Christmas With the Algorithm

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Frank, Bing, and Deano, from the 1964 movie Robin and the Seven Hoods.)

On Christmas Eve at my sister-in-law’s house, I fired up Pandora on her smart TV to get some holiday atmosphere. Rather than choosing a designated Christmas channel, I decided to enter the name of a song and see where the algorithm took us.

I started with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love. The mix was decent, mostly pop hits from the 60s and 70s, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” stuff from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the boozy charm of Dean Martin, that kind of thing. It took practically no time at all for the algorithm to yak up U2’s cover of Darlene, which didn’t surprise me at all. But after an hour or so, it repeated Darlene, and not long after repeated U2, and I decided at that point to try another approach. So I entered “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole. That mix repeated a few of the songs from the Darlene Love mix at first, but eventually began to tap a bottomless well of tracks by Nat, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra, which got kinda dull after a while.

(The Darlene Love mix also knocked me out of Whamageddon.)

(Digression: is there a similar contest with the goal of avoiding Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne”? Because I didn’t hear that goddamn thing at all this year. Or “The Christmas Shoes” either.)

But back to the topic: the Nat mix had a lot more carols than the Darlene Love mix, which was made up predominantly of secular songs, although some of the secular songs overlapped. The Nat mix also included performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale, highly atmospheric on Christmas Eve but also at least 70 years old, and too traditional for the Darlene Love mix. The Darlene Love mix pulled Vince Guaraldi performances not just from the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but from the Charlie Brown’s Holiday Hits compilation, thus dropping in some non-holiday clunkers that didn’t belong.

The strangest thing about comparing the two mixes is the Dean Martin factor. You’d assume that he would be placed alongside Sinatra, Crosby, and such—but you would be wrong. The Darlene Love mix contained several Dean Martin tracks, the Nat mix none at all. Do the designers of the algorithm think that Deano, who sounds more blitzed on Christmas songs than he does on his non-Christmas hits, is better suited to a playlist that skews younger, or young-ish? Or is that delivery considered inappropriate for a mix that includes religious songs? I’m not sure what other reasons there might be, but it struck me weird.

Another thing I realized while listening: While Nat and Bing could not only sell a Christmas song but make it their own, Sinatra sings most of his like he’s just putting in the time. He never seems to commit to any of them.

My Christmas Eve adventure with Pandora wasn’t a science experiment. I didn’t sit there with pencil and paper keeping track of songs, however interesting that may have been to do. What you’re reading here was what I noticed amidst conversations with family members and trips out to the porch to grab another beer.

Plausibly Related: Radio stations dump Christmas music entirely at 12:01AM on the 26th, even stations that have been all-Christmas since early November, like they were fleeing an embarrassing one-night stand. (Some drop it sooner, as early as mid-afternoon on the 25th.) But that ignores the way people live. Families frequently celebrate Christmas on the weekend after. A lot of people take time off between Christmas and New Year’s and keep the holiday vibe going for several days. So I don’t see a downside to playing a bit of Christmas music in the days after the 25th. Sirius/XM did it on one of the channels we listened to while driving home on the weekend of the 28th and 29th, and we enjoyed it.

One year, one of my stations mixed in Christmas music through the following weekend and listeners actually called up to thank us. It’s a holiday season, after all.

December 31, 1969: That’s the Way It Is

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Jimi with Noel Redding, 1969.)

December 31, 1969, was a Wednesday. Although the crime won’t be discovered until next week, union leader Jock Yablonski, his wife, and their daughter are murdered tonight in their Pennsylvania home. Earlier this month, Yablonski lost a controversial election for the presidency of the United Mine Workers union to the current president, Tony Boyle. Vice President Spiro Agnew, currently on a tour of the Phillippines, will make a brief stop in Vietnam tomorrow to meet with President Thieu and American soldiers. Vietnam continues under a New Year’s truce, although each side charges the other with violating it. The Army orders that SSgt. David Mitchell be court-martialed for intent to murder 30 civilians in Vietnam at My Lai. He’s the second soldier bound over for trial, after Lt. William Calley. Tonight, NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report airs a feature on the mating habits of college students amid the growing number of co-ed dormitories. Another NBC story discusses the perception that long hair equates with degeneracy, rebellion, and disrespect for American ideals. ABC concludes its evening news broadcast with commentary by anchors Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith bidding farewell to the 1960s. Reynolds closes the broadcast by saying, “And that’s the way it is . . . good night Walter, good night Chet, good night David, and happy new year everybody.”

