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Hark! The City Of Angels

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Bing Crosby's 1962 album I Wish You A Merry Christmas includes a version of Judy Garland's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."
Three Of America’s Most Popular Holiday Songs Were Not Composed In The Midst Of A White Christmas, But In The Sweltering Heat Of Los Angeles


By David Fantle & Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 21, 2015 — Los Angeles, with its relentlessly sunny skies and balmy temperatures, is hardly the place one associates with Christmas. The tinsel of “Tinseltown” refers to the gaudy make-believe of the filmmaking capital, not the silver bunting twinkling from the Yuletide tree. So it may come as a surprise that some of our most cherished holiday songs were born in a place where palm trees rather than evergreens line the boulevards.

Perennial favorites “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Silver Bells” were written in the 1940s and early 50s – all in the “City of Angels.” Here, culled from our interviews, the people who created these three holiday classics tell the stories behind the hits.

Berlin’s Greatest Hit
“Irving Berlin had a wonderful gift – he had the ability to understand and write popular songs for the masses,” said the late composer/arranger Walter Scharf of his old friend and collaborator, who died in 1989. In 1942, Scharf scored Berlin’s songs for the movie Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. “He already had Easter covered with ‘Easter Parade’ and the patriotic holidays with ‘God Bless America.’ Conquering Christmas was no small feat, but Irving was determined.”

With Holiday Inn, already in production, Berlin agonized over his yet-to-be-written Christmas song. “Irving began writing the piece in my office and I took down the first notes for him,” Scharf recalled. “Besides taking down the notes, my task was to provide the arrangements for the orchestra. He titled the tune, ‘White Christmas.’”

The first time Berlin played the completed song. Scharf wasn’t impressed. “No one, especially me, imagined at that moment that we were present at the birth of an institution. It sounded to me like just another fairly good song.”

When the time came to record the vocal for the film, Crosby, who was in a hurry to make a golf date, spent barely 30 minutes laying down the track. Prior to the movie’s release, Crosby sang the song on his “Kraft Music Hall” radio show. From the public’s response, it was instantly apparent that “White Christmas” would be the real hit from the film. It received an Oscar for best song and has sold more than 300 million copies, making it arguably the most popular song ever written and a special favorite – albeit one that ratcheted up pangs of homesickness – for U.S. soldiers fighting in Europe and the Pacific during World War II.

Garland saves the day
In 1944, the songwriting team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane were eagerly anticipating the first performance of their new song, which they had written for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. With snowmen dotting the moonlit yard below her, Judy Garland sat in her second story window and sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The melody was enticing, but if it hadn’t been for Garland’s intuitive ear, the original words could have doomed the song to obscurity. “When Hugh and I first demonstrated it to Judy, she felt the lyrics were too negative,” said Blane during a 1994 interview. The original version went like this:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
It may be your last;
Next year we will all be living in the past …

Garland’s insistence on a rewrite produced the now familiar lyrics:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light;
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be gay;
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.

Garland wasn’t the only vocalist who insisted on a lyric change. Known for doing songs “his way,” Frank Sinatra didn’t feel comfortable with the lyric: “we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” “We changed it to ‘hang a shining star above the highest bough’ to accommodate Frank,” said Blane. “It has become the lyric of choice for most vocalists.”

A “Divine” Intervention
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans formed the longest running collaboration in the songwriting business. At a 1994 interview in Livingston’s Bel-Air California home, they recalled the day in 1951 when they wrote their biggest hit.

“We were told to write a Christmas song for the Bob Hope film, The Lemon Drop Kid,” Livingston said. “We thought a Christmas song was doomed to failure. But the studio brass was adamant.” Sitting on Evans’ desk was a small silver bell. Ray and I stared at the bell and wrote a song we titled ‘Tinkle Bell,’” said Livingston. “We thought we’d insert it in the film and never hear it played again.”

If they had kept that title, their prophecy probably would have come true. But in a moment of divine intervention, Livingston’s wife, Lynne, interceded. “She thought we were crazy calling a song ‘Tinkle Bell,’” Livingston said. “She pointed out that ‘tinkle’ has a bathroom connotation. It was a revelation to us.”

Evans continued: “The next day Jay came into the office and said, ‘We have to change the title.’ Again we looked at that silver bell on my desk and had our new title. We never changed a word of the song, except that ‘Tinkle Bell’ became ‘Silver Bells.’”

It has since sold more than 140 million copies.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at or
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