The Jews Who Wrote Christmas Songs
By Nate Bloom
Every year the American Society of Composers and Publishers publishes a list of the 25 Most Popular Holiday Songs. The old favorites--"The Christmas Song," "White Christmas," etc.--are always on the list, but songs enter or leave the list based on the popularity of recent covers of the song.
Among the 25 songs picked this year, more than half--13 to 14--were composed, co-written or performed by verifiably Jewish artists. Here's a rundown on the songs with Jewish connections. Click on the links below to see information about a particular song.
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed the World) Santa Baby
Holly Jolly Christmas Santa Claus is Coming to Town
I'll Be Home for Christmas Silver Bells
It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year Sleigh Ride
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree White Christmas
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Number one on the list, this song was written in 1945 by Mel Tormé (1925-1999) and Robert "Bob" Wells (born 1922)--both of whom are Jewish. "The Christmas Song" has gained in popularity since 2000, the first year I looked at the ASCAP list. In 2000, it was third, with "White Christmas" holding the #1 spot.
Tormé, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, is most famous as a jazz vocalist, but he did write about 250 songs, mostly with Wells. Tormé wrote the music for "The Christmas Song" and Wells penned the lyrics.
As it says in this article, this song was written in July, in the hot desert.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Back when I first wrote on the subject, I caught a newspaper reference to a university seminar in which one of the professors, reportedly, said that Fred Coots, co-writer of the song, was Jewish. I reported that Coots was Jewish. However, upon reflection, I am not sure that this newspaper source is unimpeachable and I haven't, yet, been able to find an independent reliable source that confirms or refutes the newspaper article's information on Coots.
Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" is the historical "biggie" of popular Christmas songs. Its incredible success inspired scores of other songwriters to try and write a Christmas song.
Berlin, one of the most famous songwriters in American history, was born Israel Baline in what is now Russia, or possibly Belarus. He came to the States in 1891. His father is alternately reported to have been a cantor or rabbi, but didn't work in either capacity when the family moved to America. His father's death, when Irving was 13, forced Irving Berlin to find work--like singing in the streets--just so he and his family could eat.
Berlin's early dire poverty fits the stereotype of the successful Jewish American songwriter--but not quite the reality. Most top Jewish American songwriters, especially those who worked in the Broadway theater, were from families that fit in an income range from upper working class to upper middle class. Also, most Jewish Broadway composers were American born and not immigrants.
Berlin certainly never hid the fact that he was Jewish, even though he changed his name (he adopted "Berlin" because that was how his last name, Baline, was misspelled on the sheet music cover of his first published song).
Despite his rabbi father, Irving Berlin was never a religious man--although he supported Jewish causes--like the State of Israel. He was absolutely very much an American patriot--and "God Bless America" was a sincere statement of his beliefs. (The royalties to that song go to the Boys and Girls Scouts).
For Berlin, personally, Christmas was not a happy time. His second wife, and the love of his life, was a Catholic. While Berlin remained a secular Jew, he allowed his children with his second wife to be raised as Episcopalians. One of their children, a son, died very young on Christmas day in the 1920s.
Berlin celebrated Christmas with his wife and his surviving children when those children were young, but he was always reportedly sad on that day--mourning his dead child. He did not celebrate the holiday at all when his surviving children were grown-up.
Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!
This song was written (1945) by the Jewish songwriting team of lyricist Sammy Cahn (1913-1993) and music composer Jule Styne (1905-1994).
In the 1950s, probably half of all Americans would recognize the names of this songwriting duo. Previews of coming movies would actually sometimes say that the film featured a Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne tune--and that tune would usually end up high on the "hit parade."
Cahn won the Oscar for best song four times: once with Styne, and three times with composer Jimmy Van Heusen, who wasn't Jewish.
Cahn was born Sammy Cohen on the Lower East Side of New York, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. He changed his name from Cohen to Kahn to Cahn--to avoid being confused with a popular entertainer of the day with a similar name and, then, a songwriter with a similar name.
Jule Styne was born in London to Jewish parents from the Ukraine. His family moved to Chicago when he was 8. He is best known as a top Broadway and movie musical composer and the list of the great shows he wrote is staggering. Maybe the biggest are: "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Peter Pan," "Bells are Ringing," "Gypsy" and "Funny Girl."
Cahn and Styne also wrote "The Christmas Waltz." That tune has appeared in past years on the ASCAP top 25. But it is not one of the 2006 ASCAP top 25.
Composer Leroy Anderson wasn't Jewish, but lyricist Mitchell Parish (1900-1993) was.
Parish was born Michael Hyman Pashelinsky in Lithuania, but his family moved to Lousiana and settled in Shreveport when he was an infant. (I don't know if living in Lousiana inspired the name change to "parish"--the term used for counties in Lousiana.)
Parish's family moved to New York City when he was about six and he got his education, through college, in New York. For decades, he was a leading lyricist.
