Jingle bell robbery?

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At this time of year there’s one traditional holiday pop-rock song that reigns supreme.

It’s been getting steady play every December for 56 years now and has worked its way into dozens of Christmas ads, TV shows, and movies. Given its rockabilly feel (and its Andrews-Sisters-like background singing), it swings more than rocks, but that’s ok. It’s still considered the first rock & roll Christmas song—because this is what rock sounded like in its early years. Here’s the tune.

I can hear your objections already: it’s FLUFF! Yup, but it’s fluff that’s superbly recorded, brilliantly arranged, and magnificently performed. It’s as elegantly and tightly constructed as a Swiss watch, with no superfluous parts. A miracle of minimalism. And since 1957 this two-minute-and-twelve-second classic has been the standard bearer for holiday cheer.

Unfortunately, there’s a business tale behind the song that’s not so cheery.

In late 1957 singer Bobby Helms was riding high with two back-to-back #1 country hits, “Fraulein” and “My Special Angel,” which both charted on the Pop Top 40 as well. At that time, Decca’s A&R man Paul Cohen convinced Helms to record a song titled “Jingle Bell Hop." Helms and his session guitar-player, Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland, tried to make this new song work, but just couldn’t.

“It wasn’t any good,” Garland recalled years later, explaining how he and Helms took a meat cleaver to the tune—changing the words and adding a bridge and new verses. The two of them considered it “a whole new song” and recorded their creation, “Jingle Bell Rock,” that night. Nevertheless, the authors of the original song, Joe Beal and Jim Boothe, got full credit for the new version and made a fortune off it.

At the very least, Helms and Garland should have been granted co-writer credit, given the new melody, verses, bridge, and lyrics. But six decades later we can’t say for certain whether the song was substantially “revised” or completely rewritten. (NB: changes to an arrangement of a song don’t customarily affect ownership, but changes to the substance of the song—melody, chords, lyrics—do.) The phrase “jingle hop” in the first verse of the song was probably left over from the first song, but that alone would not be sufficient for Beal and Boothe to claim authorship.

In the years that followed, Bobby Helms never reached the top of the charts again, though he continued to perform until his passing in 1997. He never received songwriting royalties from “Jingle Bell Rock” but he did receive royalties as the recording artist for the song. Bad business decisions kept him from returning to his glory days.

Hank Garland died in 2004, still claiming he and Helms were owed millions from JBR songwriting royalties. He earned a good wage from his session work in the 50s, but a 1961 car accident left him partially paralyzed, ending his career. His recording credits included Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love,” Roy Orbison's “Pretty Woman,” and many hits by Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline.

One business lesson from this stands out: Pay attention to IP.

If Helms and Garland had better understood how intellectual property worked—and had good lawyers—they could have made an immediate claim on their authorship of JBR. There were plenty of witnesses around when they were hacking away at this tune in the studio. (It also would have helped if they had kept notes from the session.) Helms, as the biggest new hit maker for Decca, and Garland, as the hottest session guitarist around, had enough clout at the time to raise hell about it.

Lastly, for those who dismiss the song as worthless frippery, I feel the need to justify my encomiums for it. Let me direct your attention to some quality details: (1) the flawless guitar playing of Garland (the vamped 6th chords are perfectly placed); (2) the immaculately sung background “oohs” by the Anita Kerr Singers, who also sing the third verse with exquisite harmonies (in contrary motion no less); and (3) the cool, laid-back lead vocal of Helms, with a perfectly executed rockabilly drawl.

That's the Jingle Bell Rock.


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16 Comments

  1. As a footnote to the above, I should add that there is often much debate—and litigation—around how much a performing artist/band is making cosmetic changes vs. fundamentally rewriting a song. For instance, Mike Love of the Beach Boys claimed co-authorship of many of Brian Wilson’s songs years after the fact. While Brian (and others) recalled—and testified in court—that Love’s work was focused not on the words or music but on the vocal arrangement of the songs (which isn’t normally considered “copyrightable”), Mike Love won the suit. Suffice it to say, claiming song authorship is a slippery slope and there are often two (or more) credible sides to a copyright disagreement.

    To argue the other side of the JBR dispute for the moment: it IS worth noting that Decca’s Paul Cohen was extremely excited about getting Helms to record the “Jingle Bell Hop” song and had been lobbying him for weeks about it. If that original tune was as terrible as Helms and Garland maintained (requiring them to completely rewrite it, allegedly), how come Cohen, a seasoned music vet, thought the song was so strong? Was there enough substance in the original that survived the rewrite, justifying Beal and Boothe’s claim on the song, at least as co-writers?

