Because of its famous recording by Elvis and those who followed in his wake, "Blue Christmas" is thought of as a rock'n'roll Christmas song. In fact, it pre-dates rock'n'roll, belonging to the same generation of 1940s American seasonal classics that tumbled forth in the half-decade after "White Christmas" - so it's a year or two younger than "I'll Be Home for Christmas", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", but older than "Rudolph" and "Frosty the Snowman". Seventy years ago, on November 27th 1948, the publishers Choice Music, Inc took out a big ad in Billboard magazine to announce:
The Best Xmas Song in the Country
And this was the first fellow they'd got to record it - Doye O'Dell:
Ignore the mismatched video footage. On the other hand, if you enjoyed those few plaintive western-fiddle bars of "Silent Night" at the beginning and end of the record, stay tuned.
Doye O'Dell was a second-tier singing cowboy who, upon America's entry into the Second World War, found himself being groomed to step into Roy Rogers' chaps, on the assumption by Hollywood that Roy would be drafted. When word came that Roy wouldn't be, Doye went off to join the Marines and the big break never happened. He had small acting roles in the sort of films you expect to find singing cowboys in - The Gay Ranchero, Along the Navajo Trail - but also a few films you don't: Auntie Mame, Days of Wine and Roses, Irma La Douce. Nevertheless, he puts a real twang in your twig of mistletoe, and decks your hall with boughs of tumbleweed and sagebrush. So you'd be for forgiven for thinking that "Blue Christmas" started out as a country-&-western song.
In fact, it's a suburb-&-eastern song - born in Connecticut commuter-land seven decades ago. I was complaining re "Orange Colored Sky" that it's always a disappointment when a memorable song doesn't have an equally memorable and-then-I-wrote anecdote behind it. In the case of "Blue Christmas", the and-then-I-wrote story is almost too good, but I was assured a couple of decades back that this is exactly how it happened. So here goes:
Once upon a time there was a radio ad man called Jay W Johnson. He lived in Connecticut, and every day he drove his 1939 green Mercury convertible to the station at Stamford, where he caught the train to Manhattan and spent the day writing jingles and commercials and scripts for various local broadcasts. The daily commute was tedious and time-consuming and it was Johnson's habit, after he'd scanned the daily paper he'd picked up at the station newsstand, to get out his notebook and jot down ideas for this and that - stories, songs, sketches, maybe script ideas for the big star-studded network shows he dreamed of working on. All of us scribblers have notebooks like that, but it's necessary as the years roll by for some of the ideas to land, to hit paydirt. Johnson's hadn't, and he was pushing fifty.
On this particular morning, he was running late. It was a chilly day, with the rain bucketing down, and he jumped into the green Mercury and set off. Whereupon he noticed that right above his seat there was a gash in the roof of his convertible. Because he was getting wet. Very wet. So he reached into the back and, from amidst the chaos of his radio scripts, he pulled his umbrella. Then he stuck the tip through the hole in the roof and pressed the button. The brolly opened, he held it with one hand, and steered with the other.
Like most instant improvisations, it wasn't entirely successful. If you open an umbrella in the street, the water rolls off it onto the sidewalk below. If you open an umbrella in a car, the water rolls off the side, down the window and onto your suit sleeve, and off the front onto the dashboard to pour into your lap. So by the time he got to Stamford station he was fairly sodden, and squelched as he took his seat on the train. He was supposed to be working on ideas for Christmas shows - a warm, happy time of the year, crackling hearths, roasting chestnuts, wassail and figgy pudding, sleigh bells in the snow on picture-perfect white Christmases...
But Jay Johnson wasn't dreaming of a white Christmas. He was soaking wet and feeling blue. In fact, he was turning blue. So he got out his notebook and wrote:
I'll have a Blue Christmas without you
I'll be so blue thinking about you...
Where's that going? Christmas isn't supposed to be blue, it's supposed to be white - ever since Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas" and Bing Crosby's single became the biggest-selling record of all time. Bing had been Number One for eleven weeks in 1942, Number One again at Christmas 1945, and again at Christmas 1946, and in between always Top Five, with alternative "White Christmases" - Sinatra's, Jo Stafford's - offering their own Top Ten variants through the Forties. Who would have the audacity to suggest to the biggest names in the music business that Christmas is not white but blue?
Well, a Manhattan radio writer did. And having recolored Christmas he ran with the conceit:
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won't mean a thing if you're not here with me...
