By Bill Bronk
Listen closely…and you’ll hear the soothing, tender strains of an angelic, whisper-soft choir, harmonizing in concert with the church-like peal of ringing chimes reverberating in the distance. But hold on to your hat, because that sweet musical interlude is going to be rudely interrupted by a calamitous, in-your-face drum volley by D J Fontana…warning us that something “bad” is gonna happen. And it sure as hell does! As only he can, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, starts wailing away, spitting out Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s bluesy, blistering rock and roll holiday classic:
“Well, it’s Christmas time, pretty baby, and the snow is falling on the ground. Well, it’s Christmas time pretty baby, and the snow is falling down. Well, you be a real good little girl, Santa Claus Is Back In Town”. (Elvis’ Christmas Album, RCA Victor LOC 1035).
In the song, Leiber and Stoller paint a picture of a guy coming in from out of town, hankering to get together with his sweetheart, with him playing the role of Santa. His message is pretty clear: “Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light, Santa Claus is comin’ down your chimney tonight”. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to know what’s gonna happen once he gets there. Recorded in 1957, the song is now considered a Christmas standard. (Further on, we’ll see how Santa’s songs, like this one, fared on the various music charts of the day).
This is certainly not the vision of Santa brought to life by Clement Clark Moore in his classic 1823 Christmastime poem, “A Visit From St Nicholas” (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”), where children, with great anticipation, see sugar plums dancing in their heads. But that just points out how far Christmas music has evolved since the first popular holiday song, “Jingle Bells”, was published by James L Pierpont in 1859. And…in particular, how far songs about Santa Claus, our focus, have come since Benjamin Hanby, in 1864, wrote “Up On The Housetop”, the first ever song devoted to Santa.
Christmas isn’t just for our kids, especially when it comes to the music we like. As we’ll see, Santa Claus is a man for all people… and for kids of all ages. The Leiber and Stoller song noted above is but one example of Santa in action (yeah, it’s a bit salty!) that we’ll see as we journey through the types of popular Christmas fare that we listen to and make a part of our lives. But before we do that, shouldn’t we get to know a little something about Santa himself? Even though he’s been around for a long time and has been a part of just about everyone’s life from birth onward, do most of us have any idea how he became such a beloved Christmastime tradition? How much do we really know about him?
Well…the old boy himself goes back much further than the oldest song named for him, roughly about the year 300 AD. Now, there are many authoritative tomes, both religious and non, about the man’s beginnings…but suffice it to say, this ain’t one of them. Boiled down, it looks like this: Our favorite jolly old elf began his career as Nicholas, a Greek who became the Boy Bishop of Myra (which is now in present-day Turkey). He was known for his generosity, kindness and gift-giving. After his death, through-out Europe and the world he became Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children…and went by many names, including Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Grandfather Frost, Babbo Natale, Kanakaloka, Christ Kind and Sinter Klaas.
Going forward, Kris Kringle was a popular moniker for Saint Nicholas in 1700s America, but eventually Santa Claus, based on the Dutch Sinter Klaas, became the norm. As he evolved from a religious entity into a more secular character through stories and poems, Santa Claus, as America knows him today, got a big boost from Clement Clark Moore’s classic poem, but along the way Moore was more-than-a-little influenced by Washington Irving, a popular American writer who wrote A Knickerbocker’s History of New York in 1809. In the book, Irving was the first to show a chubby, bearded, pipe smoking Saint Nicholas who lays his fingers beside his nose, slides down chimneys and flies in a wagon over rooftops on his way to deliver presents to good boys and girls.
In 1821, about a decade later, before Moore wrote his epic, another poem was anonymously published titled, “The Children’s Friend”. The 16 page booklet includes an illustration of Santa in a sleigh filled with goodies, hitched to a reindeer and getting ready to take flight. Santa and his sleigh are sitting atop a roof next to a chimney. Among his other wonderfully original ideas, Moore’s tale used a flying sleigh instead of a wagon as seen in Washington’s story and added 7 more reindeer than appeared in “The Children’s Friend”….even giving them all names. How’s that for using your imagination!
Over the next 5 decades, Santa Claus’ entry into American culture and family life would eventually make him an indispensible part of our Christmas holiday celebrations. His physical appearance, his “image” though, left something to be desired early on, so he got a do-over of sorts in 1870 from Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist, who pictured Santa as described in Moore’s poem, but added other characteristics that enhanced Santa’s likeness and believability (see http://www.goldminemag.com/article/reindeer-tale-hail-hail-rudolph). A more modern, and now quite famous Santa, known around the world, was created by illustrator Haddon Sundblom for the Coca Cola company in the 1930s and continues to grace Coca Cola holiday advertising. Like the Coke ads, images of a roly poly Santa, with rosy cheeks, a big smile, and wearing a bright red suit are everywhere.
Our holiday celebrations would be empty and wanting without music. At Christmastime, to fill that void, Santa has not only been a goldmine for retailers selling toys, jewelry, candy, clothes, electronics and just about everything else, he has, musically speaking, been a goldmine for singers, songwriters, music publishers and record companies too. Ever since “Up On The Housetop”, noted above, there’s been no shortage of songs devoted to Santa.