The college football postseason continues tonight with the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in the Houston Astrodome, where the University of Houston defeats Clemson 36-7. Four of the season’s 11 bowl games will be played tomorrow. Undefeated Texas will try to claim the national championship with a win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Notre Dame has changed its no-bowl-games policy and is playing in one for the first time since 1925. Also tomorrow: Penn State vs. Missouri in the Orange Bowl, USC vs. Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and Arkansas vs. Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl. Four games are played in the National Basketball Association tonight. Among them, the Milwaukee Bucks get 35 points from Lew Alcindor, 32 from Flynn Robinson, and 28 from Bob Dandridge to defeat the San Diego Rockets 143-126. Elvin Hayes leads the Rockets with 26 points.

Even though it’s New Year’s Eve, the TV networks roll out first-run episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Room 222, Then Came Bronson, and The Virginian. Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys open a two-night stand at the Fillmore East in New York City with two shows. After a countdown to the new year, Hendrix and the band play “Auld Lang Syne.” After the show, Jimi goes to a bar in Greenwich Village, where he jams with the James Cotton Blues Band.

The top movie of 1969 is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Although it’s been out only since late October, it’s outdistanced the year’s other top films, which include the Disney comedy The Love Bug, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, True Grit, and Goodbye Columbus. Only four books led the New York Times‘ weekly list of fiction best-sellers this year: The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes, in which government agents pursue Nazi-era secrets; Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth; The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann; and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. The year’s top nonfiction books include Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) by Dr. David Reuben, and The Sensuous Woman, by an author identified only as “J.” On television, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In ended the 1968-69 season at #1 and is on its way to leading the ratings for the 1969-70 season now in progress. Other top-rated shows this year include Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Mayberry RFD, and Gomer Pyle USMC, which ended its five-season run in May second only to Laugh-In in the ratings. Around the country tonight, radio stations spotlight their top hits of 1969.

Perspective From the Present: The Yablonskis were murdered on the orders of Tony Boyle, who eventually died in prison. David Mitchell was cleared of charges in the My Lai massacre. Texas was voted college football’s national champion by the Associated Press after its come-from-behind 21-17 win over Notre Dame, although other voting bodies awarded titles to Nebraska and Ohio State.

After watching the Bluebonnet Bowl at my grandparents’ house, to which we were usually packed off on New Year’s Eve so our parents could celebrate my father’s December 31 birthday and the new year, I watched the last 10 seconds of 1969 tick away on the clock that sat next to Grandpa’s chair in the living room. As it hit midnight I said to myself, “Now it’s 1970.”

Buckle up, kid. The next 10 50 years are gonna be quite a ride.

Gonna Make Your Life So Sweet

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Beatles and CCR had a very good 1969, but it took ’em several releases to make it. The Archies ruled with just one.)

Here are more year-end radio surveys from 1969.

WSRF, Fort Lauderdale, Florida:
1. “One”/Three Dog Night
95. “I Want You Back”/Jackson Five
Notable: “Soul Experience” by Iron Butterfly, “Did You See Her Eyes” by the Illusion, “Wishful Sinful” by the Doors, and “I’m Free” by the Who at #74 through #77.

WWCO, Waterbury, Connecticut:
1. “Honky Tonk Women”/Rolling Stones
100. “Something in the Air”/Thunderclap Newman
Notable: The absolutely fabulous “Walking in Different Circles” by the Elves at #99. The band, formerly known as the Electric Elves and later as just Elf, was founded by singer and bassist Ronnie James Dio.

KEWI, Topeka, Kansas:
1. “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
100. “Rock Me”/Steppenwolf
Notable: This chart has some fine obscurities on it, including the propulsive “Paul’s Midnight Ride” by the Delights Orchestra at #15 and “Green Door” by the Jerms at #49. “Green Door” is a psychedelic cover of the 1956 #1 hit by Jim Lowe; it was recorded in Nashville, but of the Jerms we know practically nothing else.

WCVS, Springfield, Illinois:
1. “Dizzy”/Tommy Roe
100. “It’s Your Thing”/Isley Brothers
Notable: Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” at #84. People forget (and by “people,” I mean “me,” until I looked it up) that it went to #19 on the Hot 100 in February 1969.

