Is there a more evocative Christmas song?
Ever since Bing released his original version in 1942 both artists and songwriters have been trying to go one better than Bing Crosby. His recording of ‘White Christmas’ is ubiquitous and along the way has become the biggest selling single of all time, racking up sales of 50 million in the process. Among the many things that makes this achievement remarkable is that the song was written by a Jewish singing waiter; a man who does not even celebrate Christmas.
Every year, the first time your hear Bing’s mellifluous tones telling us that “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know…” we know that all is good in the world.
The story behind ‘White Christmas’ is fascinating. Crosby’s original version recorded in May 1942 for Decca – most Christmas songs over the years have been made during the summer months – is not the one we usually hear today. Crosby made an almost identical version in 1947 because the original master tape had worn out as it was constantly being repressed to meet with the demand.
The song’s writer, Izzy Baline, the former singing waiter, from New York’s Chinatown was born Israel Beilin in Belarus; he later became Irving Berlin, one of America’s greatest ever songwriters. Irving Berlin, who also wrote ‘God Bless America’, had a musical secretary, because the songwriter could not read or write music – and he could only bash out a melody on the black keys of a piano. He generally hummed the tune and dictated the words. A number of years after writing it, Berlin was asked how a member of the Jewish faith could write ‘White Christmas’, “I wrote it as an American.” Berlin, aged 5, his parents and eight siblings had moved to America in 1893.
Considering Bing’s version is definitive, which incidentally took only 18 minutes to record, it is amazing just how many people have had a go at doing their own version of this classic. They range from Bob Marley to Stiff Little Fingers, Willie Nelson to Bob Dylan and U2 to Elvis Presley: Irving Berlin even fought a legal campaign to get Elvis Presley’s version banned. You can understand his point because on the day Berlin walked into his office on Broadway with the song in his head, he said, “Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”
‘White Christmas’ had its first public broadcast on Christmas Eve 1941 during Bing Crosby’s radio show…just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which is possibly why it became such an important song to American servicemen serving overseas. It spoke to them and those left behind of safer, saner, times.
The song that has come closest to rivalling White Christmas is the one that begins, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” – Mel Torme’s ‘The Christmas Song’. As well as being a songwriter Mel was a fantastic singer who recorded some great albums for Verve Records, but it was not his version that was the original hit. Nat King Cole against the wishes of his record company recorded his version in 1946, the first of four occasions he made a recording of it. It’s another song that his been covered by well over a hundred artists including, Diana Ross, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and the Carpenters.
But whatever happens in the future, ‘White Christmas’ by Bing Crosby will always remain the greatest Christmas song.