(Pictured: Bing Crosby with Irving Berlin and the Andrews Sisters.)
It’s Thursday, December 24, 1942. Christmas Eve radio listeners settle in for the week’s edition of Kraft Music Hall on NBC, starring Bing Crosby. Crosby is at the peak of his fame with two movies packing theaters, Holiday Inn with Fred Astaire and Road to Morocco with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Tonight, Bing is joined by actors Fay Bainter and Jack Carter, along with his cast of regulars including singer and actress Janet Blair, the Music Maids, the black gospel group the Charioteers, and announcer Ken Carpenter. The show, which will downsize from an hour to a half-hour in the new year, includes four Christmas songs. Bing sings “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” with the Charioteers, as well as “Adeste Fideles,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “Silent Night.” Crosby first recorded the latter in 1935, and it’s become the record industry’s first annual reissue. In 1941, it moved 300,000 copies. Tonight, he concludes it with impeccable timing, seconds before the NBC chimes signal the end of the show.
Somehow, Crosby does not perform a song that has topped the American charts for almost two months now, a song from Holiday Inn, a song that he first performed on Kraft Music Hall at Christmastime one year ago: “White Christmas.”
When Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” for Holiday Inn, he knew, in Crosby biographer Gary Giddens’ words, “he was treading on dangerous ground, removing Christ from Christmas and advancing snow as the essential metaphor in a requiem of longing.” Nevertheless, he believed it was the best song he’d written, and as Giddens characterized his thinking, “possibly the best song anyone had ever written.”
(The producers of Holiday Inn did not share his enthusiasm. They believed a song called “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” would be the biggest hit from the score.)
On May 29, 1942, seven months after Crosby filmed the “White Christmas” scene in Holiday Inn and five months after he debuted it on the radio, he entered a studio in Hollywood to record it. Berlin had opened the song with an introductory verse intended to accompany a scene in which a Holiday Inn character, amid sunshine and palm trees in snow-free Beverly Hills on Christmas Eve, is “longing to be up north.” Berlin wanted Crosby to include the verse, although producer Jack Kapp vetoed the idea. Without the movie scene to set it up, he said, the verse has nothing to do with the rest of the song. In addition, arranger Ted Duncan had already worked up a three-minute orchestration that did not include the verse, and three minutes was all that would fit on one side of a 78. So the verse was abandoned.
Crosby had asked Duncan if it was possible to make the arrangement a little more dramatic than the one in the movie, so he had the Ken Darby Singers perform the second chorus while Bing whistled along. Crosby, John Scott Trotter’s orchestra, and the singers required three or four takes to get it down. (The legend that it was cut in 18 minutes is not true, according to Giddins.) Darby later claimed everyone present knew immediately that they’d recorded a classic, but Decca wasn’t sure. The instant popularity of “White Christmas” was a surprise to them, not so much because it was popular—this was Bing Crosby, after all—but the label figured that if it became a hit, it wouldn’t be until later in the year. Yet radio stations started playing it shortly after the movie came out in August, and it was #1 by the end of October.
After the NBC chimes fade away on Christmas Eve 1942, Crosby, Carpenter, and the Charioteers travel to another studio in Hollywood to appear on a special Christmas edition of Command Performance. Although it’s been on the air since May, Command Performance has never been heard in the United States—it’s broadcast exclusively on Armed Forces Radio and by shortwave to American troops serving overseas. Many of the top stars of the day either have appeared on it, or they will before it ends its run in 1949. The Christmas Eve show is hosted by Bob Hope, and in addition to Crosby features Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen, and Red Skelton, along with the Kay Kyser Orchestra, Ethel Waters, Dinah Shore, and the Andrews Sisters, among others. It’s broadcast on all the major networks and by many independent stations.
(Coming Friday: how “White Christmas” sparked the entire Christmas-album genre.)