Once a year, we pull out some familiar hit songs from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60, which we never do in any other season but Christmas. Many new Christmas songs come out every year, but few become standards like “White Christmas” or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Ben Yagoda tells us how that happened, and gives us some memorable tidbits about Christmas music, like the story of “Silver Bells,” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for the movie The Lemon Drop Kid.
Ever the efficient and compliant craftsmen—and aware that their contract was up for renewal in a brutal time for studio songwriters—they produced a simple but memorable song called “Tinkle Bells,” about the Salvation Army workers on busy city streets. When Jay told his wife about it she said, “Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word ‘tinkle’ means to most people?’” The boys kept the melody and changed title to “Silver Bells.” Bing Crosby and Carol Richards’s recording, released before the film, was so popular that the studio called Hope co-star Marilyn Maxwell into the studio to reshoot a more elaborate production number. Hope made “Silver Bells” his Christmas theme, performing it every year on his holiday television special. The website devoted to Ray Evans’s legacy lists 224 recordings of a song, from Clay Aiken through Stevie Wonder. And, yes, their contract was renewed.