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Jingle Bell Rock


Jingle Bell Rock
Various Artists

Time-Life Music

Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a black and white issue, a music of mergers originating with union of rhythm and blues and country and western. Black influences dominated early, so it’s no surprise that the first rock ‘n’ roll era Christmas standards belongs to an R&B group, The Drifters, who released their version of White Christmas in 1954. Bing Crosby it wasn’t. The sound was hip, even jive – Irving Berlin pop turned finger-popping cool. Bill Pinckney’s basso profundo pitted against the weightless tenor of Clyde McPhatter resulted in arguably the best seasonal hybrid ever.

The fact that this snappy arrangement came from the Ravens – vocal-group pioneers responsible for the first R&B white Christmas in 1948 – only showed that Christmas and black musical styles were compatible long before rock ‘n’ roll was born. While Lionel Hampton and Leadbelly cut some early R&B Christmas sides during the mid-‘40s, it was Nat “King” Cole-influenced Charles Brown who made R&B a permanent Christmas fixture, thanks to his 1947 recording of Merry Christmas Baby with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers.

From the outset, rock ‘n’ roll met with heavy scrutiny and public outcries, none louder than when record companies, none louder than when record companies saw fit to mix boughs of holly with a backbeat, a risky yet commercially astute move. All the huffing about besmirching tradition couldn’t harm sales of Elvis’ Christmas Album. Success followed a simple formula: write (or wisely select) a catchy original tune with a Christmas theme, or match artistic style to a traditional holiday song without compromising either side, and the record would sell itself year after year.

Witness Jingle Bell Rock, which has sold well over 10 million copies since 1957. Bobby Helms started out singing country music on his father’s radio show in Monroe County, Indiana. His first singles, Fraulein and My Special Angel, did well on the C&W and pop charts, but it took Jingle Bell Rock to catapult him into the spotlight. Helms recorded sporadically through the ‘60s and ‘70s without scoring another major hit.

“Little Miss Dynamite,” Brenda Lee, was all of 11 years old (Decca falsely advertised that she was nine) when she issued her first Christmas 45, I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus. Two years later in 1958, backed by the cream of Nashville session players, Lee recorded Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, which, oddly enough, did not chart until 1960. It now reside among the top 10 Christmas songs of all time, another perennial favorite from Johnny Marks, who also wrote Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Speaking of Rudolph, Chuck Berry introduces Santa’s favorite sleigh puller with his signature Johnny B. Goode guitar riff. Instead of “Go, Johnny, Go,” the command is Run, Rudolph, Run, and the red-nosed one “whizzes like a Saber jet” to deliver the goodies. Berry has his best year in 1958, racking up top 20 hits with Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode and Carol. As his sixth charted single of 1958, Run, Rudolph, Run has aged well. Subsequent versions by British rockers Keith Richards, Dave Edmunds and Foghat attest to Rudolph’s, not to mention Berry’s, staying power.

It may never snow in Southern California but that didn’t keep guys who dream about the perfect wave from waxing Christmas tunes. The Man With All The Toys by Brian Wilson shows the influence of the Four Freshmen on the Beach Boys’ close harmonies. Wilson cronies Jan and Dean send up Frosty The Snow Man with goofy doo-wop parodies. Another Los Angeles-based duo, Marvin and Johnny, simmer down the Holiday mood in It’s Christmas. These singers are best remembered for a pair of 1954 hits, Cherry Pie and Tick Tack. Southern Californians by guitar sound only, the Ventures fuse a little of their Walk Don’t Run into the twangiest Sleigh Ride on record.

St. Nick is more sinner than saint in Jack Scotts’ There’s Trouble Brewin’. This fat man is on the make, and he’s as dangerous as Presley’s swaggering Santa in Santa Claus Is Back In Town or Clarence Carter’s sneaky Back Door Santa. Canadian-born Scott began in the ‘50s as a rockabilly singer, a la Presley and Conway Twitty, then became a master of the ballad, with songs like Burning Bridges and What In The World’s Come Over You. Scott still tours now and then, mostly in Europe where he has a large following.

Between the time she sang gospel at her fathers New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit and her reign began as Lady soul in the late ‘60s, Aretha Franklin struggled to find a musical direction. Columbia Records A&R executive John Hammond signed her to a contract in 1960, and for the next six years she floundered as a gifted singer in search of material and a producer. Winter Wonderland from 1964 finds Aretha in a kittenish mood, much like Diana Ross, caressing the melody rather than belting it out. Big changes lay ahead for Franklin. When she switched to Atlantic in 1966 with Jerry Wexler producing, the hits rolled.

