Every Christmas season, radio stations, shopping malls and other venues are filled by many of the mainstream holiday songs from years past. And of course, the tunes and lyrics are quite familiar to many.
This article takes a look at Christmastime recordings of the 1950s and 1960s that didn’t just appear on Billboard Magazine‘s Hot 100 pop charts or Christmas Singles chart on the first year of release for a specific artist, they continued to grace those charts in subsequent seasons as well. However, even though many of the songs were popularized by many artists, the list only includes year-to-year success by one singer or group.
Undoubtedly, some readers will wonder why certain familiar holiday songs aren’t included here, but more than likely, such songs — for one reason or another — didn’t achieve chart recognition on Billboard for more than one year, or perhaps not at all.
Many of the songs are extremely familiar and sung by well-known recording artists, and following are capsule summaries of 16 such records. To hear any of them, simply click on the title.
- “WHITE CHRISTMAS” (Bing Crosby, 1942): With more than 50 million in sales, this legendary recording is not only the best-selling Christmas single of all-time, but the No. 1 overall recording as well. The song, written by Irving Berlin, spent 11 weeks at the top of Billboard’s Best Selling Retail Records chart in late 1942. The original rendition featured the Ken Darby Singers and John Scott Trotter’s Orchestra, and the song made its debut in the movie Holiday Inn, with Crosby singing. A re-recording in 1947 hit both the pop and Christmas charts for decades thereafter. BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 1, 1942.
- “THE CHIPMUNK SONG” (The Chipmunks, 1958): This is the most-popular American novelty Christmas song of all-time, and it spent four consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart after its 1958 release, and it also attained the No. 5 spot on the R&B listings. The song was written and performed by Ross Bagdasarian (a k a David Seville), who overdubbed each of the Chipmunk lyrics, speeding up the playback to create the high-pitched voices in a manner similar to that used in Seville’s chart-topping “Witch Doctor” earlier in 1958. This song launched a multi-decade music career for the fictional trio, and it continues to be prominently heard each year at Christmastime. BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 1, 1958.
- “THE CHRISTMAS SONG” (Nat King Cole, 1953): The well-known song — often subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire” — was written by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells in 1944, The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded the song in 1946, and it was re-released by Cole in 1953 (with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra) and 1960 (with Ralph Carmichael’s orchestra). Numerous popular versions have been recorded by other artists, and it remains one of the most-recorded Christmas songs in history. BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 65, 1962.
- “JINGLE BELL ROCK” (Bobby Helms, 1957): Featuring backing vocals by the Anita Kerr Singers, the frequently-played holiday single was first performed by a C&W singer-guitarist from Bloomington, Ind. Written by Joe Beale and Jim Boothe, subsequent hit renditions included those by Bobby Rydell & Chubby Checker (1961) and Brenda Lee (1964). BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 6, 1957.
- “ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS MY TWO FRONT TEETH” (Spike Jones & His City Slickers, 1948): This song spent three weeks at the top of the national Billboard charts, and it returned the following holiday season, peaking at No. 18 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 14 on the Children’s Records chart. Written by Donald Yetter Gardner, this original recording was performed by a southern California bandleader who had a long string of novelty songs in the 1940s, and the vocals were handled by George Rock. BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 1, 1948.
- “THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY” (Harry Simeone Chorale, 1958): This familiar Christmastime song was composed in 1941 by Katherine K. Davis, and after this rendition peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958, it continued as a Top 40 hit each season until 1962. Simeone, a native of Newark, N.J., was a longtime arranger and conductor for television and movies, getting his start as music arranger for CBS Radio. BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 13, 1958.
- “RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER” (Gene Autry & The Pinafores, 1949): This well-known record spent eight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Children’s Records chart, beginning in late November 1949, and it peaked at No. 1 on both Billboard’s Best-Selling Pop Singles and Billboard’s Country & Western Records. It appeared on the Billboard Top 100 for the next few years before the singer released another rendition of the song in 1957, featuring the backing of Carl Cotner’s orchestra, that peaked at No. 70 on Billboard’s Top 100. The song has been covered by numerous artists over the years, and it can be heard at every year at Christmastime. BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 1, 1949.
