Last year at Christmastime, we found out that among the most-played Christmas songs on radio, the newest one is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” first released in 1994. The Christmas canon of modern times, Nat and Bing and Lennon and Springsteen and “Feliz Navidad” and McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and a couple of cuts from the Phil Spector album, has been pretty well set since the late 70s. But what was it like before then? In 1971 and 1973, American Top 40 presented special shows counting down the top 40 Christmas songs. We can use them to get a look at what were considered to be the Christmas pop-radio essentials 40 years ago.
Both countdowns were topped by Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” although Casey closed both shows not with that, but with Crosby’s “Silent Night.” Largely forgotten now, it was once one of the most popular Christmas records, and for the better part of 40 years after it first charted in 1935. Crosby is a fixture on both of these shows, with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and his versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (both with the Andrews Sisters) placing within the top 20 both years.
The top seven songs in each countdown were the exactly the same: “White Christmas,” Gene Autry’s “Rudolph,” the original “Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale, Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” the original “Silver Bells” by Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely, and the Ray Conniff Singers’ version of “Winter Wonderland.” Down the line, the two countdowns are mostly the same, although the positions are different, and Casey plays different and/or multiple versions of some of the songs, or montages of various performances.
Only three songs from the 1971 countdown failed to make the cut in 1973: “If Everyday Was Like Christmas” by Elvis, “Santo Natale” by David Whitfield, and “Christmas Dragnet” by Stan Freberg. They were replaced by “Lonesome Christmas” by Lowell Fulson, “Marshmallow World” by Bing Crosby, and “Merry Christmas Darling” by the Carpenters. (David Whitfield was a British singer with an operatic tenor voice, and “Santo Natale” was a hit at Christmas 1954. Lowell Fulson’s “Lonesome Christmas,” which dates back to 1950, is as far opposite “Santo Natale” as you can get on this planet.) The Yogi Yorgesson novelty “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” made it both years, although Casey didn’t play the whole thing in 1973.
Dear, dead analog days, how we miss you sometimes. Casey and his producers had a lot of trouble finding broadcast-quality versions of some of their choices, including “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen, which despite having sold millions beginning in 1967, was unavailable in a clean-enough version to be featured on the 1971 show. Also omitted for the same reason: “If Everyday Was Like Christmas.” That hads been released as a single in 1966 and was on the 1970 reissue of Elvis’ Christmas Album. You’d think there would have been at least one clean copy somewhere in Hollywood. Songs by Frankie Laine, Dennis Day (!), and the Andrews Sisters also went unheard in 1971 because clean versions couldn’t be found. In 1971, Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” was played off what AT40 chronicler Rob Durkee describes in his book on the show as a scratchy record.
What’s weird about the Royal Guardsmen and Elvis omissions in 1971 is that they were the newest ones on the countdown at the time. When “Merry Christmas Darling” made the cut in 1973, it became the newest one on the list. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was out by then and so was “Feliz Navidad,” but neither one made it yet. Motown had released a spate of Christmas albums by 1973, yet only Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Jackson Five made the cut, and only in montage form.
Based on the Durkee’s rundown, the 1973 show, filled with montages and multiple versions of many Christmas classics, would have been mighty entertaining. But it also shows that the Christmas radio canon was just as fossilized in the early 70s as it is now.