The well deserved best selling single of all time – or sentimental claptrap? Michael Alexander examines the appeal of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas which was first performed 75 years ago this Christmas.
If you are dreaming of a White Christmas, then the chances are you will be disappointed.
Following in the wake of Storm Barbara, weather forecasters are predicting record-breaking mild conditions for Christmas Day with any snowfall likely to be limited to the mountains.
But that won’t stop people conjuring up a romanticised view of an old-fashioned Christmas – which is exactly what inspired the Bing Crosby version of the classic song White Christmas which was first performed publicly 75 years ago this Christmas Day.
Jewish-American songwriter Irving Berlin –also famous for writing God Bless America – is believed to have written White Christmas in 1940 whilst staying in the warmth of a Hollywood hotel.
He reputedly told his secretary: “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!”
However, it was the first public performance of the song by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music Hall on December 25, 1941, that first put it into the public domain.
Coming just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the USA’s entry into the Second World War, the Armed Forces Network was inundated with requests for it to be replayed.
But after initially being overshadowed by music film Holiday Inn’s first hit song: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”, it was October 1942 before White Christmas topped the American Your Hit Parade and remained in that position until well into the new year.
The recording, which took just 18 minutes to record on May 29,1942, saw Crosby perform with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers and Chorus for Decca Records.
That original version also hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade for three weeks – Crosby’s first-ever appearance on the black-oriented chart.
The song was re-released in 1945 and 1946 and went on to be recorded by various other artists over the years including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Pressley, Bob Marley – and New Kids on the Block.
Yet according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the version sung by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 100 million copies worldwide. Other versions of the song, along with Crosby’s, have sold over 150 million copies.
Alastair ‘Breeks’ Brodie, proprietor of Groucho’s Record store in Dundee has had various versions of the single pass through his shop over the years, and he is no doubt as to why the song is so popular.
“It’s warm,” he says. “My wife tends to call it sentimental claptrap! Everyone dreams of waking up to a white Christmas on Christmas morning.”
If you come across an old copy, however, it’s not going to make your fortune, Breeks says.
“A 45 RPM re-release is going to sell for 50p, and even an original 78 RPM will only sell for a couple of pounds. It’s all about supply and demand and there are plenty copies out there! Besides, you can’t beat The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl for the best Christmas song ever!”
Crosby’s version of White Christmas holds the distinction of being ranked #2 on the ”Song of the Century” list behind Judy Garland’s ‘Over the Rainbow’.
The song featured in another Crosby film, the 1954 musical White Christmas which became the highest-grossing film of 1954.
It should be noted, however, that the version most often heard today on radio during the Christmas season is the 1947 re-recording.
The 1942 master was damaged due to frequent use. Crosby re-recorded the track on March 19, 1947, accompanied again by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers, with every effort made to reproduce the original recording session.
The re-recording is recognisable by the addition of flutes and celesta in the beginning.
Although Crosby dismissed his role in the song’s success, saying later that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully,” he was associated with it for the rest of his career.
That would have been firmly in the minds of those who saw him play a first round match in the British Amateur Golf Tournament held over the Old Course in St Andrews in May 1950.
Thousands lined up to watch J.K. Wilson, a building contractor from St Andrews, face Harry L. Crosby, better known to the thousands gathered as Bing Crosby.
Film crews were on hand to record the event for newsreels, while newspaper reports emphasised the popular excitement generated by Crosby’s appearance.
When Bing Crosby returned to St Andrews in 1971, he again played the Old Course with Wilson. The two men discussed setting up a new tournament for senior golfers.
In September 1972, Crosby returned and was on hand to present the silver bowl to the winner of the Bing Crosby Trophy.
The tournament continues to this day – played at St Andrews each September – and in 1995 was won by Sean Connery.
In 1977, Crosby died of a heart attack whilst playing golf in Spain. He was 74.