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‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’: Behind Burl Ives’ Holiday Classic

‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ remains a beloved holiday song, thanks in no small part to singer Burl Ives’ warm, mellow voice. It lights up Christmas every year.

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Burl Ives Holly Jolly Christmas photo 1000
Photo: Universal Music Archives

The singer and actor Burl Ives could easily have played Father Christmas in any stage or film production. The Illinois-born entertainer had the girth (he weighed an imposing 300 pounds), the white beard, the chuckle, and the grin of the very best Santas. It’s fitting, then, that he should be best remembered for the Christmas song “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

Ives, one of the stars of the movie Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The Big Country, was in his mid-50s when he recorded a version of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” for Decca Records in November 1965. It was a return to festive cheer for Ives, who had cut the Decca album Christmas Eve With Burl Ives eight years previously.

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The song itself

“A Holly Jolly Christmas” was written by the late Johnny Marks, a true master of festive songs. As well as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” the New Yorker wrote “Run, Rudolph, Run” (made famous by Chuck Berry) and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which was a massive hit for Gene Autry, and a song that Ives also recorded for Decca.

Ives actually recorded two versions of “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which was written by Marks in 1962, but it is the slower one, released in October 1965, that proved to be so successful. The single was produced by Milt Gabler and arranged by Owen Bradley, who also conducted the orchestra at Brooklyn Studios.

Beloved balladeer Ives had first performed the song on the 1964 Christmas television special Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, in which Ives also did the voice of the narrator, Sam The Snowman. His 1965 single of “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which followed a version by The Quinto Sisters, features a memorable acoustic guitar solo introduction.

Burle Ives, the entertainer

Ives, a former professional footballer and itinerant banjo player – who was born Burle Icle Ivanhoe Ives to English-Irish tenant farmers in Illinois – had a voice that was warm, mellow, and perfectly suited to singing sentimental festive songs. Ives proved that with another hit version of “Frosty The Snowman.”

But it is Ives’ version of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” that became such a success around the world – and which continues to appeal to listeners. The song charted on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2017, 52 years after its original release, peaking at No. 38. Among the numerous artists who have recorded their own versions of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” are Alan Jackson, Johnny Matthis, Faith Hill, and Lady A.

Ives died in April 1995, at the age of 85, from complications of mouth cancer. “I always saw myself as an entertainer,” said the man whose voice continues to light up Christmas.

Looking for more? Discover the best Christmas songs of all time.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. paul Boecker

    December 20, 2019 at 6:52 am

    always my all time Christmas song.

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