As we draw close to the 63 year anniversary of that fateful plane crash, I am releasing the third and final instalment on Buddy Holly. Myself and many others will be reading on February 3 about that day in 1959, as well as the before and the aftermath, all I will say is that at age 22 he had left a legacy that is a crucial part of Rock and Roll history. He was there at the beginning, though he was inspired by him, he was a contemporary of Elvis Presley as well as Chuck Berry, but for the two years from his breakout song, we will never know what he could have achieved. To me he stood as an equal. Today I will talk more about the person, his music, the portrayals, and tie up any loose ends from my prior posts.
Buddy started his professional career as a teenager, he and his bandmates were still in Jr. High School. When he found his ‘voice’ with the above song in 1956, he sounded like no one else. As much as he was a gifted lyricist, singer and musician, he also had an ear for songs from other composers/artists.
The song first appeared in this instrumental medley of Christmas Hymns from 1917
The first clip to come up in a search of YouTube is this one by Frank Sinatra released in 1948.
The lyrics were written by Pastor Edmund Sears, he requested the poem be set to the hymn titled “Carol” by Richard Storrs Willis. The modern adaptation by Arthur Sullivan is based on this but follows the tune of “Noel”. This is another example of a Christmas song that does not mention Christmas. Thought to be inspired by a mood of melancholy over world strife and the end of the Mexican/American War in 1848, Sears poem and subsequent song has been recorded about 800 times including many instrumentals.
To quote the first song in this series “River” by Joni Mitchell
It’s coming on Christmas They’re cutting down trees They’re putting up reindeer And singing songs of joy and peace
I will ‘wrap’ up this series with a couple more songs.
“The Wassail Song” which literally means to sing is perhaps better known as “Here we Come A Caroling”. It’s another song that does not mention Christmas specifically. As with many songs it is derived from old English folks songs and it made it’s was to the US, according to Wikipedia it was first recorded in 1934. The first known recording to survive is “Wassail Song” by Robert Shaw and His RCA Victor Chorale.
“Deck the Halls”
As with the previous song this was traditionally sung by choirs around the New Year rather than Christmas specifically. Based on a traditional Welsh melody the lyrics were written by Thomas Oliphant. Part of the motivation for “Caroling” was to sing for charity at the doors of the more wealthy citizens. These carols were very popular parlour songs as well and are still often performed by choirs and ensembles. However with “Deck the Halls” we have many memorable solo versions such as Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah or however you celebrate.
This song was written by Irving Berlin and used in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. The movie covers a number of Holidays and includes the now iconic “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”. The song to represent New Years was “Happy Holiday” and it was performed by Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds. Martha Mears voice was used (dubbed in) instead as it was for many an actress such as Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Claudette Colbert and over two dozen more.
The song is played in the mix of Christmas themed songs as it fits the festive mood for the more generic playlist. Berlin had been tasked with writing a song for each holiday of the year and includes “Be Careful it’s My Heart” for Valentines Day.
As Holiday songs go it has not been covered as often and secondhdandsongs.com lists 57 versions, which for any other song is a lot, but for songs of the Season, many have over 1000 versions each so this one may not enter the the top 25. Still a lovely sentiment and it along with the rest of the songs from the movie shows the brilliance of Irving Berlin.
The song did not take off and garner covers right away such as the three in 1942 (now 2163 and counting) versions of “White Christmas”. It was 13 years later that it appeared on a Christmas themed record Happy Holiday by Jo Stafford (1955).
Kat Edmonson included the song on her 2021 album Holiday Swingin’! – A Kat Edmonson Christmas Vol. 1
Another song that does not mention Christmas but the theme obviously fits. Written by Leroy Anderson in the summer of 1946 it was first recorded by The Boston Pops Orchestra in 1949.
This happens to be the second most recorded song to originate from 1949 with 779 versions and at #1 is the very Christmassy “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” with 834 versions which was written by the “King of Christmas Songs” Johnny Marks. Another non-Christmas song from 1949 that is popular this time of year is “Baby it’s Cold Outside” that has been covered 474 times.
A search of Youtube has the rendition by Ella Fitzgerald next on the list, the greats Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams know how to do Holiday songs as well as anyone. High on the search list was this surprising 1987 version from the soft rock superstars Russell Hitchcock (and to economize on names), he teamed up with Graham Russell to form Air Supply.
