Silver Bells, which appeared in 1951, comes at the end of an amazing 19-year run that witnessed 19 Christmas songs that have have enjoyed continued popularity for more than half a century:
• Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1932)
• I Wonder As I Wander (1933)
• Winter Wonderland (1934)
• Carol of the Bells (1936)
• The Little Drummer Boy (1941)
• Happy Holiday (1942)
• White Christmas (1942)
• I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1943)
• Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944)
• Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945)
• All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth (1946)
• Here Comes Santa Claus (1946)
• The Christmas Song (1946)
• Sleigh Ride (1948/1950)
• A Marshmallow World (1949)
• Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949)
• Frosty the Snowman (1950)
• Silver Bells (1951)
• It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas (1951)
Oddly enough, lyricist Ray Evans and composer Jay Livingston did not want to write it. Paramount Pictures asked for a Christmas song for the Bob Hope movie The Lemon Drop Kid, about a racetrack tout with a big gambling debt that had to be paid off by Christmas. The pair, who worked together for 64 years and created hundreds of songs, hadn’t had a hit for a while and didn’t think a Christmas song could possibly make another one for them. In spite of the success that the songs listed above had achieved, they grumbled that everyone sings old songs at Christmas and newer ones never make it. Paramount insisted.
The Bob Hope character in the movie raised the money to pay off his debt by getting friends to stand on street corners of New York with bells, dressed as Santa Claus. Most of the other songs on the list, to the extent that they have a discernible setting at all, concern small towns or the country side. The movie dictated a city setting, very unusual for Christmas music. Anyone who has lived in, or visited, an American city will recognize the imagery of decorated shop windows, bustling crowds on the sidewalks carrying the packages they have bought, and the ringing of bells–by the Salvation Army, of course, not a petty crook. Therefore, Evans and Livingston set a bell on their work table for inspiration.
In two days, they had a song. The gentle waltz of the melody underscores the familiar emotional flavor of the season, whether in the quiet of the countryside or the bustle of the city. Livingston proudly showed his wife Tinkle Bell. She asked him if he was out of his mind. The bathroom meaning, being used mostly by women and children, had never occurred to him or Evans. They actually tried to start over and come up with a new song until they realized that all they needed was a new word to substitute for “tinkle.” They selected “silver” and submitted the song to Paramount.
As it turns out, Evans and Livingston made only two small mistakes: one word in the original lyrics and the worry that they could not turn out a Christmas hit. Livingston later called Silver Bells their annuity because of its dependable sales year after year.
Sources: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
America’s Songs / by Filip Furia and Michael Lasser (Routledge, 2006)