‘The recording was in the can in under twenty minutes after which Bing headed off for a round of golf…’
White Christmas -Bing Crosby with Ken Darby Singers and John Scott Trotter & His Orchestra
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA, 29th May 1942
Released October 1942
Writer Irving Berlin
Musical Director John Scott Trotter
USA #1 31/10/42 11 weeks UK #5 12/77
Original 1942 copies had ‘Let’s Start The New Year Right’ also by Berlin on the B-side
Bing Crosby’s version of ‘White Christmas’ is the biggest selling single record of all time and according to the 2007 edition of The Guinness Book Of World Records has sold approximately 50 million copies. This does not take into consideration the millions of additional albums on which Crosby’s version also appears. In his long career Bing, born Harry Lillis Crosby in Tacoma, Washington, in 1903, sold in the region of 500 million records though record company accountability being what it was in his time, sales were likely much higher. Crosby was without doubt the biggest star of the first half of the 20th century, arriving at a point where radio was entering its golden era, and beginning his recording career just as electrical recording and the microphone were introduced. He became America’s greatest ever radio star, appeared in over fifty Hollywood movies, including the famous ‘Road’ series with his lifelong friend Bob Hope, and from the late 1920s until the birth of rock and roll in the middle 1950s, was the world’s biggest singing star. Just how popular he was is often hard to appreciate in our multi-media era, though an indication is given by a survey taken at the height of his popularity when it was estimated that over half of the 80,000 hours of recorded music played on US radio each week consisted of Crosby recordings!
‘White Christmas’ was written by Irving Berlin, himself one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. Born Israel Isidore Baline in Siberia in 1888 (his new surname apparently the result of a spelling mistake on his first published piece), his family emigrated to New York in 1893. Berlin, who began his career as a singing waiter, saw himself as a songwriter, while noting that George Gershwin was a “composer”. Gershwin saw things differently stating, “Irving Berlin is the greatest American song composer. His songs are exquisite cameos of perfection.” His first major hit was ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ in 1911, and he later wrote dozens of standards including, ‘Cheek To Cheek’, ‘Always’, ‘Blue Skies’, ‘What’ll I Do’, ‘God Bless America’, ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ and ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ sold a million copies of sheet music in its’ first year of release and Variety called it, “the musical sensation of the decade”. It was also on the playlist of the band that went down with the White Star liner Titanic in April 1912. Berlin later had all his sheet music credited with the modest legend: “The Song Genius of the World”. For those who complain that “they don’t write songs like they used to” and maintain that modern songwriters lack the requisite skills, it’s interesting to note that Irving Berlin could not read music, could only play the piano in one key, and then only on the black notes!
Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’ for the Crosby movie Holiday Inn that came out in 1942. Apparently, he was pretty impressed with the song when he first wrote it and told his musical secretary, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written – hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!” Recalling the day he first presented the song to the relaxed crooner, Berlin said, “When he read the song he just took his pipe out of his mouth and said to me, ‘You don’t have to worry about this one, Irving.'” (Though Bing was the first to record ‘White Christmas’ he still missed out Berlin’s introductory verse which is still seldom heard) Crosby premiered the song on his radio programme on Christmas Day 1941, and went into the studio to record it the following summer. The date was May 29th 1942 and there was a ninety-degree heatwave in Los Angeles when Crosby entered the studio. The air-conditioning had broken down so Bing stripped to the waist in the summer heat to sing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” The recording was in the can in under twenty minutes following two takes after which Bing headed off for a round of golf. Though record ‘producers’ were not credited at the time, the session was probably supervised by orchestra leader John Scott Trotter who was Bing’s musical director until 1953.
Following release in October 1942, Bing’s recording of ‘White Christmas’ went to Number 1, where it remained until New Year. In each of the following 20 years his recording returned to the American charts during the season of goodwill (reaching Number 1 again in 1945 and 1947 and assisted by a 1954 partial re-make of Holiday Inn called White Christmas) becoming the most successful recording in Bing Crosby’s impressive career. (It was also released as a ‘V’ disc in 1945 – these were made exclusively for overseas US troops) Incidentally, Crosby made a carbon copy re-recording of ‘White Christmas’ (using the same musicians as the original) on the 19th of March 1947 because the original master was worn out, and consequently it is this version, and not the 1942 recording, that is most frequently heard. Shortly after his death in 1977, ‘White Christmas’ again rose to Number 5 on the UK charts, and made the Top 30 again as recently as 1998. ‘White Christmas’ won Irving Berlin an Oscar® and is also one of the most recorded songs of all time. Undoubtedly the classic Christmas song, each year hundreds of artists around the world make new recordings of the song in a multitude of languages as a new festive season approaches.
(The second-best all-time Christmas seller would appear to be Gene Autry’s 1949 recording of ‘Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer’ which allegedly sold 25 million copies)
Copyright © 2001/2014 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.