WLOB, Portland, Maine:
1. “Crimson and Clover”/Tommy James
100. “Cinnamon”/Derek
Notable: “A Boy Named Sue,” the First Edition’s “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Stand By Your Man,” and CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” at #23 through #26. That’s a down-home quarter hour for a Top 40 station.

WHNC, New Haven, Connecticut:
1. “Get Together”/Youngbloods
100. “Malinda”/Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers
Notable: “Mama Soul” by the Soul Survivors at #24. Best known for the early Gamble-and-Huff production “Expressway to Your Heart,” the band hit the Hot 100 two other times, but not with “Mama Soul,” which was produced by Rick Hall. At #87 is “A Beautiful Day” by the Bridge, a bubbly sunshine pop number by a group that I am guessing was from New Haven or nearby.

KTKT, Tucson, Arizona:
1. “Green River”-“Commotion”/Creedence Clearwater Revival
2. “Something”-“Come Together”/Beatles
99. “Oh Happy Day”/Edwin Hawkins Singers
Notable: The double-sided “Atlantis” and “To Susan on the West Coast Waiting” by Donovan at #57; the double-sided “The Weight” and “Tracks of My Tears” by Aretha Franklin at #90; “I Threw It All Away” by Bob Dylan, from Nashville Skyline, at #95.

WISM, Madison, Wisconsin:
1. “Something”-“Come Together”/Beatles
5. “Bad Moon Rising”-“Lodi”/Creedence Clearwater Revival
10. “Proud Mary”/Creedence Clearwater Revival
11. “Green River”-“Commotion”/Creedence Clearwater Revival
12. “Don’t Let Me Down”-“Get Back”/Beatles
100. “I’m Gonna Make You Mine”/Lou Christie
Notable: This chart is a great indication of the reach of the Beatles and CCR in this year. “Birthday” by Underground Sunshine, a Wisconsin band managed by WISM’s Jonathan Little, was a significant national hit, and checks in here at #33. WISM was the only station in the country to put “Don’t Shut Me Out” on a 1969 year-end chart, at #76, although it shows up in a few weekly ARSA listings at stations across the country. (Beyond my link in the previous sentence, you can read more about Underground Sunshine here.)

KMEN, San Bernardino, California:
1. “Come Together”-“Something”/Beatles
100. “Simple Song of Freedom”/Tim Hardin
Notable: The charming and clever “Day After Day” by Shango, at #76, was co-written by Stuart Margolin, better known as an actor and whose face you would certainly recognize. One of the members of Shango was Tommy Reynolds, eventually of Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds. At #77, “Apricot Brandy” is by Rhinoceros, a funk/rock band assembled by record producer Paul Rothchild, famed for his work with the Doors and Janis Joplin.

WLS, Chicago, Illinois:
1. “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
89. “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’/Crazy Elephant
Notable: While the Beatles’ “Get Back” is at #14, “Come Together” and “Something” are way down at #62.

WABC, New York:
1. “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In”/Fifth Dimension
100. “This Girl’s in Love With You”/Dionne Warwick
Notable: “Get Back” is #4; “Come Together,” without “Something,” is at #56.

WCOL, Columbus, Ohio:
1. “Good Morning Starshine”/Oliver
2. “Hair”/Cowsills
100. “Did You See Her Eyes”/The Illusion
Notable: In addition to Oliver and the Cowsills, there’s more Hair flavor down at #88 with Three Dog Night’s version of “Easy to Be Hard.” At #18 is Who’s Nuts Alfred” by J. D. Blackfoot. Blackfoot, born Benjamin Franklin Van Dervort, was a Cleveland native who made a couple of highly regarded psychedelic albums after “Who’s Nuts Alfred,” which is sadly not found at YouTube.

Cash Box
1. “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
100. “Oh What a Night”/Dells
Notable: Cash Box lists “Easy to Be Hard” at both #12 and #31. Its survey is also the only one I’ve seen that shows “Come Together” and “Something” in separate positions, at #63 and #66.

Clearly, “Sugar Sugar” was the consensus #1 song of 1969 across the country. Your mileage may vary.

14 Feet of Soul

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: eight feet of Beatles, 1969.)

I thought it would be fun to go through all of the 1969 year-end music surveys at ARSA to see what I could see, but I got partway through and started thinking, no, this is too much even for a geek with time on his hands. So here’s a couple dozen of them, not necessarily the most interesting ones, but a mix of stations big and small, in no particular order, and in two parts.

