Monday, December 21, 2009

White Christmas (the song, not the movie)

Even decades after its release, one song remains the best selling single of all time. It is not a song by Elvis Presley. It's not even a song by The Beatles. It is a song originally performed by Bing Crosby and written by Irving Berlin. Its title is "White Christmas."

It was in 1938 that Twentieth Century Fox produced Alexander's Ragtime Band, a musical which drew inspiration from three three different Irving Berlin songs. Paramount decided that it wanted to do a similar film. Fortunately for Paramount, Irving Berlin had an idea that had been floating around his head since he had written "Easter Parade" for his 1933 production As Thousands Cheer. Quite simply, Berlin wanted to write a play about American holidays. The play never came to be, even after Berlin and playwright Moss Hart made plans for just such a show to be titled Stars on My Shoulder. Berlin later mentioned the idea to director Mark Sandrich. The result was the movie Holiday Inn, the movie which would introduce "White Christmas" to the world.

Precisely when "White Christmas" was written has been a matter of question. Generally, it has been assumed that the song was written specifically for the movie Holiday Inn. This is a very reasonable assumption. The sheet music for "White Christmas" bears a copyright date of 1942. It would also seem unusual for Irving Berlin to have sat on a song for some time before introducing it to the public, particularly a song which would become the biggest hit of his career. That having been said, it was in 1960 news report that Irving Berlin stated the song had been written in 1938. This resulted in some controversy, as it would have then been ineligible for the Oscar it won for Best Music, Original Song (to qualify, a song must be an original composition written for a specific film). This seems unlikely, as all other information (including the copyright date) points to the song having been written for Holiday Inn. It seems quite possible that Berlin may have confused the release dates of Alexander's Ragtime Band (released in 1938) and Holiday Inn (released in 1942).

While there has been a little question over when the song was written, there is not really any question over the  circumstances in which it was written. Irving Berlin, Belarussian who grew up in New York, found himself longing for he snowy Christmases of his youth. He then wrote a song in which an individual in Beverly Hills finds himself yearning for the cold and snow of his childhood, a white Christmas. Indeed. the opening verse of the song began make reference to the shining sun and green grass of Beverly Hills. This opening verse would be cut from the song as performed in Holiday Inn and in Bing Crosby's original recording of the song. For that reason it is still rarely heard today.

Irving Berlin had no doubt that "White Christmas" would be a hit. In fact, the story goes that when he dictated the song to his secretary, he told her, "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!" Strangely enough, only one other person at the time had any faith in the song besides Berlin--Bing Crosby. He told Berlin, "You don't have to worry about this one, Irving." Strangely enough, the original script to Holiday Inn called for "White Christmas" to be performed only once, and then by Marjorie Reynolds (actually dubbed by Martha Mears). In the original script, Reynolds would be in California, longing for the winter in Connecticut, and would sing the song. It was perhaps because of Berlin's faith in the song that "White Christmas" is performed much earlier in the song, by Bing Crosby, as his character is about to open Holiday Inn. As to Bing Crosby, his faith in the song is best demonstrated by the fact that he performed it on the radio show Kraft Music Hall, on December 25, 1941, a full eight months before Holiday Inn was released.

"White Christmas" was originally recorded at Decca on May 29, 1941. Bing Crosby's usual music conductor John Scott Trotter, who worked on that session, recalled, there was a bit of controversy at the session. Irving Berlin wanted to include the first verse, the one about Beverly Hills, in the commercial recording of the song. Decca founder and head Jack Kapp disagreed with Berlin. Berlin thought the first verse was very poetic and moving. Kapp maintained that it had nothing to do with the song as performed in the movie. As history shows, Kapp won out in the end. As a result, even to this day, the first verse of the song is rarely performed.

Despite its status as a holiday favourite, Holiday Inn premiered on August 4, 1942 in New York City. The consensus had long been that "Be Careful, It's My Heart," performed in the movie's Valentine's Day sequence, would be the big hit of the movie. And for a time it was. As the year moved closer to December, however, "White Christmas" began to pick up steam. In 1942 the song would spend eleven weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. It would also give Bing Crosby his first hit on Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade, where it stayed for three weeks. Bing Crosby's version of the song would hit the Billboard charts twenty different times before Billboard created a separate holiday chart. In fact, by 1947 the song's original master had become so damaged by repeated pressings, that on March 18, 1947, Crosby had to re-record the song. Every effort was made to duplicate the original recording, although there are subtle differences.

"White Christmas" not only became the biggest hit of Bing Crosby's career, but the biggest selling single of all time. According to most sources, it has sold in excess of 50 million copies. According to Guiness World Records when all versions of the song are counted, it has sold over 100 million copies. As might be expected, "White Christmas" became one of Crosby's singature tunes. He performed it again in the 1946 movie Blue Skies. It would later provide the basis for the 1954 movie White Christmas. The movie had been planned to reunite the leads of Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but Astaire turned the project down. Ultimately, Danny Kaye would be Crosby's co-star on the movie.

Over the years "White Christmas" has been covered many, many times. Among the most famous is a version released by The Drifters in 1954. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and returned to the chart two more times. It was The Drifters' first hit on the Hot 100 chart, the first of 33 more. It has also been covered by Darlene Love, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole, and even such artists as The Flaming Lips and Twisted Sister.

"White Christmas" remains the best selling song of all time. The reason for such success is simple. The song is a mixture of melancholy and nostalgia, a longing for one's home and the way things once were. It is a sentiment with which many around the world can identify. Indeed, much of the reason for its initial success may have been due to its release during World War II. In the holiday season of 1942, the Armed Forces Network found itself deluged with requests for the song from those serving overseas in the military. Whether it is the greatest holiday song of all time might be debatable, but it is arguably the most successful one of all time.

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