And then back to the original color scheme:
I'll have a Blue Christmas that's certain
And when that blue heartache starts hurtin'...
And then the masterstroke, flinging Bing and Berlin back in the faces of all the merrymakers:
You'll be doin' all right with your Christmas of white
But I'll have a blue, Blue Christmas.
At one point there was a min-genre of pop tunes called "answer" songs: Thus Neil Sedaka's "Oh, Carol!" led to Carole King's "Oh, Neil!", and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" prompted the response, "Billy, I've Got to Go to Town". Way back in 1902 the abandoned woman's plaintive "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?" was answered with "I Wonder Why Bill Bailey Won't Come Home", and then "Since Bill Bailey Came Back Home", and ultimately, alas, "The Death of Bill Bailey". "Blue Christmas" isn't exactly an answer song to "White Christmas" - because, after all, "White Christmas" is itself a little blue, the preferred song of all those homesick GIs on distant Pacific islands who made it a hit. But by 1948 it was such a universally beloved expression of the American Christmas that it necessarily excluded those having a crummy Yule all on their ownsome dining at the automat.That "Christmas of white" thing is inspired, and not only because in the entire history of the English language no one had ever uttered that phrase until Jay Johnson came along. The inverted word order isn't there merely to fill the notes or enable the rhyme - like, say, Cole Porter's "Night and Day under the hide of me..." A "Christmas of white" seems to taunt and rebuke all those who are "doin' all right". I noticed the other day that the Dorchester Historical Society in Massachusetts has been obliged to prostrate itself for its non-inclusive Tweet of a sepia snow scene with the words "We're dreaming of a white Christmas". But I'm surprised the perpetual grievance-mongers haven't appropriated Johnson's line: You'll be doin' all right with your Christmas of white privilege.
Jay Johnson was not a composer. But he had an idea of how the tune ought to go. So, when he got to the city, he contacted a friend of his, a singer, guitarist and occasional songwiter called Billy Hayes III, and they got together and Billy figured out the music, starting with those three pick-up notes - "I'll have a" - and then the big semibreve on "blue". They fiddled around and tidied up the lyric and pretty soon they had a song. It has a pleasing use of the secondary dominant, and the high note on "Deco-ra-tions of red" and "You'll be do-in' all right" gives the tune enough of an ache to sell you the words. Like many aspiring lyricists, Johnson had written more text than necessary, and, after a bit of pruning, the song was one chorus with an alternative couplet for the outro:
And when those blue snowflakes start fallin'
That's when those blue mem'ries start callin'...
Hayes and Johnson took "Blue Christmas" to Choice Music, which is not a big publisher. But the company thought they had a pretty big hit on their hands, which is why they took out those Billboard ads. Unfortunately, they couldn't get any big records on the song. Doye O'Dell's version didn't sell, and Johnson and Hayes spent a blue Christmas being so blue just thinking about what might have been, while Irving Berlin carried on doin' all right with his Christmas of white. The following year - 1949 - brought better luck. They had three notably different versions - another country-&-western take by Ernest Tubb, a lush and subtle orchestral and choral arrangement by Hugo Winterhalter, and a rather more straightforward pop performance by Russ Morgan, his orchestra and the Morganaires. That last version got to Number Thirteen, and Winterhalter's made Number Nine, and Tubb's got to the top of the country chart - the very first Number One Christmas country song, in fact. In 1950 Billy Eckstine became the first mainstream pop vocalist to record "Blue Christmas", and cut a nice, tasteful arrangement that went precisely nowhere, and didn't exactly cause Bing, Frank, Ella, Peggy and the gang to stamped to the studios. "Blue Christmas" never quite caught on as a conventional pop standard.
But that Ernest Tubb record was heard by a fourteen-year-old boy living in the Lauderdale Courts public housing complex in Memphis. Elvis Presley loved Ernest Tubb, and he especially loved "Blue Christmas". Eight years later, Elvis was a phenomenon, the biggest star on the planet, and a guy whose minders were hustling him into all the ancillary activities that mega-stars do to expand their celebrity. And thus in September 1957 he found himself at the Radio Recorders studio in Hollywood making the inevitable Christmas album. RCA Victor wanted Presley doing the surefire stuff from the contemporary canon ("White Christmas") and the timeless carols ("O Little Town of Bethlehem"). But Elvis remembered that Ernest Tubb single, and insisted on doing "Blue Christmas".
