CSOTD 12/1/2015: If Winchell says it, it must be so

Welcome to another year of the Christmas Song of the Day!  When I started this feature in 2014, on my Facebook page, I wrote the following introduction, and it’s as good a way to start as any:

Thousands of songs have been written about December 25, from the profound to the profane, by composers from Bach to Beck and singers from Bing to Sting. For the most part, I’m going to avoid songs you would likely hear on the radio if you are in a market with a wall-to-wall holiday-song format this time of year. On those stations, if you turned it on and didn’t hear, let’s say, “A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives, don’t worry; you’ll hear it again in an hour or so.

Other than the fact that you’ll have to dig deep to hear them on the radio, the only other thing these Christmas songs have have in common, other than their connection to this time of the year, is that I like them. And I hope you enjoy them, too.

For December 1, I’m going way back to a song that was recorded for Victor before the attack on Pearl Harbor – October 23, 1941, to be exact.  Released shortly thereafter, this was a B-side of a 78. It wasn’t a hit at the time, perhaps because people had other things on their mind in December of 1941, but it deserves to be rediscovered.

In 1941, Sammy Kaye (1910-1987) had one of the most popular big bands in America. His group was considered to be one of the “sweet” bands, closer to Guy Lombardo than to, say, Benny Goodman, and most of his many hits from 1937 through 1950 were on the mellow side. Around 1938, one of the introductions for his band was “Let’s swing and sway with Sammy Kaye,” and the name stuck. Most of his 78 rpm records from the years he recorded for Victor had that slogan on them.

Today’s song was composed by Don Reid and Ted Eddy and based loosely on the Mexican carol “Ya Vienen Los Reyes,” about the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem.  But when I first heard today’s spotlighted song, one line of lyric stuck out to me, making it very much of its time: “‘Cause a flash in Winchell’s column says, ‘Santa Claus is on his way.'”

Walter Winchell (1897-1972) was the Larry King of his day, except with even more influence (and with ties to the Mob) and a mean streak a mile wide. At its height in the 1930s and 1940s, his gossip column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers, and millions of people heard his radio broadcasts, which started with “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.” So if Winchell wrote in his column, “Santa Claus is on his way,” America believed it.  His influence faded in the 1950s, but a new generation heard his staccato voice as the narrator of the television program The Untouchables later in the decade.

I didn’t hear this one for the first time until a couple years ago. Not far from where I am right now, in Farmville, Virginia, there is still an old-fashioned local radio station, the kind that used to be everywhere. They are so local that they still read obituaries on the air!  As with many of these stations, they are only loosely tied to a strict format. Every Saturday morning, a man named Dan Albus comes on the radio and plays nothing but music from the “swinging years.” His Saturday mornings in December are dedicated to Christmas music from the era, and this is one that he played. Enjoy now as I did not that long ago, “Santa Claus Is On His Way.”

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