- “ROCKIN’ AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE” (Brenda Lee, 1958) : Played repeatedly each holiday season, it originally peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on Jan. 1, 1961, and it charted at No. 50 and No. 59, respectively, in the two subsequent years. The song was written by Johnny Marks, and the B-side of the original single is a holiday tune written by Roy Botkin titled “Papa Noël.” BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 14, 1960.
- “CHRISTMAS DRAGNET” (Stan Freberg, 1953): This entertainer and recording artist from Pasadena, Calif., became famous for a long string of satirical singles, and this one made it to No. 13 on Billboard in December 1953. It was a parody of the popular TV series Dragnet, and it was the follow-up to his No. 1 hit (“St. George And The Dragonet”) from several months earlier. The following year, the same record was re-issued under the title “Yulenet (Parts I & II).” BILLBOARD PEAK: No. 13, 1953.
The following songs were first released after Billboard stopped including Christmas songs among its Hot 100 pop music listings in 1962. Whereas the previous songs appeared on the Hot 100 on more than one holiday season, the following made more than one season appearance on the new Billboard Christmas Singles chart.
- “PRETTY PAPER” (Roy Orbison, 1963): Written by Willie Nelson, this original rendition, by a well-known Texas vocalist who charted 29 Billboard Top 40 singles, peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 10 on the Middle-Road Singles chart. The single — arranged by Bill Justis and with orchestra and chorus conducted by Ivor Raymonde — made it to No. 27 on the Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart the following year. Nelson issued later releases in 1964 and 1979. CHRISTMAS SINGLES PEAK: No. 27, 1964.
- “A HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS” (Burl Ives, 1964): The song was written by Johnny Marks in 1962, and it was first recorded by The Quinto Sisters, but it wasn’t a significant single until Burl Ives’ rendition made it to No. 13 on the Billboard Christmas Singles chart in 1964. It made another appearance (at No. 29) on the same chart in 1968. CHRISTMAS SINGLES PEAK: No. 13, 1964.
- “YOU’RE ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS” (Brook Benton, 1963): This recording attained the No. 3 position on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart in December 1963, and at No. 21 on the same chart in December 1964. Featuring orchestration by Luchi DeJesus, it’s a different song than the same-titled hit by Frankie Laine in 1948. It was recorded in 1964 by Don Patterson for his album Holiday Soul. CHRISTMAS SINGLES PEAK: No. 3, 1963.
- “TWINKLE TWINKLE LITTLE ME” (The Supremes, 1965): This single reached the No. 5 spot on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart in December 1965. It charted again on the same Billboard chart in December 1966 (at No. 26) and December 1967 (at No. 10). CHRISTMAS SINGLES PEAK: No. 5, 1965.
- “THAT’S WHAT I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS” (Nancy Wilson, 1963): On Billboard’s Christmas Singles listings, this record reached No. 6 in December 1963 and No. 26 the following year. It featured orchestral backing by O.B. Masingill. CHRISTMAS SINGLES PEAK: No. 6, 1963.
- “O BAMBINO” (Harry Simeone Chorale, 1964): This has the same melody as a song by a gospel quartet The Mariners, titled “Bagpiper’s Carol.” It was introduced in 1961 by The Springfields as “Bambino (Napoli Lullaby).” This rendition got to No. 9 on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart in December 1964 and No. 105 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under The Hot 100 Singles chart in January 1965. It charted again the following holiday season, reaching No. 24. CHRISTMAS SINGLES PEAK: No. 9, 1964.
- “CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION” (B.B. King, 1964): This song, performed by a legendary Memphis blues singer, first charted on the Billboard Christmas Singles chart in 1964, peaking at No. 25, and it returned to the same chart three years later. CHRISTMAS SINGLES PEAK: No. 17, 1967.
[You may subscribe to Bill Herald’s oldies pop music columns — free of charge — by clicking on “Subscribe To Author” near the bottom of the article, after which you will receive e-mail notification each time a new item is published.]