Make no mistakes about it; the version of “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby is the heavyweight champion of the world. Although over five hundred artists have recorded Irving Berlin’s classic song none of them can even begin to hold a candle to Crosby’s version, which has sold over fifty million copies and remains the best selling single of all time. It has withstood the test of time to become one of the most significant American recordings in history.
The song has simple but contradictory beginnings. We do know that the great American composer Irving Berlin wrote it in 1940 either in Arizona at the Biltmore Hotel or at the La Quinta resort (note: no relation to the chains of today) that served as a getaway for many of Tinseltown’s luminaries. The latter is more likely.
Berlin was known as a workhorse who often went long into the early morning fiddling with a composition. After writing “White Christmas” he is said to have exuberantly 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!”
Interestingly Berlin’s first verse for “White Christmas” was eventually cut from subsequent Crosby recordings. Whether or not the edit came from Berlin himself or at the urging of Crosby’s producer Joe Kapp remains a source of debate.
Here is the dropped beginning of the original version:
The sun is shining, the grass is green…
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day In Beverly Hills, L.A….
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north
Initially Berlin wrote the song with a protagonist of a New Yorker stranded in sunny California over Christmas and pining for the cold and snow of the holiday season. This “sunnier” version of the song was not released and history is probably better off as a result. Shortening its length allowed the orchestration to breathe and enabled Der Bing’s voice to really take over the song.
On Christmas Day of 1941, while most of the world was being torn to shreds Bing Crosby debuted “White Christmas” on his NBC Radio show, The Kraft Music Hall. This early version of the song differed from the one we now regard as a classic.
Ironically, the first recording of this best selling single was recorded in just one eighteen-minute session. Crosby recorded this timeless classic on May 29th of 1942 with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers. Darby was one of the leading lyricists and composers of his day. He previously worked on The Wizard Of Oz and other films.
Decca Records released this studio version on July 30th of 1942 for the soundtrack of Bing’s film Holiday Inn. In that film he performed it on camera as a duet with Marjorie Reynolds–whose voice was later overdubbed by a better singer, Martha Mears, who made a name for herself as the singing voice of many great female actresses of the time. This version did not feature Berlin’s original lyrics and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1942. This version was honored six decades later (in 2002) by inclusion to the National Recording Registry by The Library of Congress.
As a hit record “White Christmas” did not come out of the gate well but eventually it caught on with audiences. At a time when music charts were still in their infancy it was a juggernaut. “White Christmas” debuted on the Your Hit Parade charts that October. It also did well on the Billboard charts, staying at or near the top for eleven weeks. The track also peaked at number one on the Harlem Hit Parade Charts in 1942. All of this chart success meant that Crosby had the first crossover hit record in modern history, largely because of Bing Crosby’s massive crossover appeal as an artist.
All of this airplay wore out the master recording and Crosby re-recorded it again on March 18th, 1947, again with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers. Crosby did everything in his power to replicate the sound and feel of the original 1942 recording but this version was quite different. For starters the orchestration was built up and Crosby’s delivery was more prominent. Hence it’s this 1947 version is the one that has become an iconic fixture in pop music.
It didn’t hurt that Crosby was a really big deal. Beginning in 1934, Crosby was arguably the most popular entertainer on the planet and stayed that way for two decades. He was more then an actor and singer, he was the first true American multimedia artist–something that was not lost on Crosby who carefully crafted his image and cultivated his art. He was the first singer to really utilize the microphone, magnetic tapes and reel to reels as tools for recording sound.
Decca Records loved the record so much they reissued it as a holiday single in 1945 and 1946. It would go on to chart at number one again in both 1945 and 1947, giving “White Christmas” the distinction of becoming the only pop single to have three separate appearances on top of the U.S. charts. It was later re-released in 1950, 1955 and 1983.
“White Christmas” became the centerpiece for Bing Crosby’s 1949 album, Merry Christmas, an album of holiday tunes that decimated any other album sales in its path that year. It remains a hugely popular record and has yet to be taken out of print. The continued success of this album further entrenched “White Christmas” into the psyche of American popular culture.
When White Christmas was released as a movie it afforded Bing another opportunity to sing a selection of songs created by his friend and business partner, Irving Berlin. The production was riddled with casting changes, and almost fell apart when Crosby briefly left the project after the death of his first wife, Dixie Lee Carroll (who was no slouch of a performer in her own right). Despite the delays and problems, it went on to became the best selling film of 1954.
“White Christmas” also had a significant impact beyond the music charts. For GIs deployed abroad in WWII the song was a welcome relief and a reminder of home. Armed Forces Radio played it endlessly and copies of the record were carried by troops to play in their off hours.
“White Christmas” had another life during wartime in 1975 when it technically signaled the end of The Vietnam War. The song was used as a signal for the evacuation of Americans stranded in Saigon. When the song was heard over the radio, Americans in that besieged city headed en masse for helicopters to escape.
To this day “White Christmas” is pure Americana, amassing over an estimated fifty million copies (of the Crosby recordings) sold worldwide. Although Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind” surpassed it in single sales in 1988, it still reigns supreme when you consider the incredible amount of albums that it has appeared on over the last seventy years.
“White Christmas” would never have made it without Bing Crosby. Although he said that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully,” he clearly misunderstood the importance of his connection with the song. Crosby’s crooning style, careful phrasing and straightforward vocals elicited an idea of American innocence stemming from the ideals of a serene Christmas free from materialism. Essentially no other singer of this time could have injected so much life into the record.
The seven decades of popularity surrounding “White Christmas” is also due in some part to the fascinating life Crosby led out of the spotlight. He was a former alcoholic and was (to an extent) an advocate of the legalization of marijuana. He also was an avid golfer and once was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In domestic life he was said to be a strict, aloof and abusive father.
“White Christmas,” when taken as a work of art, is a remarkable story. Despite passing decades of various musical climates, political change, and social upheaval, its durability has given it a sense of timelessness that has engrained it into the very fabric of Christmas itself. Of course the fact that it remains a great record to listen to doesn’t hurt it either.