Christmas music is its own genre, or rather I should say people’s tastes in Christmas music tend to cross all genres. While, my tastes in music run to western swing, bluegrass and traditional jazz, when it comes to Christmas music I tend to get rather traditional with orchestral music mixing in with pop balladeers such as Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby.
It has been a long time since Bing Crosby died in October 1977, yet Merry Christmas has been in print, in one form or another, since the 1945 (and in its current configuration of songs since 1955). For millions of households, the album with a smiling Bing wearing a Santa Claus cap and a holly leaf bowtie on the cover was an honored part of the record collection, played annually and often.
So who was Bing Crosby? Well, to start with, for many years Bing was the most famous entertainer on Earth. According to Billboard historian Joel Whitburn, Bing Crosby was the number one recording artist for the entire decades of the 1930s and 1940s with some success spilling into the 1950s. He recorded 383 chart hits with 41 number one records and another 152 that landed in the top ten. His recording of “White Christmas” is the biggest selling single in US history. He introduced many songs now known as pop standards. While not a prolific songwriter, he wrote a few of his own hits.
If that isn’t enough, Bing Crosby was among the top ten movie box office stars fifteen times and from 1944 through 1948 he was the number one movie box office star. He won an Academy Award for his role in Going My Way. By any measure except dollars (due to ticket price inflation) Bing ranks in the top three of all-time movie stars with 1,077,900,000+ movie tickets sold. Moreover he was a successful radio star and at one time was part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, and he produced, through his production company, several successful television shows (most notably Ben Casey and Hogan’s Heroes).
Merry Christmas is something of a Christmas sampler as Bing performs a collection of traditional Christmas carols and popular Christmas songs and a few songs that are about faraway places. Most of the songs were originally released as singles so recording quality varies a bit.
The album opens up with a pair of traditional carols “Silent Night” (recorded in 1942) and “Adeste Fideles” (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), the latter, recorded in 1935 with Victor Young’s Orchestra, is sung in both English and Latin. “Adeste Fideles” is the only song recorded before 1942 – the quantum leap in sound engineering between 1935 and 1942 is a bit jarring, my only criticism of this album.
Next up is the Irving Berlin classic, “White Christmas” arguably the biggest selling record of all time. The song appeared in the 1942 film Holiday Inn and again in the 1954 film White Christmas (that year’s highest grossing film). The version featured here was recorded in 1947 with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra (this orchestra is on all songs except “Adeste Fideles” and songs featuring the Andrews Sisters, recorded with the Vic Shoen Orchestra).
Next up is another traditional Christmas song “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” followed by “Faith Of Our Fathers” which is a religious song rather than a Christmas song.
Almost as beloved as “White Christmas” is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. This song is sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas during World War II, writing a letter to his family. For the veterans of that war, this song held special meaning.
“Jingle Bells” finds the Andrews Sisters joining Bing as does the jazzy “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. The latter contains Bing’s memorable closing intonation ‘You mean the big fat man with the long white beard’ – followed by the Andrews Sisters refrain ‘he’s coming to town’.
“Silver Bells”, composed by the noted songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, is next followed by “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” composed by Meredith Willson. Willson would later achieve great fame with his play The Music Man.
The album ends with a couple of early 1950s songs about distant shores. “Christmas in Killarney” tells of a Irish Christmas. While not authentic (it is a Tin Pan Alley song), it is a fun song as is the closing number “Mele Kalikimaka” which is simply an approximation of the words ‘Merry Christmas’ in Hawaiian (the Hawaiian alphabet lacks some of the consonants found in European languages). The Andrews Sisters are back for this last song.
My parents wore through several copies of this album and when I was growing up, most of my friends’ parents had a copy of this album.
The album is currently available in the 1955 configuration under the title White Christmas. MCA has also released a two disc set (The Voice of Christmas) of every Christmas song Crosby recorded (44 tracks), except for “Little Drummer Boy” recorded much later with David Bowie for another label.
I come back to this album every year. Other albums may rotate in and out, and some haven’t been played in ages, but this album still delights me as much as when I was a child.
Merry Christmas to all of you!