Persistence also paid off for the O’Jays. As the Mascots in Canton, Ohio, they were championed by a Cleveland DJ, Eddie O’Jay, and renamed themselves the O’Jays to show their gratitude. They bounced around a number of labels during the ‘60s and enjoyed only moderate success until joining forces with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, architects of the Philadelphia Sound, in 1969. Christmas Ain’t Christmas Without The One You Love from that year is textbook Philly soul: sleek and richly orchestrated. Gamble and Huff made stars out of the Stylistics, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Billy Paul besides the O’Jays, who hit their stride with Back Stabbers in 1972.

By the late ‘60s, Berry Gordy Jr. had built himself quite an empire at Motown. His artist stable was amazing, and most of his acts recorded at least one Christmas album. The Motown stamp – hot production geared to one of the best rhythm sections in all popular music – is instantly identifiable in the Temptations’ Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, with the effortless falsetto of Eddie Kendricks shining forth, and Go Tell It On The Mountain, a Smokey Robinson showcase.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by the Jackson 5 retains the youthful exuberance of the original Jimmy Boyd version, recorded before Boyd turned 13. It sold 248,000 copies in one day, and more than a million by Christmas. Michael Jackson likewise was 12 when the Jackson 5 Christmas Album, which included this song, came out in 1970.

A far more down-home Christmas sentiment is expressed in Otis Redding’s approach to Merry Christmas Baby, a posthumous 1968 release, as was his biggest seller (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay. Redding hailed from Macon, Georgia, the same city that claims Little Richard and James Brown. Recognition, long overdue, was finally coming his way after an electrifying performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival woke America up. Several months later, he died in a plane crash en route to a gig. He was 26, barely in his prime. The music world recognized that it had lost a great talent, much as it had in 1959 with Buddy Holly.

Redding’s occasional duet partner at Stax Records, Carla Thomas, borrowed the title of her 1961 hit Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes) for Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas, Dodie Stevens had gone a step further back in 1960 with Merry, Merry Christmas Baby, an outright steal of the Tune Weavers’ 1957 hit Happy, Happy Birthday Baby. This enterprising teenager gained national recognition in 1959 when her novelty song Pink Shoe Laces made it to No. 3 on the charts.

King Curtis and Booker T. and The MG’s, house band for the Stax/Volt label, were more often heard than heard of. These studio legends appeared on records by such artists as the Coasters, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Sam and Dave when not involved with their own projects. The MG’s put down a rock-steady groove in Jingle Bells. Curtis, normally a honking tenor sax blower familiar for his solos on Yakety Yak and his own homegrown recipe, Memphis Soul Stew, plays the Christmas Song straight as a lovely ballad, his generous tone dominating.

The “Anything Goes” attitude of the ‘70s meant that nothing was sacred, least of all Christmas.  That accounts for the blitz of heavy metal, disco, punk, new wave, reggae and rap records that rocked and razed Christmas to its very roots. In the middle of this Yuletide upheaval was Reginald Kenneth Dwight, a.k.a. Elton Hercules John, king of the pop charts during the early ‘70s. John, in true Santa spirit, routinely gave Rolls-Royces, Rembrandts and fancy clothes to close friends and band members. Step Into Christmas capped 1973, the year of Crocodile Rock, Daniel and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, among other hits penned by John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin. It’s a typically big production number, beat-heavy, album-oriented radio fare at is best. Elton’ s invitation to step onto the turntable isn’t too outrageous, considering his past shenanigans. One question remains: Are we to do this while his records is spinning?

– Charles McCardell


1. Jingle Bell Rock (2:08)

Bobby Helms
Music and lyrics by Joe Beal and Jim Boothe.
Original issue: Decca 30513 (1957).
Courtesy of MCA Records, Inc.

2. Run, Rudolph, Run (2:43)
Chuck Berry
Music and lyrics by Chuck Berry.
Original issue: Chess 1714 (1958).
Courtesy of MCA Records, Inc.,

3. Merry Christmas Baby (2:29)
Otis Redding
Music and lyrics by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore.
Original Issue: ATCO 6631 (1968).
Produced under license from Atlantic Recording Corp.

4. Go Tell It On The Mountain (3:40)
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
Traditional, arranged and adapted by Jimmy Roach.
Original issue: Tamla 307 (1970).
Courtesy of Motown Record Corp.

5. My Favorite Things (2:45)
The Supremes
Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Original issue: Motown 638 (1965)
Courtesy of Motown Record Corp.

6. White Christmas (2:35)

The Drifters
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.
Original issue: Atlantic 1048 (1954)
Produced under license from Atlantic Recording Corp.

