1957 – Elvis Presley poses beside a Christmas tree in his home in Memphis, Tennesee. When Elvis recorded a cover of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas, it made him livid, and he launched a campaign to have it banned from radio airplay. Berlin despised Elvis, and felt that he was degrading the song, which held a very personal and painful meaning for him, long kept secret.
Bing Crosby in his famous denim tuxedo made for the star by Levi Strauss & Co. back in 1951. Read more here
Bing Crosby was the first artist to have a hit with Irving Berlin’s classic White Christmas back in 1942 — Largely due to Armed Forces Radio playing it on heavy rotation. Our American GIs fighting in WWII sorely longed for home, family, and the holidays, Collectively they adopted the song and drove it up the charts.
“I sang it many times in Europe in the field for soldiers, and they’d holler for it. They’d demand it. When I’d sing it, they’d all cry,” Bing Crosby said. “It’s nostalgic, and it’s kind of poignant, you know, particularly during the war years; you know, so many young people were away and they’d hear this song. And it would happen to be that time of the year, it would really affect them.”
In 1957, RCA released Elvis’ Christmas Album. There was major concern by record execs that square grown-ups out there, who considered “Elvis the Pelvis” as a main contributor to the delinquency of youth, would see this Christmas Rock release as borderline sacrilegious. This was be the very first Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas album ever– giving birth to the genre. And it wasn’t instantly accepted with open arms– far from it. To soften the blow, RCA had Elvis devote one side of the album to traditional religious / Christmas songs (O Little Town of Bethlehem), with White Christmas and with the new Elvis cover of Blue Christmas on the other.
RCA’s fear was indeed warranted, as the Elvis’ Christmas Album was met with controversy and protest— due mostly to the rock version of White Christmas. Irving Berlin made it a personal vendetta, and sent scores of letters to radio stations around the country pressing them to ban the Elvis cover of his song. Many stations caved-in to the pressure, and a disc jockey in Portland, Oregon was even fired for not playing it. It’s hard to imagine the outrage over the song back then, which feels extremely mild by today’s standards. But it turns out that Berlin’s reaction was driven by his own deep, personal tragedy that was the heart and soul of the song.
As it turns out– “Berlin couldn’t stand Presley, and he recorded a cover version of ‘White Christmas’ for his Christmas album, which Berlin took as kind of sacrilege. He really thought it was degrading to his song. So he and members of his staff launched a furious campaign to try and get radio stations to ban the Presley record.” –Jody Rosen, author of White Christmas: The Story of an American Song.
Jody Rosen points out that White Christmas is in spirit, if not in form, a blues song that does not fit the typical festive Christmas tune formula– and for a good reason.
“It’s very melancholy, and I think this really makes it stand out amongst kind of chirpy seasonal standards– ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ ‘Let It Snow.’ And I think that’s one of the reasons why people keep responding to it, because our feelings over the holiday season are ambivalent.”
Once you understand Irving Berlin’s own feelings about the holiday, it’s plain to see where the blues vibe and ambivalent tone stems from. On Christmas Day in 1928 Irving Berlin’s own 3-week-old son, Irving Berlin Jr., died. And every Christmas after, he and his wife would visit their baby boy’s grave.
“The kind of deep secret of the song may be that it was Berlin responding in some way to his melancholy about the death of his son.”
It’s pretty poignant and special that a song born out of such grief and loss would become one of the world’s all-time best-selling and most widely recorded songs ever– of all genres, not just holiday songs.
While the grown-ups were having their protest, the youngsters were eating up the Elvis’ Christmas Album, and it burned-up the Billboard charts. And the tune that immediately hooked his fans was Blue Christmas. The King had long been a fan of Ernest Tubb’s country cover of the song he’d heard on the radio back in 1949, and wanted to record it himself. The song shared the original bluesy mood of Berlin’s White Christmas, and even referenced it directly with the line– “You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue Christmas.”
At the end of the day, you have to imagine that Berlin was comforted in some measure by the royalty payments Elvis Presley, and scores of others who covered White Christmas, sent his way. Christmas Rock was born, and my favorite standards of that genre are by the greats of the ’50s and ’60s– Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, and James Brown.
For the record, Elvis Presley did reach out and extend an olive branch to Irving Berlin, which was rejected. Elvis sent an autographed photo to Berlin as a sort of peace offering– “To Mr. Irving Berlin with respect and admiration, Sincerely Elvis Presley” It’s up for auction, currently listed for $27,500 here. Accompanied by a letter from Ellin Emmett, Irving Berlin’s granddaughter who inherited the photograph after the great American composer died in 1989. Comes with a certificate that unconditionally guarantees its authenticity.
Another interesting tidbit on White Christmas—
In April 1975, “White Christmas” again became part of American military history:.
“The Army used ‘White Christmas’ as the secret signal instructing American soldiers to evacuate Saigon. It was played several times in a row over Armed Forces Radio. So what’s interesting is this song, which during WWII was really the song of American soldiers’ homesickness, became somewhat ironically in 1975 the ‘Let’s go home and get the hell out of here’ song for the American Army in Vietnam.” –Jody Rosen
Source materials / further reading:
NPR, All Things Considered: ‘White Christmas’