Since tiny, teenage Brenda Lee belted out Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree in 1958 there has been a mixed bag of Rock & Roll Christmas music. That song had the edge of being co-written by Christmas music specialist Johnny Marks, the creator of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. There have been a lot of shots fired at the elusive goal of becoming a seasonal perennial but there have been way more misses than hits. Although not so ubiquitous as country music stars Christmas albums, plenty of rockers from Elvis Presley to some death metal bands have tried to get into the game.Brenda Lee ushered in the era of Rock and Roll Christmas Songs.
In the ‘50s and early ‘60s the most successful holiday sides were basically novelty tunes like Lee’s. Notably success included Chuck Berry’s Run, Run Rudolph, rockabilly Bobby Helms’ Jingle Bell Rock, and the Beach Boys’ recasting The Little Duce Coup into The Little Saint Nick.
But that began to change in 1963 with Phil Spector’s wall of sound Christmas album. It notably included Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love which Rolling Stone rated as the greatest Rock Christmas song of all time. Unfortunately the album dropped on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and was swamped nearly to oblivion. None of the songs on the album charted originally. Over time the album and the song became cult favorites. It got a huge boost in 1986 when David Letterman featured Love belting out the song the final new episode before Christmas. He made it a tradition that lasted 27 years with ever more elaborate productions.
Darlene Love over the years in her annual performance of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on David Letterman's shows.
The Beatles got into Christmas music with annual almost throw away ditties meant as audio Christmas cards to fans. Later both John Lennon and Paul McCartney had their own holiday hits. Lennon’s Happy Xmas (The War is Over) in 1971 was a great rocking protest song and was produced by Phil Spector. In 1979 McCartney stuck gold with Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time, which has made it to Christmas radio play lists but has also been derided as “the worst Christmas song of all time.” Believe me, it isn’t as long as Dominick the Donkey or The Christmas Shoes still turn up.John Lennon's great Christmas protest song.
For sheer star power and more than a dollop of self-importance nothing matches Irish rocker Bob Geldoph’s assembly of Rock and Pop superstars on Do They Know its Christmas in 1984 to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia.
Mariah Cary’s diva performance on All I Want For Christmas Is You became the first new Christmas song in years to become a seasonal standard in 1994. The infectious earworm has finally passed Bing Crosby’s White Christmas as the most played holiday song on radio as well as the biggest seller.
There are undoubtedly others that deserve mention. But for sheer raw Rock and Roll power nothing matches the 1975 live recording of Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band including Little Stevie—Steve Van Zant—and saxophonist Clarence Clemmons. There is something playful and joyful in this rocker.Not only was Eddie Cantor's record a huge hit but 500,000 copies of the sheet music flew off the shelves within a day of his first performance of Santa Claus is Coming to Town on his radio show.
The song long predated Rock & Roll. It was written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie and became a huge hit for Eddie Cantor after he featured it on his weekly radio program in 1934. It has been recorded by over 200 artists, including Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters, The Crystals, Frank Sinatra, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Mariah Carey, Neil Diamond, Chris Isaak, and Michael Bublé. It was also the title song of the Rankin and Bass 1970 animated TV special with Fred Astaire narrating the origin of Santa Claus.Bruce Springsteen finishes his live performances in November and December with Santa Claus is Coming to town. The audience sings along and the jam can go on for a long time.
For sheer infectious ebullience, Springsteen’s version blasts all others out of the water.