When country music singer Bobby Helms was first offered the chance to sing a new festive song called “Jingle Bell Rock,” he was initially skeptical about the idea of mixing rock’n’roll and Christmas. But he was quickly won over, and his single, issued by Decca Records in October 1957, soon became a holiday classic. “‘Jingle Bell Rock’ has made itself a part of Christmas,” Helms said. “It lifts people up.” Today, you can find it on playlists alongside staples like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” and more.
The recording and reception of “Jingle Bell Rock”
At the time Helms recorded the song, he was already a popular singer. His single “Fraulein” had been another hit for Decca and the Indiana-born singer had become a regular guest on TV, appearing on both American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show.
“Jingle Bell Rock” was composed by two middle-aged men: a public relations professional called Joseph Carleton Beal and an advertising executive called James Ross Boothe. In a 1986 interview, Helms said he made a significant contribution to the song, without being credited. “Jingle Bell Rock” did not originally have a bridge and Helms said he wrote the one that ended up on the final cut: the memorable lines “What a bright time/It’s the right time/To rock the night away.”
The rockabilly beat of the song – Hank Garland’s electric guitar is heard playing the first notes of the chorus – along with the steady beat of jingle bells and sweet back-up singing from The Anita Kerr Quartet all added to the appeal of a song that contained vibrant lyrics such as “Giddy-up jingle horse, pick up your feet.” Ever wondered what a jingle horse is? A decorated reindeer, of course!
The single was an instant hit and featured an intriguing B-side called “Captain Santa Claus (And His Reindeer Space Patrol).” Helms first appeared in the Billboard Top 100 in 1958 – and was back there more than six decades later when “Jingle Bell Rock” re-appeared in the charts in 2018.
The song’s legacy
The popularity of Helms’ festive hit has prompted numerous cover versions down the years, including one on Decca, released in 1959, by Max Bygraves, that went to No. 7 in the UK. Kylie Minogue, The Beach Boys, Hall & Oates, Chubby Checker, and The Platters have also recorded “Jingle Bell Rock.” More recently, the song has been covered by artists like Ariana Grande, Brenda Lee, and Mariah Carey. (Mariah’s version can be heard on her Christmas album that features “All I Want For Christmas.”)
But Helms’ version is the go-to song for soundtracks. His take on “Jingle Bell Rock” has been used in The Simpsons, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, South Park and Family Guy, and in numerous movies, including Lethal Weapon and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. It even makes an appearance in the Mean Girls Jingle Bell Rock choreography at the talent show.
Helms continued touring and recording for the rest of his life without matching his early hits. He also got into the nightclub business and took on sponsoring country music festivals. The singer died from emphysema and asthma at the age of 63, in June 1997. His music will live on as long as Christmas is celebrated. So whenever you feel like having a little jingle hop, throw this song on to have a jingle bell time.
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