And speaking of “Up On The Housetop”, although it’s the first song written about Santa, another song appears to be the first recorded Santa song: “Santa Claus Hides In The Phonograph” was recorded by Harry E. Humphrey on 4 October 1921 (Edison Diamond Disk cylinder 50999-R)…and was soon followed by Ernest Hare in 1922 (Brunswick-Balke-Gollender cylinder 2333-A). A few years later, in 1925, Hare records another Santa song, “Santa Claus Proves There Is A Santa Claus” (Edison 51619-L). Clearly, these songs were meant for our little ones.
Until the mid-1930s Santa seems to have gotten stuck up at the North Pole, at least musically, but then a rash of Santa songs were recorded that would please both kids and adults alike, including the debut of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” in 1934 by Harry Reser and His Orchestra (Decca 78 264A). Other notable recordings were: “What Would Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swinging?”) recorded in 1936 by Louis Prima and His New Orleans Gang (Vocalion-Brunswick 78 3376). In 1937, Count Basie and His Orchestra recorded “I Want To See Santa Claus” (Decca 78 1466A) and Kay Kyser, in 1939, recorded “Hello Mr. Kringle” with Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms, Sully Mason and Ish-Kabibble doing the vocals (Columbia 78 35248). Obviously, here we have Prima and His Gang swinging for the big kids on his song, replete with some great scat singing.
The 1940s saw twice as many Santa songs as the 1930s, including some of the best known songs that are still popular today. Bill Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers first recorded “Up On The Housetop” in 1949 (RCA Victor 78 21-0126-B) but in 1953, Gene Autry and The Cass County Boys had the more popular recording (Columbia 78 MJV-176). In 1941, Sammy Kaye and the Three Kaydets recorded “Santa Claus Is On His Way” (RCA Victor 78 27691-B) and “Ol Saint Nicholas” was recorded by Doris Day with The Sportsmen Quartet in 1949 (Columbia 78 38584). Also in ’49, “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”, based on an 1865 poem written by Emily Huntington Miller and James L Pierpont, was recorded by Ray Smith (Columbia 78-20604) and “The Jolly Old Man In The Bright Red Suit” was recorded by Vaughn Monroe (RCA Victor 78 3574).
Fabulous indeed were the 50s, with an explosion of over 40 plus Santa recordings hitting the airwaves, music stores and jukeboxes. A couple of noteworthy ones from 1950 include Kay Starr’s “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag (Capitol 78 1256) and “Santa Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney” by the great Ella Fitzgerald (Decca 78 27255). For the kids, there were many songs of a fun nature including 1952s “When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter” by Gene Autry with The Cass County Boys (Columbia 45 6-742), 1953s, “Too Fat For The Chimney” by Teresa Brewer (Coral 78 61079) and 1954s “Santa And The Doodle-Li-Boop: by Art Carney (Columbia 78-40400). Louis Armstrong gave us the classic “Zat You Santa Claus” in 1953 (Decca 45 9-28943). Santa’s dance card was put in action for “I Saw Mommy Do The Mambo (With You Know Who) by Jimmy Boyd and the Mitch Miller Orchestra (Columbia 45 4-40365) in 1954, 1951s “Mr Santa’s Boogie” by The Marshall Brothers (Savoy 78 825A) and “Rockin’ Santa Claus” by the Martels and The Bella Tones (Bella 45 B-20) in 1959.
While the next 50 years saw a steep decline in the number of Santa recordings, those that were available were interesting to say the least, a real mixed bag, including “Who Says There Ain’t No Santa Claus” by Ron Holden & The Thunderbirds in 1960 (Donna 45 1331) and “Must Be Santa” by Mitch Miller and The Gang in 1961 (Columbia 45 4-41814). Many songs during this period charted and will appear in the section on chart placements which follows.
How well did Santa perform on the various music charts? This may not be a definitive listing but it gives a pretty good picture of the popularity of some of the Santa songs we’ve been enjoying from the 30s to the present…in chronological order. Let’s call it “Santa’s Hit Parade”:
1934: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”: Peaked at #13 on charts (chart not known): George Hall and The Hotel Taft Orchestra (Bluebird 78 B-5711-A). (First to chart but not the first to record).
1938: “The Man With The Whiskers”: Peaked at #11 (chart not known): The Hoosier Hot Shots (Vocalion 78 04502).
1942: “Twas The Night Before Christmas”: Peaked at #11 on the Billboard Best Selling Children’s Records Chart: Fred Waring & The Pennsylvanians (Decca 78 23642). This is a recording of Clement Moore’s poem set to music by Ken Darby and orchestration by Harry Simeone.
1947: “Here Comes Santa Claus”: Peaked at #5 Country and #9 on the Billboard Music Charts: Gene Autry (Columbia 78-20377 and MJV 4-84-1).