This is the first recording and for some still the favorite. Sung by Vaughn Monroe and the Norton Sisters. It was written by the legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn who wrote so many great songs such as “Come Fly with Me” and “Time After Time”, he also wrote other Holiday songs such as Frank Sinatra’s “Pocketful of Miracles” and “The Christmas Blues”. This song he wrote with the equally legendary composer and musician Jule Styne. The pair wrote dozens of hit songs and were the favorite writers for Frank Sinatra among others. You will know many of Styne’s songs such as “People” by Barbra Streisand or “Everything’s Coming up Roses” by Ethel Merman. The pair also wrote “The Christmas Waltz” for Sinatra and it has since been covered 227 times.
As in my past examples this song does not mention Christmas but as it was released in November of 1945 it became a #1 hit song by December. It is one of the songs that is popular in the Southern Hemisphere during the months of July and August.
Franks Sinatra had a hit with his rendition in 1950.
“Jingle Bells” the oldest surviving recording is by the Edison Male Quartet in this medley from 1898.
“Jingle Bells” was not a Christmas song! It was written in the mid-19th century by James Pierpont, who was living in the Southern US at the time and missing the snowy winters of his home in New England. Seems it was a popular Parlour song and played around the Thanksgiving holiday. It notes the beginning of winter, and as time went on the two holidays and subsequently the music, just got linked together.
As Christmas and Holiday songs dominate the most recorded songs of all time list it is no surprise this is the 9th most covered song with 1569 versions. The second recording was twenty seven years later in 1925 by the Shannon Quartet.
The upbeat recording by Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters from 1945 remains one of the most popular versions still today.
The amazing Katharine McPhee
Michael Bublé featuring The Puppini Sisters in the style of Bing and The Andrew Sisters.
This song was written as a poem by Richard (Dick) Smith as he admired the freshly fallen snow in his hometown of Honesdale Pennsylvania. Smith had Tuberculous, but before he succumbed to the disease in 1934 he showed the poem to his friend Felix Bernard who composed the music. The most popular version was the cover by Guy Lombardo which came out just a week after the original (above) on the competing Decca Records. Over the years it has been recorded by just about every major name from the 1930’s through to today’s stars such as Norah Jones and Thomas Rhett. It is the tenth most recorded song of all time with 1560 versions, just ahead of “Over the Rainbow” that currently has 1490 renditions.
There is no mention of Christmas at all in the song but of course it is full of the imagery of freshly fallen snow, sleigh bells and young love. The fictitious Parson Brown becomes a Circus Clown in the more children friendly version.
Here are some of the more popular versions, both Bennett and Love have charted with this song.
Personally I have to go with this swinging version by Ella Fitzgerald but I am sure you have your favorite(s).
As I mentioned in my last post to begin my series on Holiday/Christmas Songs I am starting with the more unconventional. Joni Mitchell’s “River” has been adopted as a Seasonal/Christmas song. Mitchell wrote the song with inspiration from her breakup with Graham Nash. Yes, it starts with a little “Jingle Bells” on the piano and references Christmas but not in a celebratory way. It’s essentially about missing someone and wanting to escape or “skate away” from the lonely feelings. There are many such songs that reflect the reality that not everyone is completely happy, just because the calendar shows it’s Christmastime. Those feeling lonely or missing a loved one, or anyone for that matter may find solace in this song. Typical of Joni Mitchell’s work it is deeply personal and at the same time relatable to millions of others in their own private struggles.
The song was not released as a single and is from her 1971 masterpiece Blue. As with many of her songs it went somewhat unnoticed and under appreciated for many years. It was first covered in 1974 by a friend and fellow Folk Singer Dave Van Ronk who was part of the Greenwich Village scene with Mitchell, Dylan, Phil Ochs and others. Mitchell has been quoted as saying his version of “Both Sides Now” is her favorite. It was then covered a few more times and never reached the charts but the first connection to a Christmas theme for the song was a version by Canadian Opera Singer Riki Turofsky where it appeared on her 1994 album A River So Long as it was paired with another non-Christmas song, this time written by Harry Nilsson titled “Remember (Christmas)” from his Son of Schmilsson released in 1972, it has been covered 20 times and it’s first Christmas theme appearance was on a Compilation album Cabaret Noël – A Broadway Cares Christmas in 1993. “Remember / Toyland” by K.T. Sullivan.