There are varying accounts of what happened that day. One of them has it that Steve Sholes, the RCA man who'd signed the singer, had ordered up a bland arrangement of the song, like the pop standard "Blue Christmas" should have been but never was. It was nothing like the Ernest Tubb record, without which Presley would never ever have heard the song or had the least interest in recording it. And, as "Blue Christmas" was first up on that day's session rundown, the dullsville chart immediately put Elvis in a bad mood. And he told the band and backing singers, the Jordanaires, that they were going to punish RCA by making a version of "Blue Christmas" so bad the company could never release it. I can't say I entirely buy that, but it does explain those melodramatically slowed down pick-up notes - "I-I'll ha-ave a-a" - and then the banshee-like howls of Millie Kirkham behind "blue Christmas without you". Miss Kirkham, who was pregnant and singing from a chair, told friends she was worried that her wailing soprano obligato sounded "ridiculous". Which suggests that, if Elvis was seriously striving to wreck the number, she wasn't in on the joke.
But it's harder to make a total stinkeroo of a record than you might think. Especially if you're really good. And, if you're as good as Elvis and Millie and Scotty Moore and Bill Black and D J Fontana and Dudley Brooks and the Jordanaires, even when you're trying to sound bad you tend to do it really well. So, for example, on those bansee-howl backing vocals, Millie Kirkham and the boys replaced the major and minor thirds with neutral and sub-minor.
And thus for the first time in its nine-year history "Blue Christmas", a song about feeling blue, actually felt bluesy. And what had hitherto been an insipid pop tune became a far more effective rhythm'n'blues ballad. The Presley version isn't in fact that slow (approx 96 beats per minute, which is faster than many earlier recordings) but it feels ballad-esque because of the way he slurs and slides his words across the rhythm. And, ever since, almost everybody's pretty much done it that way.
Oh, and having slowed down the front of the song Elvis brought the end to a great big stammering standstill:
You'll be doin' all right with your Christmas of white,
But I'll have a blue blue blue Blue Christmas.
Was that part of his plan to make the track unreleasable? If so, it failed spectacularly. Because, again, just about everybody who's recorded the song in the last six decades has retained that stuttering finale.
Which in the fullness of time led to this cover version:
That's not, in fact, Porky Pig there, but Seymour Swine and the Squealers, which is the porcine pseudonym of a New Jersey entertainer called Denny Brownlee.
Elvis' "Blue Christmas" is one of those examples of an arrangement supplanting a song - as Gene Kelly's doo-de-doo-doo "Singin' in the Rain" or Etta James' "At Last". But sometimes that's necessary because, until a particular arrangement comes along, nobody realizes that there is a song at all. Within a year, Elvis' "Blue Christmas " had earned Hayes and Johnson more royalties than all previous recordings combined. Individually and together, the two men wrote many more prospective hits, including "Peter Pan the Meter Man", which I'm wary of investigating further because it's hard to believe it could possibly live up to its title. But lightning never struck twice - or, in Johnson's case, a monsoon never rained twice through the gash in his car roof.
Yet it didn't matter because, after Elvis, for every Yuletide thereafter, Jay Johnson was doin' all right with his Christmas of blue.
~Mark tells the story of many beloved songs - from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" via "My Funny Valentine", "Easter Parade" and "Autumn Leaves"- in his book A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the Steyn store - and, if you especially like Christmas songs, there's "White Christmas", "The Huron Carol", a bilingual "Rudolph", "Angels from the Realms of Glory", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" performed by its composer, and much more on our Merry & Bright Christmas special. If you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the promo code at checkout to enjoy special Steyn Club member pricing.
Speaking of The Mark Steyn Club, don't forget this year's festive Tales for Our Time, Little Women at Christmas, and Holmes, Watson and a Yuletide goose in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Mark will be back with the third of our Christmas tales this Friday. Tales for Our Time is made possible thanks to members of The Mark Steyn Club, for which we are profoundly grateful. You can find more details about the Steyn Club here. And don't forget our special Christmas Gift Membership, which this holiday season comes with a special personalized Christmas card from Mark and a handsomely-engraved gift-boxed USB stick with three of our most popular Tales for Our Time for your loved one to listen to in the car or perambulating through the wilderness or almost anywhere else. For more on our Christmas Gift Membership, see here.