Last year over at WNEW.com, I wrote a series of posts about some of rock’s most famous Christmas songs: “I Believe in Father Christmas,” “Please Come Home for Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” “Step Into Christmas,” “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” There are other Christmas warhorses worth knowing a little bit about—maybe not 500 words each, but a little bit anyhow. They appear in no particular order.
“Jingle Bell Rock”/Bobby Helms. A country singer from Indiana, Bobby Helms scored all three of his most famous songs in 1957. “Fraulein” topped the country charts, and so did “My Special Angel” (recorded a decade later by the Vogues). The latter also made the Top Ten on the Hot 100 and on Billboard‘s R&B chart, odd though that may seem. “Jingle Bell Rock” rose to Number 6 on the Hot 100 in early January 1958, and charted again for the next five Christmases. But even after it stopped charting, it stayed on the radio, and it’s still there, 53 years later.
“White Christmas”/The Drifters. An R&B hit at Christmas 1954, “White Christmas” became the Drifters’ first Hot 100 hit a year later, charting at Number 80 during Christmas week. It was occasionally anthologized over succeeding years, but it got its widest exposure in the movie Home Alone in 1990. It’s the one recording of the great Clyde McPhatter that almost everybody knows. When singers tackle it today, they frequently do McPhatter’s verse as parody—but that’s the way the man sang. In recent years, it’s circulated on the Internet with this clever video:
I could watch that thing all day.
“Christmas Ain’t Christmas (Without the One You Love)”/O’Jays. A Gamble and Huff production that was one of the O’Jays’ earliest successes, released in 1969, three years before “Back Stabbers” made them a household name. “Christmas Ain’t Christmas” first appeared on the Gamble and Huff subsidiary label Neptune but was later put out on Philadelphia International, and has been anthologized a million times on various other labels.
“Run Rudolph Run”/Chuck Berry. This song was co-written by Johnny Marks, who wrote the original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and it briefly charted in 1958. “Run Rudolph Run” contains a strange throwaway line at the end of a verse: “Run run Rudolph/Randolph ain’t too far behind,” and while the lines “away went Rudolph/whizzin’ like a Saber jet” sounded up to date in ’58, I am not sure any song about flying reindeer should talk about whizzin’. (Keith Richards covered the song in 1978.)
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”/Brenda Lee. Johnny Marks had a good year in 1958 between “Run Rudolph Run” and this, although Brenda Lee was an unknown when she recorded it, and the song didn’t go anywhere that year. Not until Lee had become a star in 1960, thanks to “I’m Sorry,” did “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” become a hit. It reached Number 14 on the Hot 100 that year and charted the next two Christmases. Like “Jingle Bell Rock,” it fit nicely on Top 40 stations during the 60s and 70s, and by the time formats fragmented in the 80s, its familiarity meant it still fit. Fifty years after it first became a hit, it fits still.