‘Here Comes Santa Claus': The Singing Cowboy Origins of the Holiday Standard
It's hard to fathom a beginning for most Christmas carols. Our grandparents' grandparents probably sang all of the classics, and, even back then, those songs must've sounded like relics from another time and place.
However, there's one song that's less old than you might imagine: "Here Comes Santa Claus" entered popular culture after the advent of both country music and cowboy films, from the imagination of Gene Autry.
Autry's website tells the song's story via Jon Guyot Smith's liner notes from the Grammy-nominated 1997 box set Sing, Cowboy, Sing!: The Gene Autry Collection:
Gene was riding his horse, Champion, down Hollywood Boulevard for the annual Christmas parade in 1946 when, hearing the crowds of children gleefully crying, "Here comes Santa Claus!" he was inspired to write a song. He turned his sketch over to Oakley Haldeman (then in charge of Gene's music publishing firms) and legendary A&R chief "Uncle" Art Satherley. They completed the lead sheet, hastening a copy over to singer/guitarist Johnny Bond's home to make an acetate disc of the finished product. A cocktail was mixed for Uncle Art, who sipped near the microphone while Bond sang "Here Comes Santa Claus" for the first time. When the group heard the ice cubes jingling so merrily on the playback, they were inspired to use a "jingle bell" sound on Gene's record! It was the first Gene Autry Christmas release, a huge commercial and artistic triumph that opened the door to an unexpected extension of his phenomenal career.
Demo singer Bond joined the cast of the Gene Autry's Melody Ranch radio show in 1940 and performed on the show as a singer and comedian until 1956. A Country Music Hall of Famer in his own right, Bond wrote "Cimarron" and other singing cowboy classics while aiding the radio, recording and film careers of Autry and Tex Ritter.
Autry first recorded his future Christmas standard in 1947. It became a crossover hit in its own time, stalling at No. 5 on the country music charts and reaching the ninth spot on the pop charts. From day one, it's been an ever-present popular song that transcended genre labels, even if country stars ranging from Willie Nelson to LeAnn Rimes have cut it over the years.
Over 70 years after making "Here Comes Santa Claus" a holiday standard, Autry's impact on the holiday season is just as surreal as his massive catalog of films or his role as a founder and longtime owner of Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Angels. However, despite being an Autry original, the 1947 version of the classic isn't the singing cowboy legend's best-known Christmas hit.
Way back in 1939, a prolific Christmas song writer named Johnny Marks introduced more than just a future holiday favorite: He popularized a new character, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A decade later, Autry's version of Marks' kid-friendly story song furthered his reach as a singer of fresh Christmas material.
As for the influence of the "Rudolph" songwriter: The only country or folk acts to make a bigger impact than Autry on December playlists, Brenda Lee ("Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree") and Burl Ives ("Silver and Gold" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas"), did so with compositions by Marks.
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