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, Holly Jolly Christmas
Johnny Marks (1909-1985), who was Jewish, was an interesting man, but his main claim to fame is writing three of the most popular Christmas songs of all-time.
Marks was born in a New York City suburb and graduated from prestigious Colgate University before going off to Paris to study music. Besides writing songs, Marks was a prominent radio producer. He had a heroic World War II combat record, winning the Bronze Star and four battle stars.
Marks also served as President of ASCAP and my friend, composer Ervin Drake, got to know him in that capacity (Drake served as ASCAP president some years after Marks). Drake confirmed to me that Marks was Jewish--and he helped me with a few other songwriters on this list that he knew personally and knew to be Jewish.
The full story of how "Rudolph" came to be is laid out in detail in this article. In short, Marks' brother-in-law, Robert May, who I think was Jewish--but I am not sure---invented Rudolph.
It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
The Jewish composer, George Wyle (1917-2003), was born Bernard Weissman in New York City, got his start playing piano in the Catskills and moved to Los Angeles in 1946 to write and conduct music for the Alan Young Radio Show.
He is also famous for writing the music to the theme song for "Gilligan's Island," the endlessly popular '60s TV show. (The lyrics to that tune were by Sherwood Schwartz, the show's Jewish creator).
Wyle's grandson is Adam Levy, a very talented guitarist who is best known for playing guitar in singer Norah Jones' band. He is also a composer and recording artist in his own right. His grandfather, he says, was an important influence on him.
l'll Be Home For Christmas
Walter Kent, who wrote the music, and Buck Ram, who co-wrote the lyrics with Kim Gannon, were Jewish. "I'll Be Home," like "White Christmas," was first sung by Bing Crosby and released (1943) during World War II. Like "White Christmas," it hit a nerve among those separated from their loved ones, and was an instant hit and holiday classic.
There is a legal dispute about this song. In short, Buck Ram, who was born Samuel Ram, wrote a poem--later a song--with the title "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Maybe Kent and Gannon saw Ram's version before they wrote their song and maybe they didn't.
In any event, Kent and Gannon wrote the song we all know--which bears little relationship to the song Ram wrote, except for the title. But Ram felt he deserved a writing credit--he sued--and he got a co-writing credit.
This song was written (1951) for The Lemon Drop Kid, a Bob Hope movie.
Jay Livingston, who wrote the music, and Ray Evans, who wrote the lyrics, were a famous (Jewish) songwriting team with many big hits to their credit. Livingston (1915-2001) was born Jacob Levinson in a small industrial suburb of Pittsburgh.
Evans (born 1915) was born in Salamanca, a small city not that far from Buffalo, New York. He went to the Univ. of Pennsylvania, as did Jay Livingston, and the two met when they joined the University dance band.
They formed their songwriting partnership in 1937 and it endured until Livingston's death. (By all accounts, these two guys were like brothers and Evans was absolutely devastated by Livingston's death.)
According to ASCAP, the most popular (most current airplay) version of "Silver Bells" is the one by saxophonist Kenny G, who is Jewish.
Do They Know It's Christmas? (Feed the World)
Written by Midge Ure and Bob Geldof, this is the newest song on the list, was composed in 1984 for the "Live Aid" concert.
Rock musician Bob Geldof, who is now more famous as a humanitarian than a musician, was raised a Roman Catholic.
While I wouldn't call Geldof a "Jewish songwriter," he has some Jewish ancestry--apparently a Jewish grandparent. He told Hello magazine in 2002: "I'm Irish. My grandparents were Belgian, German, English and Irish. They were Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. I married a Welsh woman. We had English children. I live with a French girl. I luckily have flats in London, Paris and Rome."
There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays
I am still researching Bob Allen, a talented songwriter who is now deceased. This song's lyricist, Al Stillman (1906-c.1986), was Jewish.
Stillman being Jewish was confirmed, to me, by composer Ervin Drake. Stillman was one of Drake's co-writers on the lovely song, "I Believe." (A song that appears on many Christmas albums).
Al Stillman was born in New York and was a writer for Radio City Music Hall for 40 years. He had several other big hits, which are listed on this biography. Mr. Drake tells me that he was not a practicing Jew.
This song was mostly written by Joan Ellen Javits (born 1928), and was first recorded by Eartha Kitt back in 1953. Madonna's 1987 version has proven popular enough to put this tune into the top 25.
Joan Javits, who is Jewish, was kind of a one-hit wonder so not that much is "out there" on her post-Santa Baby career. Joan is the niece of the late (Jewish) Senator Jacob Javits, a Republican who represented New York State from 1956 to 1981 and had a very distinguished career. Joan's father, Ben, was a prominent attorney and he was very important to the career of his brother, Jacob Javits.
I couldn't find any real biographical material on Philip and Tony Springer, who wrote the lyrics.
Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Detroit Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Most of the items in Bloom's weekly newspaper column differ from the items in his bi-weekly column on interfaith celebrities for Interfaithfamily.com.