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.
[For an update on the Jingle Bell Rock mystery, check out this later post.]