WTIX, New Orleans, Louisiana:
1. “Everyday People”/Sly and the Family Stone
69. “Mind Body and Soul”/Flaming Ember
Notable: “Gotta Have Love” by Paul Varisco and the Milestones at #33, “Superlove” by David and the Giants at #43, and “Girls Are Made for Lovin'” by Elliot Small at #57, all local New Orleans/Louisiana/southern Mississippi acts.

KIMN, Denver, Colorado:
1. “Honky Tonk Women”/Rolling Stones
100. “Take a Letter Maria”/R. B. Greaves
Notable: “Albatross” by Fleetwood Mac at #76. It’s charted high several times in the UK over the years, but never got a sniff of the national charts here despite being hypnotically gorgeous.

WPDQ, Jacksonville, Florida:
1. “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In”/Fifth Dimension
100. “See”/Rascals
Notable: The Rascals hit the national Top 40 four times in 1969, but none of the four ever made it into onto good times/great oldies radio. “Love and Let Love” by the Hardy Boys (shown in a tie with BS&T’s “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”), is at #40, a cash-in on the Hardy Boys Saturday morning cartoon show that had premiered in the fall of 1969.

KYSN, Colorado Springs, Colorado:
1. “Honky Tonk Women”/Rolling Stones
69. “Big Bruce”/Steve Greenberg
Notable: “Big Bruce” is a parody of Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” that was yanked after a lawsuit from “Big Bad John”‘s publishers and reissued after the resemblance was toned down. Its homosexual stereotypes ain’t funny anymore. Four double-sided Creedence Clearwater Revival singles appear on the KYSN chart: “Proud Mary”/”Born on the Bayou” at #10; “Green River”/”Commotion” at #12; “Bad Moon Rising”/”Lodi” at #24; and “Down on the Corner”/”Fortunate Son” at #40. We’ll see them elsewhere.

WCOP, Boston (a country station):
1. “Harper Valley PTA”/Jeannie C. Riley
2. “Wichita Lineman”/Glen Campbell
3. “A Boy Named Sue”/Johnny Cash
Notable: Aren’t those three notable enough? How about Campbell’s “Galveston” at #6, Porter Wagoner’s superb story-song “The Carroll County Accident” at #10, or Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” at #18? “Harper Valley PTA” came out late in the summer of 1968 but clearly had plenty of staying power, at least in Boston.

KLMS, Lincoln, Nebraska:
1. “In the Year 2525″/Zager and Evans
40. “Good Old Rock and Roll”/Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys
Notable: KLMS headlines the survey as the “Top 148 of 1969 (Only 40 Really).” The highest-ranked Beatles song is “The Ballad of John and Yoko” at #4; “Get Back” is at #29; “Come Together”/”Something,” which appears on practically every other year-end survey in the country, does not appear at all.

KBZY, Salem, Oregon:
1. “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
100. “More Today Than Yesterday”/Spiral Starecase
Notable: Two Tommy James records in the Top 10, and neither one is “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” which is at #24: “Crimson and Clover” is  #2 and “Sweet Cherry Wine” is #10. The Nightcrawlers, a Florida band, charted in a few places in 1965 and in more as 1966 turned to 1967 with “The Little Black Egg” (#91). A handful of stations in the Pacific Northwest charted it in 1969.

WBAM, Montgomery, Alabama
1. “Honky Tonk Women”/Rolling Stones
100. “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”/Jackie DeShannon
Notable: “No Not Much” by the Smoke Ring at #25, a record we have dug around here for a long time, and “Hold Me” by the Baskerville Hounds, a Cleveland-area garage band, at #30. At #68, there’s a smoothly soulful cover of the Platters tune “With This Ring” by an Alabama group called 14 Feet of Soul. (Seven members equals 14 feet.)

WVLK, Lexington, Kentucky:
1. “Wedding Bell Blues”/Fifth Dimension
59. “Sweet Cherry Wine”/Tommy James and the Shondells
Notable: “Church St. Soul Revival” by the Exiles, at #3, was written and produced by Tommy James, who later recorded it himself. The band, from Richmond, Kentucky, later became Exile, and hit #1 with “Kiss You All Over” in 1978.

WTPS, Kalamazoo, Michigan:
1. “Touch Me”/Doors
69. “Witchi Tai To”/Everything Is Everything
Notable: “Condition Red” by the Goodees at #9. The Goodees were a trio of white girls from Memphis who recorded on a Stax subsidiary; “Condition Red” got up to #46 on the Hot 100. At #55 is the Frost, one of the legends of Michigan rock ‘n’ roll, sounding a bit ahead of their time on “Mystery Man.”

