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Best Version of “White Christmas” December 16, 2022

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Let’s play a game.  It’s [loosely] called “name the best version of (fill-in-the-blank Christmas song)”.  After all, there are but so many Christmas songs out there, some 200 years old (or older), some 150+ years old, some 80+ years old, some 65-ish, some more recent than that.  The point is, myriads of recording artists have cut their own versions of many of these songs for almost 125 years.  What makes things interesting is that each singer/group/ensemble has had their own “take” on them.  So, whose “take” is the best?  Let us explore that answer.

Why not start with Irving Berlin’s venerable “White Christmas”?  Yes, the man who wrote an estimated 1,500 songs over the course of his 101 years on this Earth, including “God Bless America” and many legendary songs from the Golden Age of the Great American Song Book (“Cheek to Cheek”, “Blue Skies”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “Easter Parade”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, to name but a few) also gave us “White Christmas”.  It is altogether fitting and proper to take a look at this sing, since this year marks the 80th anniversary of its official release to the world.

The context behind the origins of “White Christmas” are multi-layered.  Just as Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era novel “Gone With The Wind” was a smashing success during the Great Depression, so was “White Christmas” at the dawn of America’s direct involvement in WWII.  While accounts vary as to exactly when Berlin actually wrote the song (within the years 1940 or ’41), it has been established that the first public performance of the song was indeed by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show The Kraft Music hall, on Christmas Day of 1941, only 18 days after Pearl Harbor and 17 days after FDR asked Congress to declare war on Japan.

The song made a larger debut on-screen the following year in 1942 when it was featured in the now-classic movie “Holiday Inn”.  Crosby not only sang the song in the film, but also, as was customary at the time, recorded a studio version of the song on the Decca label as part of an accompanying album of songs from the movie.  He was accompanied by the Ken Darby Singers and the John Scott Trotter Orchestra when they made this recording on May 29, 1942.  It took them only 18 minutes to produce a rendition that satisfied everyone.

While the popularity of the 1942 movie Holiday Inn did eventually help propel record sales (it did top the charts by end of October of ’42), a stronger social undercurrent helped make the song legendary.  With America having officially joined the fight against the Axis powers after Pearl Harbor, the population was mobilized onto a war footing at an unprecedented scale and pace.  Yes, America had been mobilized a generation earlier in the First World War, but this new mobilization made the Allied Expeditionary Forces of old, and the industry supporting it, pale in comparison.

Within months after the fateful events of early December of 1941, many an able-bodied American man would be enlisted into service and deployed to many a spot abroad, or at least, far from home, from the deserts of North Africa to the Aleutian Islands, to air bases in England, to naval flotillas patrolling the South Pacific, and many spots in between. 

The song thus spoke to them, and to their families at home, of simpler times, or deep nostalgia.  The right mix of melancholy and comforting images of home during the Holidays resonated deeply with listeners during WWII, and the Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests to play this song during that time.

In its first year of recording and release, Bing Crosby’s first version of this song stayed at the top of the charts for 11 weeks.  Sales carried well into early 1943, and Decca re-released the song for Christmas seasons of 1945 and ’46.  For Holiday Inn, the song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song of 1942.

Ironically, the version with which most of us are familiar is Crosby’s re-recording of the song in 1947, also accompanied by both the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers.  The addition of the flutes and a slightly more pronounced celesta helps make it audibly different from the first version without being too overtly different.

Readers may or may not be aware that Crosby’s 1942 and ’47 renditions combined add up to the greatest-selling record of all time:  more so than any record by Elvis, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Elton John, or anybody.  By 1968, sales had reached 30 Million alone.  After much research, the Guinness Book of World Records concluded in 2007 that the record had sold at least 50 Million copies, though some estimates reach as high as 100 Million.

Twelve years after the song’s and the hit flick Holiday Inn’s initial release, Paramount was finally able to make a follow-up film for both, simply calling it “White Christmas”. It proceeded to become the most successful movie of 1954. While not as strong a film as its 1942 predecessor, it nevertheless has earned its place as a Christmas classic movie in its own right. That it was filmed in then-cutting-edge “VistaVision” has helped it translate well onto HDTV screens today. Naturally, the finale number was the movie’s namesake.

To broaden the scope:  in the 80 years since it was first recorded, “White Christmas” has been cut more than 500 times, making it the most-recorded Christmas song.  As mentioned in the beginning, many artists have offered their own “take” on it. For example, while Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters’ version [also] from 1954 is always a fun listen, it still is not has great as Bing’s original version.

That said, a solid runner-up is Darlene Love’s rendition on the also-classic album, Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You” from 1963.  As the first track of this perennially strong album, Love’s rendition packs much more of a virtual “punch” than people usually expect from the song, aided in part by Spector’s “Wall of Sound” audio effect, but also by the singer’s soulful efforts. Also notable of this version is that it includes the prelude verse that many other artists skip singing.

The real question is, which is really better, Bing’s 1942 version, or the 1947 remake?  Most folks would likely side with the latter, since that is the one with which they are familiar.  One cannot blame them, for that version is wonderful and timeless.  My vote is for the 1942 version:  the one that started it all.  It has a sharpness that the remake lacks, and the historian in me reflects on how it spoke to people’s hopes, fears, and comforts as we were beginning to take on a worldwide menace on an unprecedented scale.

The lasting legacy of Crosby’s 1942 version is grander than one might expect.  Its success on the charts legitimized the market for Christmas music.  To be sure, more than a few excellent versions of Christmas songs were recorded before this landmark cut, including notable examples by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller.  But Crosby, paired with Berlin’s incredible contribution to the Great American Christmas Songbook, finally opened the recording industry’s eyes to the potential goldmine they were sitting on with regard to recording music for the Christmas season.  In short, Crosby and Berlin, with White Christmas, paved the way for the bulk of popular Christmas music we have to enjoy today.

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