If you were a resident of the United Kingdom, my Christmas Song of the Day for December 12 would be considered a standard rather than an obscurity. It seems as if every British artist who has made a Christmas album in the past 40-plus years has recorded it.
But in the United States – well, that’s a different story. Only a small handful of American singers have touched it. One of them, though, sang the most successful version in the UK.
Thus is the strange and wonderful saga of the song that became “When a Child Is Born.”
Our story begins in 1972. That year, Italian singer-composer Ciro Dammicco (born 1947) recorded his first album, entitled Mittente, for Columbia Records (an EMI Italiana label, no relation to Columbia in the USA). The third song on Side 2 was a song called “Le Rose Blu,” which served as the beginning of today’s song. Dammicco co-wrote it with lyricists Alberto Salerno (born 1949) and Francesco Specchia (1929-2019). It wasn’t released as a single in Italy or anywhere else.
Dammico must have liked the melody of the verses, though, because he wasn’t done with the song yet. He re-tooled it, eliminating the bridge and lyrics, and in the process came up with an instrumental with wordless lyrics entitled “Soleado,” which he wrote using the pseudonym “Zacar.” He recorded the song in 1974 on the Odeon (EMI) label with the newly formed Daniel Sentacruz Ensemble, and the song became a big hit in Italy, peaking at #2 on the national music charts in August.
EMI figured correctly that the song would easily translate to other countries. Though it wasn’t as big a hit elsewhere, “Soleado” was released in England, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and various Western European nations. It even was issued, as best as can be determined, as a promo-only 45 on EMI in the United States in either December 1974 or January 1975. (No stock copy is known to exist.) Famed orchestra leader Percy Faith recorded a cover in 1975 for his very last album, Summer Place ’76.
For the purposes of our story, the most important country to license “Soleado” from EMI Italiana was West Germany, which released the song on its Columbia label (also no relation to USA Columbia) in 1974. Michael Holm (born 1943), a schlager singer (roughly the equivalent to a U.S. pop/easy listening singer) whose first single came out way back in 1961, wrote a set of lyrics to the song, “Tränen lügen nicht” (English translation: “Tears Don’t Lie”). His version, released in West Germany in September 1974, became a #1 hit in his home country and soon spread to neighboring German-speaking areas such as Austria and Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Austrian-born Friedrich Jacobson, who composed under the name Fred Jay (1914-1988), created a set of words in English. Jay already had a long career as a songwriter; his credits go back to World War II. His most famous co-written hits before 1974 were “What Am I Living For” (Chuck Willis, 1958), “I Cried a Tear” (La Vern Baker, 1959), and the English version of “The Wedding” (Julie Rogers, 1964). By the end of the 1970s, Jay was the primary collaborator with Frank Farian on songs recorded by Boney M.
Jay’s song, “When a Child Is Born,” never specifically mentions the Christ child, but the words are easily interpreted as referring to the anticipation of the holy birth. Holm was given the first chance to record the new lyrics, which he did. Mercury Records picked it up for release in the United States and Canada. Amazingly for a German singer, Holm’s song was a hit in the States during the Christmas season of 1974-75. The American musical trade papers had widely diverging opinions as to how big a hit it was: In Billboard, it peaked at #53, but in Cash Box, it got to #38 and in Record World, it made it all the way to #24. Then it disappeared from the airwaves.
It was a different story in England, however. The original Holm version was released too close to Christmas in 1974 to make the charts. But in 1976, Johnny Mathis recorded a version of “When a Child Is Born” for his album I Only Have Eyes for You, released that spring. Just in time for Christmas, CBS Records, Mathis’ British label, issued it as a single, where it became a surprise #1 single for three weeks – the only #1 single he ever had in the UK. (In the US, his version reached #145 in Record World in 1976-77 and #123 in the same magazine in 1977-78, but that’s it.)
Since then, artists from Boney M to Sarah Brightman to the Moody Blues have recorded “When a Child Is Born.” With rare exceptions, the popularity of the song is mostly a British phenomenon.
You may skip as many of the early versions as you wish, but here’s the audio timeline of “When a Child Is Born.”
First, “Le Rose Blu” by Ciro Dammicco:
Next, “Soleado” by the Daniel Sentacruz Ensemble:
Now, “Tränen lügen nicht” by Michael Holm:
At last, to “When a Child Is Born” by Michael Holm, the consensus Top 40 hit in the U.S.:
Finally, the 1976 UK #1 version by Johnny Mathis:
(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 11, 2014.)