1948: “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus”: Peaked at #12 on the Billboard Race Record Chart: Mabel Scott-American R&B and gospel singer(Exclusive 78 EXC 1336-3).
1952: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”: Peaked at #1 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart: Jimmy Boyd (Columbia 45-4-39871; MJV 152).
1953: “Santa Baby”: Peaked at #4 on the Billboard Pop Chart: Eartha Kitt with Henri Rene and His Orchestra (RCA Victor 45 47-5502).
1957: “Santa Claus Is Back In Town”, “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me” and “Here Comes Santa Claus”. These 3 Santa songs were included on “Elvis’ Christmas Album”, a landmark recording on RCA Victor LOC 1035…which according to Wikipedia.org is the best selling Christmas album of all time in the U.S.
1958: “Where Is Santa Claus” (Donde Est A Santa Claus): Peaked at #47 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart: Augie Rios with The Mack Jeffery Orchestra (MGM Metro 45 K20010).
1962: “Santa Claus Is Watching You”: Peaked at #45 on the Billboard Charts: Ray Stevens (Mercury 45 72058). Rudolph was injured doing the Twist, so Clyde the camel becomes the leader. Hilarious!
1962: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”: Peaked at #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart: The Four Seasons (VeeJay 45 478).
1963: Little Saint Nick”: Peaked at #3 on the Billboard Christmas Singles Chart: The Beach Boys (Capitol 45 5096).
1964: “The Man With All The Toys”: Peaked at #6 on the Billboard Christmas Singles Chart: The Beach Boys (Capitol 45 5312).
1964: “Dearest Santa”: Peaked at #8 on the Billboard Christmas Singles Chart: Bobby Vinton (Epic 45 5-9741).
1965: “Yes, Patrica, There Is A Santa Claus”: Peaked at #14 on the Billboard Christmas Singles Chart: Jimmy Dean (Columbia 45 JZSP 111915). Inspired by the phrase “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” from the New York Sun newspaper editorial “Is There A Santa Claus?”… written by Editor Francis Pharcellus Church on 21 September 1897.
1965: “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy”: Peaked at #2 on the Billboard Pop Chart: George Jones (Capitol 45 5537)
1966: “Barefoot Santa Claus”: Peaked at #9 on the Billboard Christmas Singles Chart in 1966 and also at #12 in 1968: Sonny James (Capitol 45 5733).
1970: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”: Peaked at #1 on the Billboard Special Christmas Chart: The Jackson Five (Motown 45 M 1174).
1994: “Santa Claus Is Comin’ (In A Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train: Peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot Country Chart: The Tractors (Arista CD ARCD 8805).
1995: “The Santa Claus Boogie”: Peaked at #41 on the Billboard Country Chart: The Tractors (Arista 45 012771-7).
1996: “The Night Santa Claus Went Crazy”: Peaked at #35 on the Billboard Holiday Digital Tracks Chart: Weird Al Jankovic (Scotti Bros CD 72392 75600-2).
2004: “Even Santa Claus Gets The Blues” Peaked at #55 on the Billboard Country Chart: Marty Stuart (Lost Highway CD UPC: 602498606780).
2005: “Up On The Housetop”: Peaked at # 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart: Kimberly Locke (Curb CD CURM79010.2).
2010: “Ol Santa”: Peaked at #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart: Mariah Carey (Island CD UPC: 602527498034).
There are many other great Christmas songs that are not expressly Santa songs… but Santa, none-the-less, plays an important role. Here’s a few of them: “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire): Nat King Cole (The Nat King Cole Trio) on Capitol 78 311 – peaked at #3 on the Billboard Charts in 1946; “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”: Peaked at #1 on the Billboard Best Selling Pop Singles Chart in 1949 – Gene Autry with The Pinafores Trio (Columbia 78 38610 and MJV56-1 on the 78 Children’s Series); “Run Rudolph Run” by Chuck Berry peaked at #69 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1958 (Chess 45 1714); Brook Benton’s “This Time Of Year” peaked at #66 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959 (Mercury 45 71558X). We can’t forget “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”. The song, recorded by Elmo & Patsy, peaked at #1 on the Billboard Christmas Singles Charts in 1983, 84 and 85 (Epic 45 15-04703). Lastly, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” peaked at #6 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart in 1994 and at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart early in 2016 (Columbia 45 661070-7).
You’ll be hearing Christmas songs filling the airwaves, non-stop on some radio stations. No doubt you’ll hear many of the Santa songs noted above. Some of them will be for kids, and some for the kid in all of us. One thing’s for certain. Our favorite jolly old elf has been around for a good long time, and his presence in our lives has worked like magic, gifting us with the beauty, wonder and humor of many different and wonderfully unique musical treasures. After all, that’s what Santa does!
It’s late on a dusky, frosty-cold winter night…and the golden December moon is radiant, lighting up the sky, sharing its brilliance with the stars which are brightly aglow. A bountiful blanket of fluffy white snow covers the rooftops, perfect conditions for…
Ho Ho Ho. Santa Claus is back in town!