Irvin Berlin, Bing Crosby and a White Christmas

Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. Born in Imperial Russia he arrived in the United States at the age of five and published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy”, in 1907.  He received 33 cents for the publishing rights!  Four years later – in 1911 – he had his first major international hit – “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” – and that sparked an international dance craze in places as far away as Berlin’s native Russia.  Over the years he was known for writing music and lyrics in an American uncomplicated, simple and direct style with the stated aim to “reach the heart of the average American,” whom he saw as the “real soul of the country”. 

He wrote hundreds of songs, many becoming major hits, which made him famous before he turned thirty. During his 60-year career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films.

It was in 1942 when words and music came from Irving Berlin and a response came from on Bing Crosby.  That response was because Bing had heard ‘White Christmas’ and wanted to use it!  However – it didn’t stop Berlin fretting about the song in the first few months of its life.  The often brash and always insecure Irving approached each new song as if his life depended on it.  He insisted on being in the room with Crosby to hear it for himself – but to make sure he got a genuine reaction, he stayed out of sight until he heard Crosby’s favorable comments.  Berlin had originally based White Christmas on his own memories of spending Christmas in the Beverly Hills’ sunshine, among the palm trees, longing to be with his family in snowy New York.  In an original draft the song dealt with

White Christmas” is a 1942 Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting. The version as sung by Bing Crosby is the world’s is recorded as being the best-selling single with estimated sales in excess of 100 million copies worldwide.  Other versions of the song, along with Crosby’s, have sold over 50 million copies.

Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta in California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, a frequent Hollywood retreat also favored by writer-director-producer Frank Capra, although the Arizona Biltmore also claims the song was written there. He often stayed up all night writing—he 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!”

The first public performance of the song was by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show ‘The Kraft Music Hall’ on Christmas Day, 1941. He subsequently recorded the song with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers and for Decca Records in just 18 minutes on May 29, 1942, and it was released on July 30 as part of an album of six 78 rpms discs from the musical film ‘Holiday Inn. At first, Crosby did not see anything special about the song. He just said “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.” The song established that there could be commercially successful secular Christmas songs – in this case, written by a Jewish-American songwriter.

The song initially performed poorly and was overshadowed by Holiday Inn‘s first hit song: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”. By the end of October 1942, “White Christmas” topped the ‘Your Hit Parade’ chart and remained in that position until well into the New Year. It has often been noted that the mix of melancholy—“just like the ones I used to know“—with comforting images of home—”where the treetops glisten”—resonated especially strongly with listeners during WW2. A few weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, Crosby introduced “White Christmas” on a Christmas Day broadcast. The Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for the song. The recording is noted for Crosby’s whistling during the second chorus.

In 1942 alone, Crosby’s recording spent eleven weeks on top of the Billboard charts. The original version also hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade for three weeks, Crosby’s first-ever appearance on the black-oriented chart. Re-released by Decca, the single returned to the No. 1 spot during the holiday seasons of 1945 and 1946 (on the chart dated January 4, 1947), thus becoming the only single with three separate runs at the top of the U.S. charts. The recording became a chart perennial, reappearing annually on the pop chart twenty separate times before Billboard magazine created a distinct Christmas chart for seasonal releases.

The version most often heard today on the 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 recognizable 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.

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