7. The Man With All The Toys (1:30)
The Beach Boys
Music and lyrics by Brian Wilson.
Original issue: Capitol 5312 (1964).
Courtesy of Capitol Records, Inc.

8. Jingle Bells (2:27)

Booker T and the MG's
Music by James S. Pierpont
Arranged by Booker T and the MG’s.
Original issue: Stax 203 (1966).
Produced under license from Atlantic Recording Corp.

9. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (2:55)
The Temptations
Music and lyrics by Johnny Marks.
Original issue: Gordy 951 (1969).
Courtesy of Motown Record Corp.

10. Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas (2:38)
Carla Thomas
Music and lyrics by Carla Thomas and Steve Cropper.
Original issue: Atlantic 2212 (1963).
Produced under license from Atlantic Recording Group.

11. Someday At Christmas (2:38)
The Jackson 5
Music and lyrics by Ronald Miller and Bryan Wells.
Original issue: Motown 713 (1970).
Courtesy of Motown Record Corp.

12. Frosty The Snow Man (2:04)

Jan and Dean
Music and lyrics by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins.
Original issue: Liberty 55522 (1962).
Courtesy of EMI America Records, a Division of
Capitol Records, Inc.

13. The Christmas Song (2:55)
King Curtis
Music by Mel Torme and Robert Wells.
Original issue: ATCO 6630 (1968).
Produced under license from Atlantic Recording Corp.

14. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree (2:03)
Brenda Lee
Music and lyrics by Johnny Marks.
Original issue: Decca 30776 (1958).
Courtesy of MCA Records, Inc.

15. Medley: Deck The Halls/Bring A Torch (3:55)
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
Traditional, arranged and adapted by Jimmy Roach.
Original issue: Tamla 307 (1970).
Courtesy of Motown Record Corp.

16. It’s Christmas (2:14)
Marvin and Johnny
Music and lyrics by Marvin Phillips and Joe Josea.
Original issue: Alladin 3439 (1958).
Courtesy of EMI America Records, a Division of
Capitol Records, Inc.

17. My Christmas Tree (3:05)
The Temptations
Music and lyrics by Jim Webb.
Original issue: Gordy 951 (1969).
Courtesy of Motown Record Corp.

18. Sleigh Ride (2:20)
The Ventures
Music by Leroy Anderson.
Original issue: Dolton 312 (1965).
Courtesy of EMI America Records, a Division of
Capitol Records, Inc.

19. Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas Without
The One You Love (2:12)

The O'Jays
Music and lyrics by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Original issue: Neptune 20 (1969)
(P) 1973 CBS, Inc.

20. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (2:59)
The Jackson 5
Music and lyrics by Tommie Conner.
Original issue: Motown 713 (1970).
Courtesy of Motown Records Corp.

21. There’s Trouble Brewin’ (2:22)

Jack Scott
Music and lyrics by Laura Veronica.
Original issue: Groove 0027 (1963).
Courtesy of RCA Records, a label of BMG Music

22. Merry, Merry Christmas Baby (2:11)
Dodie Stevens
Music and lyrics by Gilbert Lopez and Margo Sylvia.
Original issue: Dot 16166 (1960).
Courtesy of MCA Records, Inc.

23. Winter Wonderland (2:09)

Aretha Franklin
Music by Felix Bernard, lyrics by Richard Smith.
Original issue: Columbia 43177 (1964).

24. This Christmas (3:26)
Donny Hathaway
Music and lyrics by Donny Hathaway and Nadine McKinnor. Original issue: ATCO 6799 (1970).
Produced under license from Atlantic Recording Corp.

25. Step Into Christmas (4:22)

Elton John
Music by Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin.
Original issue: MCA 65018 (1973).
Courtesy of MCA Records, Inc.

Time Life Music President: Paul R. Stewart
Vice President: Terry Furlong
Executive Producer: Douglas B. Graham
Executive Committee: Marla Hoskins, Joan Mayor, Jerry Rendich, Richard G. Scheiner

Recording Producers: Bill Fry, Joe Sasfy
Art Director: Don Sheldon
Production Coordinator: Brian Miller
Pictures: Betty H. Weatherley
Art Studio: Nina Bridges

Jingle Bell Rock was produced by Time-Life Music in cooperation with CBS Special Products.

Proprietary equipment and engineering by Fry Systems, Arlington, VA., using AEG professional audio tape recorders.

Cutting engineer: Alan Moy, Masterdisk, New York.

The Author: Charles McCardell is a regular contributor to the Washington Post and his articles have also appeared in High Fidelity, Musical America and Musician.

Time-Life wishes to thank William L. Schurk of the Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, for providing valuable reference material.
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