The last in our series about Christmas songs by Jewish writers
THIS is the daddy of them all, Bing Crosby’s version being the biggest- selling record with all-time sales in excess of 50million. All the other versions take the figure well above 100million.
Words and music were by Irving Berlin, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He wasborn Israel Beilin in Siberia in 1888, one of eight children of a Jewish cantor. When he was five the family’s house burned down, and they left for New York.
I outlined his life a while ago in the series The Melody Makers. By the time he wrote White Christmas he had immortal songs such as What’ll I Do? Puttin’ on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, Always, Blue Skies and God Bless America to his name.
He had known terrible sadness. In 1912, when he was 24, he married Dorothy Goetz. She died six months later, aged 20, of typhoid fever which she caught during their honeymoon in Havana. In 1926 he married Ellin Mackay, the daughter of a wealthy Catholic of Irish descent. On Christmas Day 1928 Berlin found their second child and only son, Irving Jr, dead in his cot at three weeks old. From then on the couple visited his grave every Christmas Day. There is a suggestion that White Christmas, with its wistful words and rather melancholy tune, was influenced by this tragic experience.
It is not certain when Berlin wrote the song. It may have been in 1937 when he was away from his family in Hollywood. His daughter Linda thought it might have been in 1938 or 1939. A third account has him writing it in California in 1940. At all events it was written for a Broadway musical conceived by Berlin as a vehicle for songs he had written about holidays which eventually became the 1942 movie musical, Holiday Inn.
It was first performed by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show on Christmas Day, 1941, a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Crosby subsequently recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers and it was released on July 30, 1942.
This is how it appears in the film.
At first, Crosby did not see anything special about the song, saying to Berlin: ‘I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.’ Berlin himself thought that another song from the film, Be Careful, It’s My Heart, would be the big hit.
At first Berlin was right, and Be Careful, It’s My Heart was the initial success. But with its themes of home and nostalgia, White Christmas resonated with the GIs serving oversesas and their families at home, and the Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for it. By the end of October 1942 White Christmas was at the top of the Hit Parade. It won the 1943 Oscar for Best Original Song.
In 2016 Crosby’s nephew Howard recalled: ‘I once asked Uncle Bing about the most difficult thing he ever had to do during his career. He didn’t have to think about it. He said in December, 1944, he was in a USO [United Services Organizations, providing entertainment for troops] show with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters. They did an outdoor show in northern France. At the end of the show, he had to stand there and sing White Christmas with 100,000 GIs in tears without breaking down himself.
‘Of course, a lot of those boys were killed in the Battle of the Bulge a few days later.’
White Christmas featured as the title song of another Berlin/Crosby film in 1954.
There are thousands of other versions and I am going to pick only a few.
Here a quartet from the US Navy perform a 1954 arrangement used by the Drifters.
This is Otis Redding released posthumously in 1968. I’m not sure if it is his best work but I wanted to get the mighty Otis in somewhere.
And of course Darlene Love from the Phil Spector Christmas Album of 1963.
I thought I would end this short series not with a Christmas song but with God Bless America, the wonderful song Berlin wrote in 1918 but which was not used until 1938. ‘To me,’ he said, ‘God Bless America was not just a song but an expression of my feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.’
This is a video I have only just come across, of Berlin himself singing it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968, when by my calculation he must have been 80. He died in 1989, aged 101.