas song so he went to the US and found a 12 year old student from the Hollywood School for Children. Jimmy Boyd’s version of “I saw mummy kissing Santa Clause” sold 700,000 in ten days in 1952; it became a record industry phenomenon selling over two and a half million records in its first month’s release . “I saw mummy kissing Santa Clause” has reportedly sold over 60,000,000 records since its initial release. Boyd tried to repeat his initial success but never quite made it. The Beverly Sisters (UK) had a hit with their version in 1953.



“White Christmas”, is by far the most popular Christmas recording ever. Written by Irvin Berlin (he also wrote God Bless America and many, many other Broadway hits) in early 1940, the original verse poked fun at people who lived in the sun (California) and yearned for the snow at Christmas. The verse was later dropped. "White Christmas" was introduced by Bing Crosby in the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. In the film, he actually sings it in a duet with Marjorie Reynolds. In 1952 an instrumental version by Mantovani and his Orchestra went to number one in the UK.



Bing Crosby had other Christmas hits including “Silent Night “ which went to Number One in the UK (1952). This is a rather lovely rendition of the nineteenth century carol, and certainly one of my favourites.



Ertha Kitt was once described by Orson Wells as "the most exciting woman in the world", enjoyed a Christmas hit with “Santa Baby”, in 1953. To date this is probably the sexiest Christmas song ever.



In 1955 Disneyland and McDonalds opened their doors for the first time and Barry Gordon aged six recorded “Nuttin for Christmas” and it was released as the Festive Season novelty, the record sold over 2 million copies to become Number 1, and is still listed as one of the top ten best-selling Christmas records of all time.



Dickie Valentine (The Robbie Williams of the 50s), and UK nabob of song saw the commercial potential of the Christmas season and had two Christmas hits, “Christmas Alphabet “ UK 1955, and “Christmas Island” UK 1956.



Elvis Presley was not slow and in 1957 released a Christmas album. Ironically it took until 1963 to reach the million sales mark. Among the mixture of twelve traditional carols and songs on Elvis' Christmas Album are four recorded earlier by Bing Crosby and Gene Autry: "Here Comes Santa Claus," "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Silent Night," and "White Christmas." It may have been too soon for the Young Pretender to displace the Old Guard, but that did not stop him from having a Christmas hit in the UK , “Santa bring my baby back to me” topped the UK Christmas charts in 1957. "Blue Christmas." (written in 1945 by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson) would eventually be the biggest Christmas hit for the King, but that did not take place until, 1964.



Elvis may have awakened Tin Pan Alley to the financial benefits of the novelty song and the kids demanded it be in Rock’n’Roll mode so when Bobby Helms released “Jingle Bell Rock” in 1958 it could not fail to be a hit. “Jingle Bell Rock “ re-appeared on the charts four of the following five years to become an all-time Christmas classic.



The next Christmas hit came from an entirely different quarter. Harry Belafonti had brought Jamaica's calypso beat to mainstream audiences and was very popular. He was given a TV Spectacular and sang "Mary's Boy Child," It went straight to number one in the UK.



The end of the decade saw Russ Conway emerge as piano player extraordinaire. He lost the tip of one of his fingers which he always attributed to his unique piano playing style. 1959 was the zenith of his chart success and much of this was due to him writing his own material. “Snow Coach”, took the Brits by storm and was the last Christmas hit of the 50s.



Worth a listen:
Gene Autry
Rudolph the red nosed reindeer (1949)
Frosty the snowman (1951)

Jimmy Boyd
I saw mummy kissing santa claus (1952)

Mantovani and his Orchestra
White Christmas December (1952)

Bing Crosby
Silent Night (1952)

Ertha Kitt
Santa Baby (1953)

Barry Gordon
Nuttin’ for Christmas 1955

Dickie Valentine
Christmas Alphabet (1955)

Elvis Presley
Santa bring my baby back (to me) (1957)

Boby Helms
Jingle Bell Rock (1958)

Harry Belafonte
Mary’s boy child 1958

Russ Conway
Snow Coach (1959)

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