Billboard:
1. “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
100. (tie) “Sweet Cream Ladies”/Box Tops and “Let Me”/Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Notable: Ties were not unheard-of on the Billboard year-end charts, but having the only one of 1969 at #100 smacks of a couple of editors resolving a disagreement by cutting the baby in half.

There are more to come on Monday.

Merry Christmas Again and Again

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: an antique store display featuring the 1947 issue of Bing Crosby’s album Merry Christmas.)

In the summer of 1948, Columbia Records introduced the long-playing record: a disc that rotated at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute and could therefore contain more music than a 45 or a 78. But the summer of ’48 does not mark the birth of the “album.” Those has existed before: bulky sets of 78s with one song per side, heavy, fragile discs made at first of shellac and later of vinyl, packaged in a box or a folio with heavy paper envelopes to hold each disc.

On December 1, 1945, Decca released a five-disc album by Bing Crosby called Merry Christmas. It collected ten songs Crosby had recorded in recent years, not all with a Christmas theme; it included a version of “Danny Boy,” the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers,” and a song called “Let’s Start the New Year Right.” It was an expensive set, but it sold in numbers that surprised even Decca—especially considering that another Crosby album, featuring songs from the movie Going My Way, was already in stores and selling well, and that the songs on Merry Christmas had been available as singles for a couple of Christmases already.

In the CD era, music buyers often joked about how many times they’d bought certain albums, in different formats and configurations. Buyers of Merry Christmas could have done the same. In 1947, Decca reissued it as a four-disc, eight-song set, dropping “Danny Boy” and “Let’s Start the New Year Right.” Crosby re-recorded “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” for the 1947 reissue—his 1942 recordings were so popular and so many copies were made that the masters actually wore out. When you hear the songs today, you’re hearing the 1947 recordings. Two years later, Merry Christmas appeared for the first time on a single 10-inch, 33-1/3 RPM disc. In 1950, Decca put out the old eight-song, four-disc box again, only in the form of 45s. In 1952, the four-disc 45 box was replaced by a two-disc set of EPs, each with two songs on a side. Having exhausted the formatic possibilities at that point, Decca left Merry Christmas as it was, but only until 1955. In that year, labels started to discontinue the 10-inch album format, so Merry Christmas got its first issue as a standard 12-inch, 33 1/3 RPM album. It was expanded to 12 tracks with the addition of four songs Bing released on singles in 1950 and 1951, and it became the standard configuration. Merry Christmas was released again in 1963, in rechanneled stereo. The 1986 CD issue was in the original mono and was titled White Christmas. As recently as 2014, the 12-track mono album was issued again, in a limited-edition vinyl remaster with the original title. (The complete release history of the album is even more convoluted, but there’s a fine rundown at Wikipedia, if you care.)

Although there are now several Crosby Christmas albums, some of which mix tracks from the 40s with later songs, some of which include rechanneled stereo tracks alongside mono originals, the 1955 mono Merry Christmas is the one you want. Its three songs with the Andrews Sisters (“Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Mele Kalikimaka”) are playful performances that capture Bing’s public personality. “Christmas in Killarney” was a remarkably popular holiday song for a long time. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” first heard at Christmas 1943, is beautiful in any era, but was especially potent during World War II. (It was actually banned by the BBC, fearing it might harm British morale.) And there’s a perfectly good argument that Crosby’s recordings of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” are the only Christmas songs you really need.

Every time a popular artist releases a Christmas album, he or she is following in the footsteps of Bing Crosby and Merry Christmas, which was the first. It’s sold something like 15 million copies over the years. Only the 1957 Elvis Presley Christmas album (with 19 million) has outsold it. And if your local megamart still carries a few Christmas CDs or vinyl albums, chances are good that Merry Christmas is one they have in stock.

Note to Patrons: At some point in the next few days, we’re going to go over 1,000,000 hits at this blog since I started counting in 2007, as indicated under “Cume” in the right-hand column. I am under no illusion that this represents anything like a million readers. To you who come here regularly, let me again express my thanks. That people still like to read this stuff—that anybody ever liked to read this stuff—still surprises me a little.

We’re on hiatus now until Friday, December 27. Merry Christmas to all. 

“The Best Song Anyone Had Ever Written”

Embed from Getty Images

(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.)

%d bloggers like this: