Beloved Christmas carols: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is a product of Tin Pan Alley, with words by Haven Gillispie and music by J. Fred Coots. Most of the lyricists and song writers who worked with Tin Pan Alley lived in New York. Gillespie, one of the few successful exceptions, chose to live with his family in Covington, Kentucky and make periodic trips to New York sell his latest work.

On one trip in the fall of 1932, he learned that his brother Irwin had died suddenly of pneumonia. Gillespie had trouble putting his heart into his work, even though Irwin had devoted his last words to encouraging him to keep pushing his songs. When the publisher Leo Feist asked the pair to write a Christmas song while he was in town, Gillespie didn’t see how he could write anything cheerful. They boarded a subway, and Coots called out the name of New York streets, in case one of them might inspire the heart-broken lyricist.

Gillespie’s own thoughts went back to Irwin, but soon he was remembering the Christmases of their childhood. His mother used to tell the boys to do as they were told or Santa Claus wouldn’t come. He found some paper and began to sketch lyrics based on her warnings. He came up with stern but affectionate admonitions leading of to the promise that Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Once he finished the words, Coots had no trouble fitting them with suitable music.

Although Gillespie had written successful children’s songs before, most of Tin Pan Alley avoided them as unlikely to sell well. When other songwriters first heard Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, they kidded the pair for its corniness. The next step after finishing a song, trying to find a well-respected star to sing it, proved difficult. In fact, it took two years. Finally, they approached Eddie Cantor. He hesitated just like everyone before him, but his wife loved the song. He sang it on the radio for her sake, and it became one of the biggest hits of 1934, selling 25,000 copies a day.

Both Gillespie and Coots had successful careers before they wrote Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and both continued to write songs successfully for years afterward. Hardly anyone sings or remembers anything else that either one wrote, but Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, written reluctantly by a man mourning the death of his brother, remains as popular today as when Eddie Cantor made it famous nearly seventy five years ago.

Sources: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
America’s Songs / by Filip Furia and Michael Lasser (Routledge, 2006)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *