Let’s face it: Christmas simply wouldn’t be Christmas without Frank Sinatra. The words “Sinatra” and “Christmas” are inextricably intertwined in western culture. In fact, Christmas doesn’t really seem like Christmas until you’ve heard Sinatra’s warm baritone singing ‘Silent Night’ or ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, either on the radio, in a restaurant, a shopping mall, or at home on the stereo. There are plenty of Frank Sinatra Christmas recordings, and hearing his voice helps to conjure the spirit of the approaching holiday season. When you hear Ol’ Blue Eyes wrap his voice around ‘The First Noel’ you know that the holidays are well and truly on their way.
So where does Sinatra’s association with Christmas come from? Well, it goes right back to 1948, the year the LP format was introduced by Sinatra’s then record label, Columbia. That was when the 32-year-old man who would come to be known as The Chairman Of The Board released Christmas Songs By Sinatra, the first Frank Sinatra Christmas album, arranged by the redoubtable Axel Stordahl. It contained eight traditional holiday songs, beginning with ‘White Christmas’ (a song he first recorded in 1944 as a single), alongside carols such as ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ – apparently one of Sinatra’s favourites – and culminating with ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’.
The world would have to wait nine years for another Frank Sinatra Christmas album, by which time Sinatra had established himself as a master of The Great American Songbook and moved to a new label, Capitol, for whom he would serve up some of the best work of his career.
“Do you think you could jolly that up for me?”
By 1957, Sinatra was once again in the mood to celebrate and released his second festive LP, A Jolly Christmas With Frank Sinatra, which found him revisiting some of the songs from his first Yuletide album as well as recording new material in the company of arranger Gordon Jenkins. What’s striking about that album is Sinatra’s version of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, a song written by Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin, and originally sung by Judy Garland in the 1947 movie Meet Me In St Louis.
Evidently, Sinatra felt the original lyrics were too downbeat. In 2007, a 93-year-old Hugh Martin recalled that, back in 1957, prior to recording the song for the second time, Sinatra called the lyricist to ask “if I would rewrite the ‘muddle through somehow’ line”. The songwriter remembered that Sinatra told him: “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” Martin agreed and made several revisions, the major one being the removal of the line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”, replacing it with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. The alteration completely lifted the mood of the song, transforming it from a lugubrious meditation into a quietly uplifting song of hope. Sinatra recorded the new version and helped to transform a largely-ignored movie tune into a bona fide standard that a raft of singers have since covered.
The first Frank Sinatra Christmas special was also recorded for TV in 1957. Happy Holidays With Bing And Frank was aired on 20 December, helping to cement in the public’s mind an indelible association between Frank Sinatra and the holiday season.
I wouldn’t trade Christmas
Three years later, in 1960, a 45-year-old Sinatra left Capitol to found his own record company, Reprise, and began a new phase of his career. Though he contributed one song (‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’) to a 1963 compilation LP called Frank Sinatra And His Friends Want You To Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – a festive showcase of artists on the Reprise label – it wasn’t until the following year that he recorded his first proper Christmas album for his new company. 12 Songs Of Christmas featured The Chairman’s old sparring partner, the sonorous-voiced Bing Crosby, on two songs, while the backing was provided by popular bandleader Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians (earlier the same year, they had all collaborated on the Reprise album America, I Hear You Singing).
Four years on, in 1968, a very different Frank Sinatra Christmas extravaganza emerged, courtesy of Sinatra and his immediate family’s The Sinatra Family Wish You A Merry Christmas. Though it was recorded in July and August of that year, the arrangements – complete with tinkling sleigh bells – helped to conjure an authentic Christmas feeling. The album combined traditional Yuletide fare with lesser-known ditties such as Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s ‘I Wouldn’t Trade Christmas’, and Jimmy Webb’s ‘What Happened To Christmas’. With stellar arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Don Costa, Sinatra served up some heart-warming performances with his children Nancy (whose own career as a singer was blooming spectacularly at this point), Frank Jr and Tina.
“Nobody embraced Christmas as he did”
Since his death, in 1998, there have been countless compilations dedicated to Sinatra’s seasonal material. The most significant of them is Frank Sinatra Christmas Collection, which came out in 2004 and cherry-picked key cuts from his Reprise era. What distinguished it from other Frank Sinatra Christmas albums was the inclusion of previously unreleased material, including a duet with Bing Crosby and a rendition of ‘Silent Night’ which Sinatra had recorded in 1991 at the age of 75. It marked the final time Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded a Christmas carol.
We know that Sinatra liked to record Yuletide songs but what was his take on Christmas? According to his daughter, Nancy, in an interview with Variety magazine, her father loved the holiday season. “Nobody embraced Christmas as he did,” she remembered. That’s not surprising, given the warmth and sincerity that shines through his many recordings of Yuletide songs.
Christmas, then, wouldn’t be the same without Frank Sinatra. For many, he’s the only singer who can bring the holidays vividly to life. It’s he, alone, who can make the tinsel glitter and the snow glisten, warming our hearts with a profound sense of bonhomie and goodwill to all. And, of course, aside from being a time of both religious observance and exchanging gifts, Christmas is also a time of celebration – and no one could celebrate quite like Sinatra.
It’s not outrageous to contend that Frank Sinatra is the voice of Christmas. He is to the holiday season what snow is to winter: an essential component of the whole experience. His Yuletide songs provide an essential soundtrack that is mellow and reflective, yet also bright and mirthful, conjuring up the “happy golden days of yore” he sang of in his 1957 recording of ‘The Christmas Song’.
Frank Sinatra, then, is the perennial Christmas No.1. He’ll be at the top of the tree for some time to come.
Follow the Frank Sinatra Best Of playlist for more essential Sinatra.