    I'll have to do a post someday on Rock's Unsolved Mysteries.

  2. Amazes me that veterans would hose themselves so badly on the IP front, especially when every author and songwriter I run across is looking for a black hole to hide their work in so The Man can't steal it and ruin their life forever.

    On the other side of the coin, musician Scott Andrew once wrote an article about a local band who'd found 3 songs from their new album on a free music sharing site. Scott's question "Where were the other 7 songs?" was the point of his article entitled "Not Worth Stealing?"

    Just read in David Burkus' most excellent "The Myths of Creativity" that Led Zeppelin is has been fighting with the surviving members of Spirit for 40+ years because the beginning of Stairway supposedly sounds a whole lot like the Spirit song Taurus, written 3 years before Stairway -- while Spirit and Zeppelin were touring together.

    1. Finally thought to Google Spirit's song Taurus. The intro guitar riff is 85% of Jimmy Page's riff for the intro of Stairway.

      That's the entirety of the similarity. Did Page lift it? Probably. Is there a lawsuit here? Well, if Stairway had made eleven dollars, I'll bet nobody'd be suing for half of it.

      It's not like George Harrison's note-for-note usage of the melody of He's So Fine.

      1. I wonder if there's someone, somewhere saying, "That Randy California of Spirit stole my riff and used it for 'Taurus' without crediting me..."

  3. Yeah, guitar riffs aren't copyrightable, unless they're the melody for the song.

    "My Sweet Lord" was textbook plagiarism (tho probably unintended), which is why George lost in court.

  4. Speaking of IP, I'm taking a slight—but negligible—risk with my last line of the post. I could be sued for quoting a song lyric without permission, though I would argue that I'm just summarizing the post.

  5. Yes, the vocals are exceptional, the guitar is perfect (if you think that style of minimalist guitar stabs is easy, you try it sometime) and it's a catchy little piece of holiday drivel which explains its longevity. But as a drummer, you have to dig that killer high "snap" sound they get on the "snare" or whatever it is. From Buddy Holly on down, rockabilly drummers are always going after anti-snare tones: strange little "popping" or dull "thuddy" tones ("Every Day"--Buddy Holly) as alternates to the usual snare drum crack. One has to wonder all the materials they tried out to get that one perfect "pop"! Rockabilly drummers are like foley artists in films, the folks who provide all the sound efx. They fill the studio up with all manner of crazy junk to make the movie sound "realistic". Rockabilly drummers must do the same to achieve "non-snare" tones. I heard they'd sometimes stick magazines on their snare--I don't know. Note Ringo always stuck to a very standardized trap set. I can't think of an alternative approach he ever used for any drum tones, he was very conservative and jazz-like/purist about his sound. The times you hear non-trap drums on Beatles records is only when the engineer used percussive sound effects or electronic loops for the beat, no Ringo involved.

    1. I love the faux snare drum sounds on so many 50s tracks, especially Elvis's. In "Won't You Wear My Ring Around Your Neck" I read that someone was hand-slapping a guitar case in addition to the drummer hitting the snare drum. In "Don't Be Cruel" it might be the same thing. I also hear brushes on a snare drum.

      Most recording engineers and drummers just can't get this sound today.

      But this week I'm listening to JBR to appreciate the Anita Kerr Singers.

      1. I'm wondering what they recorded that on--a mono 1/4" Ampex machine? Such that everybody had to do their thing live at the same time?? When you consider that Lennon's "War is Over" Christmas song was recorded in layers in different cities at different times on a 16-track machine, you appreciate those old "mix-on-the-fly" tracks all the more!

        1. According to Helms's manager, Bobby nailed it in a couple of takes. But there's always a lot of mythology around recording sessions — especially in the 50s. I've read two different versions of this session. In one, Garland and Helms had been rewriting the song for hours and eventually recorded it the same night/morning. In another, they had rewritten most of it on an earlier occasion and Helms strolled into the studio at 4 am (having just gotten off a plane from Canada) and walked out at 5 am with a completed take. If the latter is true then the musicians and singers had to be practicing it for hours.

          Yes, the Beatles recorded their entire Please Please Me album (10 songs) in 13 hours in 1963, but it was wonderfully loose and not as precisely executed as JBR.

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