Sunday 11 December 2011

Swingin' round the Christmas tree

Inspired by Mim over at Crinoline Robot and Lily at Lil Vintage Me posting up their favourite Christmas songs, and finally feeling a bit festive having put the tree up, I thought now would be the time to add a few more of my own Yuletide tunes.  Last year I did a post around one of my vintage Christmas CDs A Vintage Christmas Cracker: 47 Original Mono Recordings 1915-1949, now sadly out of print (keeps your eyes peeled, charity shoppers!) so this year I intend to include a few that I stumbled across on Youtube that aren't on any of my compilations and may not even be on any CD at all!

The reason why there is not a lot of "modern" Christmas music to be found much before the 1930s is simply because it hadn't been written or recorded yet! (The exception being Jingle Bells which, being written in 1857, was recorded as early as 1898).

Everything changed in 1934, however, when both Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town and Winter Wonderland were written, the former by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie (both of whom also penned You Go To My Head, and Gillespie Breezin' Along With The Breeze) and the latter by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith.

Through October and November of 1934 these songs were all cut by several different bands.  Harry Reser and His Orchestra were the first to record Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town on the 24th October 1934 and it featured in my Christmas music post last year; they beat George Hall and the Hotel Taft Orchestra by just under three weeks.  That version was recorded on the 13th November 1934 and sounds like this:

A year later in 1935 it was recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra:

In the same year Benny Goodman and His Orchestra also recorded the classic Jingle Bells and for my money it is one of the best arrangements I've ever heard:

As well as that much-loved Christmas standard Goodman also recorded in 1935 a Johnny Mercer composition, Santa Claus Came In The Spring:

Winter Wonderland meanwhile really took off and was promptly recorded by no less than three bands, representing the three big record labels of the time.  RCA was the first with Richard Himber and His Hotel Ritz-Carlton Orchestra on the 23rd October 1934.  It was a happy accident - the vocalist Joey Nash stumbled across the handwritten manuscript and a homemade recording given to him by the brother of Richard B. Smith and convinced Himber to include it in the 23/10/34 recording session.  Unfortunately technical problems meant they ran out of time before Winter Wonderland could be recorded and Himber left the studio.  Nash was so enamoured with the song, however, that he convinced the rest of the band to stay behind and finish the recording.  They agreed on the one condition that if any mistake were made there would be no second chances.  Therefore what you hear now was made in one take, without the bandleader(!):

Ted Weems and His Orchestra recorded Winter Wonderland for Columbia on the 11th November 1934, but it was Guy Lombardo and His Orchestra on the Decca label who had the biggest hit, making the top 10 at the time.  Typically, the most successful version is the one that's not on Youtube, but here is the Ted Weems version:

Moving on a couple of years to 1937, Dick Robertson and His Orchestra recorded another rare seasonal composition on the 19th October - I Want You For Christmas:

Jumping forward a few years again to 1941 we return to Benny Goodman and His Orchestra who on the 27th November 1941 recorded this wintry number with Peggy Lee and Art Lund singing the vocals:

Finally, we find ourselves in 1947 with Frank Carle and His Orchestra who recorded this seldom-heard number, with Marjorie Hughes taking the vocals:

So there we are - enough songs there to make a CD I reckon, but alas few if any are available in that format.  Still, it's nice to think that people were swinging along to Christmas tunes like this in the Thirties and Forties and that they can be found today with a bit of searching.  Maybe there's hope for a CD yet.  In the meantime thank goodness for Youtube is all I can say.  I hope these classic tunes put you in the vintage Christmas mood, as they have me.


  1. What a fabulously insightful post. Such a shame that CD is out of production. Well - you can have it from Amazon.... for £77. Yes - I shall have to keep my eyes peeled for a charity shop find!

  2. Top stuff, Bruce! You do find the best music :)

  3. I always scour charity shops for Xmas can find out of season gems for pennies.

    A lovely collection here; of course with a laptop and decent speakers, who even needs a CD? :)


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