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Johnny Marks – “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer”

Arguably one of the most instantly recognizable Christmas songs of all time, Rudolph was created in 1934 by Robert L. May while he was working for Montgomery Ward in Chicago as a copywriter. The store had been giving away promotional coloring books produced by outside sources every year and Rudolph was to become the centerpiece of the new books produced completely by the company itself. Initially concerned that a children’s story with a red nosed character would be inappropriate (red noses were associated with drunkards  and drunkenness) May eventually won his bosses over and Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer flew upon the shelves. The iconic reindeer we know, today, didn’t fully secure his place in history at this point, however; May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was inspired by the poem and wrote lyrics from it and also a melody, creating the legendary song. It was recorded in 1947 by Gene Autry and sold over two million copies. Marks would go on to write other Christmas standards such as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Run, Run Rudolph.”

 

Bob Wells & Mel Torme – “The Christmas Song”

Everyone has heard of Mel Torme and his well known 1944 co-creation “The Christmas Song” commonly subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire“ or, as it was originally subtitled, “Merry Christmas to You.” Fewer still are aware that the song had it’s origins in the middle of a blistering summer. Composer Bob Wells was trying desperately to beat the brutal San Fernando Valley heat wave in an era before home air conditioning. In an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool” Wells had scribbled down the lines: 

 

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos”

 

It was his hope that all of the chilly imagery of the Christmas season would help cool him down enough to concentrate on his work. It was during the early years of his career that Wells was collaborating with a young Mel Torme who found the opened tablet while sitting at the piano later the same day. Forty-five minutes later, one of the most iconic Christmas songs ever was born and went on to be made famous by Nat King Cole, who reportedly fell in love with the piece immediately upon hearing it.

 

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie – “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

Composer and lyricist team J.F. Coots and Haven Gillespie may be well known for having written well over 700 songs in their career, but no one could have guessed that a “little children’s song” would be their most well remembered creation ever. Gillespie had written the lyrics for the songs several years earlier after hearing his son exclaim excitedly that he was going right to bed because Santa Clause was coming to town. It wasn’t until 1934 Gillespie brought Coots the lyrics. Initially underwhelmed by the simplistic song, Coots came up with the skeleton of the music in just ten minutes. Later when Coots brought the song to his publisher, Leo Feist Inc., they liked it but thought it was a kids' song and didn’t expect too much from it. Little did they know what they had in their hands.  Coots offered the song to Eddie Cantor who used it on his radio show that November and 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.

 

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is not only both Coots and Gillespie’s most famous work it is also both of their most recorded works ever having been covered by acts as far reaching as Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, Bing Crosby, Dinah Washington and Alice Cooper.

 

Felix Bernard (composer) and Richard B. Smith (lyricist) – “Winter Wonderland”

A native of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, Richard Smith wrote the lyrics to Winter Wonderland while being treated for tuberculosis in 1934. Having been diagnosed with the disease (then called consumption) in 1931, Smith’s room in the sanatorium overlooked the town’s central park and was completely covered in snow during the winter of 1934, inspiring the lyrics. It was Smith’s friend, composer Felix Bernard, who came across the poem during a visit and set it to music. The original recording was by Richard Himber and his Hotel Carelton Orchestraon RCA Bluebird in 1934. After recording most of the day, and being nearly finished, it was suggested that Himber also record this new tune, “Winter Wonderland,” with an orchestral arrangement provided by the publisher. Guy Lombardo's orchestra would be one of the next groups to record it, making “Winter Wonderland” a top ten hit. Singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer took the song to #4 on Billboard's airplay chart in 1946. That same season, Perry Como hit the retail top ten with it. Como would record a new version for his 1959 Christmas album. Tragically, Smith succumbed to his disease less than a year later and never got to hear his song played on the radio.

 

William Chatterton Dix – “What Child Is This?”

With one of the most convoluted and misunderstood histories of any Christmas themed music, William Chesterton Dix’s “What Child is This?” has it’s origins in the 16th Century, where the tune was originally called “Lady Green Sleeves,” which has long been thought to be a song about a promiscuous lady of the night due to the color green being attributed to sexual deviancy. Later shortened to simply “Greensleeves”, there is a persistent belief that the song was composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen consort, Anne Boleyn. Boleyn allegedly rejected King Henry's attempts to seduce her and this rejection may be referred to in the song when the writer's love "cast me off discourteously". However, Henry did not compose "Greensleeves", which is probably Elizabethan in origin and is based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after his death. Though the true author of the original tune has long been lost to antiquity, it was in the year 1869 that, at the age of twenty-nine, English writer William Chatterton Dix was struck with a sudden near-fatal illness and was confined to bed-rest for several months, during which he went into a deep depression. Yet out of his near-death experience, Dix wrote many hymns, including "What Child is This?", the tune of which was later set to the traditional tune of Greensleeves. Dix would go on to write many other hymns and carols but none would become so well known as his hymn married to a traditional tune with a dubious pedigree at best.

 

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 198 - December 2017
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