However, most of the credit for the connection seems to come from the appearance of “River” on Songs of the Season, a 1997 release by British Jazz guitarist Peter White. The album contained among other songs, “Jingle Bells”, “Silent Night” and “White Christmas”. Next it was on a Christmas Compilation assembled as a freebie insert by the renowned Dutch literary magazine De Gids in 1998. From there on it just grew from more ‘seasonal’ cover versions and appearances on more Christmas Albums, a bit of radio airplay and choirs including it in their Holliday repertoire. You will now hear it from your favorite streaming service when you request “Christmas Songs”.
Ellie Goulding covered this song and her 2019 Youtube release reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart. There are over 300 documented covers and according to secondhandsongs.com she is #14 on the list of of most covered singer songwriters with almost 2400 versions (of all her songs) being recorded. Needless to say that JoniMitchell.com is focused solely on her songs and they list 900 versions making it her second most covered song after “Both Sides Now” with 1573 covers.
It’s coming on Christmas They’re cutting down trees They’re putting up reindeer And singing songs of joy and peace Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on …
As I “wrap up” my miniseries on Billie Holiday I will finish with the only song she recorded that is associated with Christmas. That is to say it is not a Christmas song at all, however since it’s debut in the Musical, On the Avenue in 1937 the song has snuggled it’s way onto Christmas Albums by many an artist. It was first performed in the movie by Dick Powell and Alice Faye, the first record was by Ray Noble, which was released January 27, 1937 so chronologically it came out before the February 4, movie debut.
Billie was one of at least 10 artists to cover this song in it’s first year of release, and her version is often mentioned when referring to the more memorable renditions of the song. Written by Irving Berlin, the lyrics reference, wind, snow, cold, icicles and the month of December. At the time it was being recorded by Billie and many others it was a song about love and warmth, not a Holiday or Christmas song.
Here is a clip from the movie.
I am sure many of us are having our fill of Holiday and Christmas songs and for many December 26 brings some welcome relief in more ways than one. However tis’ the Season and so I thought to kick off my contribution I would give a little background on some of the songs such as this one that were not purpose designed. Many of the songs around Christmas and the Holidays have some interesting origins. For more on that story you can check out my upcoming Holidays #1 post.
If you have read some of my past posts you know how I love to connect the dots. I will leave you an interesting link between “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and Christmas Songs.
First, here is the legendary Jazz Guitarist Django Reinhardt and his oft partner the equally legendary Jazz Violinist Stéphane Grappelli with their instrumental version from 1938.
Again from 1938 we have Reinhardt but this time featuring the Violin stylings of the amazing Michel Warlop with “Christmas Swing”. In this case…perhaps all roads lead to Reinhardt.
This is the song that many will first associate with Billie Holiday. Written with Jazz pianist and band leader Herbie Nichols it was recorded in sessions from August of 1955 but released in 1956 on the five track album of the same name. This is also the title of a biopic that came out in 1972 with the legend Diana Ross playing Holiday. The movie did not receive the greatest of reviews and is loosely based on Holiday’s autobiography which has the same title as well if you’re sensing a theme here – but as often the case with these films, it’s not very factually accurate. However it is quite enjoyable from my standpoint and well worth watching just to see Ross perform the songs.
Billie herself would record over 200 cover songs and many memorable versions from The American Songbook/American Standards. Of her 40 original songs, “Lady Sing the Blues” has not been covered as often and coincidentally there are currently 40 versions. The first one appeared in a medley by Susan Carter in 1970. This next clip is from one of the many tribute albums to Billie Holiday, interestingly it so happens to have been assembled by the versatile actor Peter Stormare. As I understand the story, Peter, who has his own record label named Stormvox was grieving the death of Jimi Hendrix back in 1970 and his mother gave him a Billie Holiday album which helped him to the point of him promising his mother he would do a tribute album.
This is the instrumental track from the co-writer Herbie Nichols and it was released at about the same time as the vocal track in 1956.