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Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire
By Danny McBride - 06/06/2007 - 09:25 AM EDT

What do Holly Jolly Christmas sung by Burl Ives, Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree sung by Brenda Lee, and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer sung by Gene Autry all have in common? Yes they're all traditional pop tunes replayed every Holiday Season, and yes they've all been recorded many many times by dozens of other artists, but that's not the answer I'm looking for. Nope. The answer I'm looking for is that all three songs were composed by one man- -Johnny Marks.

You may know the story of Rudolph. Before he became a major league baseball team owner (The American League's Anaheim Angels) and broadcast mogul (many radio and TV stations), Gene Autry was not only a box office star of Saturday Matinee Oaters (Westerns), he was a major recording artist- -Had the number one hit on You Are My Sunshine back in the early thirties. (The song's composer, The Two-Time Governor of Louisiana, Jimmie Davis, just recently passed away at the age of 101.) One sometimes forgets that standards have composers! (And that composers have standards!!) Just for your catalogue of "Best Of" albums, I would suggest you add Gene's Greatest Hits- -impeccably played and sung "Western Swing" of the thirties and forties- -The real deal --Lots of hits- -And because so many were recorded for movie soundtracks, the recordings are excellent, having been recorded on movie soundstages in the old Hollywood "three-track" system.

Anyway, back in 1949, Gene was in the studio to record four songs (remember- -all live in those days) and they had cut three, and still had a block of their time not used up (How often does THAT happen!!). So they started to talk over which of several submissions they might do to fill the time. They figured the song would probably end up on the "B" side of the record (78 rpms in those days) so it didn't much matter. Gene's wife, Ina Mae, was at the session, and while she wasn't officially part of the creative team, she was partial to one of the songs which had been discussed and rejected. Well, you can guess the rest. Nobody involved wanted to do Rudolph, but to please the Missus, Gene finally gave in and said "Okay". What did it matter? It was only going to be a "B" side, not an "A"cut. Thank you Mrs Autry!!

Mr Marks enjoyed considerable success in the "Holiday Music" field his entire career. The Brenda Lee original cut in 1958 continued to chart every year for the next few years, as do all the big-time seasonal standards. White Christmas by Bing Crosby, written by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn in 1942, won the Academy Award for Best Song, and continued to chart for the following TWENTY years, something NO OTHER SONG has ever come close to doing. It was for all of those years and most since, the biggest selling single ever (over 30 million copies).

I guess the point is that good holiday songs have staying power. Angels We Have Heard On High wins for all-time longevity. Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome, A.D. 129! That's right ONE-TWENTY-NINE. Make that One-Thousand-Eight-Hundred-Seventy-One years ago. Now THAT'S staying power. (Glor-or-i-or-ior-ia!!) Makes a piker out of Greensleeves, which, as What Child Is This? only dates from 1642, or the Coventry Carol which first appeared in 1591, or Good Christian Men Rejoice, by John Weddeburn, 1540. Relative newcomers such as Handel's Joy To The World (1742), or Jingle Bells, written by a Unitarian Minister named John Pierpont born in 1785 hardly deserve a mention!!

I think I've made my point. You want to write a hit with staying power? Think Christmas.

It's no longer an easy thing to do, not that writing a hit ever was. Almost all of the good pop Holiday tunes were written during one twenty-five year period, from about 1940 until 1965- -A few before, a few since, but most of the ones we sing every year were written then. Why? Hmmm…It's a bit complicated and it's all cultural- -what we were then and what we've become. Check the copyrights and you'll see I'm right.

Before the invention and popularity of the phonograph about a hundred years ago, all "hits" were available only as sheet music (DUH!), dating back about fifty years before that. Listen To The Mocking Bird was the big hit of 1854, and is generally thought to be our first Number One Hit song. Before that there were favorites, but nobody kept track of sales. Both Stephen Foster (Old Folks At Home, Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races) and Daniel Emmett (Dixie) died penniless.

When sheet music began to be demonstrated by piano players and singers along New York's "Tin Pan Alley" in the 1890s, and the concept of new hit songs took off, it was mostly for inclusion in popular live vaudeville reviews. It was still a decade or two before radio would make songs into instant national classics. By the end of the 1920s, established radio performers and talking pictures created a demand for new material at a pace never before seen. And this began to include seasonal Holiday music. At first, pop artists such as Bing Crosby who were Christian did smooth renditions of the established Christmas Carols. Others did "winter" tunes, such as Jingle Bells, but there was no real pop Holiday Hit until 1934 when J F Coots' Santa Claus Is Coming To Town was a smash. A few tunes followed in the next few years, but it wasn't until The War years, when longing for home and hearth was at its peak during the Holiday Season, that tunes about the season really began to arrive EVERY season. Some, like 1946's Mel Torme classic The Christmas Song, better known by its first line "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire", will no doubt be sung for centuries to come, just as are all the other biggies mentioned earlier. I'm not so sure about all the Christmas Classics during that 25 year period.

And just for yuks, what do you suppose the biggest-selling hit was during that time period, not counting Rudolph and White Christmas, as Casey Kasem would say "During the rock era"? Yup. You feared it was true: The Chipmunk Song from 1958. Ross Bagdasarian recording as David Seville, had had a novelty hit the year before called The Witch Doctor in which he used the variable speed of a reel-to-reel tape recorder to pitch his voice into the stratosphere, and sing along with himself. He duplicated the effect the next Christmas, more correctly TRIP-licated the effect, to create Simon, Theodore, and Alvin- -The Chipmunks. This smash novelty hit on Liberty Records won three Grammy awards, and was the only Number One Hit of the "rock era". Other mainstays, such as Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms, charted for many years after its debut in 1957, but never peaked any higher than Number Six in Billboard. Oh, and you should know this- -The names of the three top executives at Liberty Records in 1958? Right! Simon, Theodore, and Alvin.

As the sixties progressed, a secularism permeated the culture, so that even though The Beatles made Christmas greeting recordings to play on radio, most acts of the newer rock idiom did not make Christmas albums, although they still may have released their biggest product of the year just in time for Holiday gift-giving. Country and Adult Contemporary artists still did Christmas albums, but because of the segmenting of radio formats during the seventies and eighties and today, you are less likely to hear actual new Christmas or Holiday music on a regular basis in any given year as once was the case before radio chopped itself into "Country", "CHR", "Alternative", "Classic Rock", "Hot AC" and whatever else. For those too young to remember, Top Forty music stations of thirty years ago played a great variety of music all mixed together- -they all did- -except jazz or classical- -so that you often had to sit through, say, Al Martino to get to a Rolling Stones song. The new song about "AM Radio" by Everclear tells this story very well.

Just when you think there's no way to ever do something new, someone "Lets The Dogs Out" or urges you to "Always Wear Sunscreen", or whatever, so it's up to you. Writing a song this Holiday Season that you can pitch for next year could be your greatest present to yourself. Go for it.

And by the way, Happy Holidays.

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