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The Jews Who Wrote Christmas Songs (2011)

December 20, 2011

This article is updated and revised annually. Other versions can be found here: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Introduction

From 2006-2009, I wrote an annually updated article for this site called "Jews who Wrote Christmas Songs," that was based upon the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) list of the top 25 holiday songs of a given year.

The ASCAP list (then and now) is determined by a song's radio airplay on over 2,500 monitored stations. It only includes songs under copyright (in other words, no traditional carols).

I took this annual list, which most people would refer to as Christmas songs, and told you which of the songwriters were/are Jewish and which of the musicians who played the most popular version of the song were/are Jewish.

Last year, ASCAP changed their procedure and issued only a top ten list as of December 15, 2010 (top ten holiday songs, judged by radio airplay, as of that date).

This year, ASCAP issued their list on December 6, 2011.This year's ASCAP list has the top ten most played on the radio holiday songs from October 1, 2011 through November 30, 2011.

As I write this (Dec.16), it does not appear that ASCAP will issue an updated holiday song list this (2011) holiday season.

Last year, for the first time, I also annotated Billboard magazine's "hottest" 30 holiday songs. As with the ASCAP list, I told you which of the 30 songs were written or co-written by Jewish composers and if any of the most popular performers of those songs were Jewish.

Once again this year, I am annotating the Billboard list of "hot" holiday songs (for the week ending Dec. 24, 2011), though I am limiting myself to just the top 25.

Finally, I have included two bonus features this year:

  1. A short biography of the only interfaith married couple to have written a major Christmas/holiday song. It is found in the first part of this article and includes links to more information on the internet.
  2. The back-story of the famous song, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." This separate, on-site article contains material not found in any other source and, to toot my own horn, I think it is a quite interesting tale full of surprises.

Without further ado:

The ASCAP Top Ten

The number following the song title is the number of radio airplays between 10/1/11 and 11/30/11.

Sleigh Ride
Played 64,317 times
Written by Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish
First recorded in 1949
Most popular artist version performed by Leroy Anderson
This song was #1 in 2010
2. Winter Wonderland
Played 54,741 times
Written by Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
F irst recorded in 1934
Most popular artist version performed by Eurythmics
This song was #2 in 2010
3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Played 50,796 times
Written by Mel Tormé, Robert Wells
First recorded in 1944
Most popular artist version performed by Nat King Cole
This song was #10 in 2010
4. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Played 49,509 times
Written by Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
First recorded in 1945
Most popular artist version performed by Dean Martin
This song was not in the top ten last year. It always appeared on the top 25 ASCAP list.
5. Jingle Bell Rock
Played 47,100 times
Written by Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe
First recorded in 1957
Most popular artist version performed by Bobby Helms
This song was #3 in 2010
6. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Played 46,492 times
Written by Edward Pola, George Wyle
First recorded in 1963
Most popular artist version performed by Andy Williams
This song was #4 in 2010
7. Do You Hear What I Hear?
Played 41,633 times
Written by Gloria Shayne Baker, Noël Regney
First recorded in 1962
Most popular artist version performed by Whitney Houston
This song did not appear on the top ten list last year and it did not appear on the top 25 ASCAP list from 2006-2009.
8. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas
Played 39,885 times
Written by Meredith Willson
First recorded in 1951
Most popular artist version performed by Bing Crosby
This song was #7 in 2010
9. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Played 38,395 times
Written by Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
First recorded in 1944
Most popular artist version performed by The Carpenters
This song was #6 in 2010
10. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer
Played 37,266 times
Written by Johnny Marks
First recorded in 1949
Most popular artist version performed by Gene Autry
This song was not on the top ten list last year. It did appear on the top 25 ASCAP holiday song list from 2006-2009. Another holiday song by Johnny Marks, "Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree," was #9 last year.

Again, please see my separate, on-site article about the origins of Rudolph. It includes a full biography of Marks and of Robert May, the author of the poem on which the song was based.

Notes on the ASCAP 2011 List

As stated in my 2009 article on this same subject, which contains brief biographical sketches of all but the last songwriter below, the following composers/lyricists from the above list were Jewish (all are deceased):

  • Mitchell Parish (lyricist): "Sleigh Ride"
  • Felix Bernard (music): "Winter Wonderland"
  • Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (lyrics and music): "The Christmas Song"
  • Sammy Cahn (lyricist) and Jule Styne (music): "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow"
  • George Wyle (music): "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"
  • Johnny Marks (words and music): "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer"
  • Gloria Shayne Baker (music): "Do You Know What I Hear?"
     

If you are keeping score, note that 7 out of 10 of the top ASCAP holiday songs of 2011 were written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.

Shockingly, "White Christmas," which was written (words and music) by Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin, is not on the ASCAP top ten this year. Last year, it was #5 and I have never before seen it out of the top ten.

My guess is that this unexpected plunge is due to the fact that the late Bing Crosby, who sang the most popular "White Christmas" version, has become an "ancient figure" to younger song buyers and radio audiences, and that there isn't another version of the song by a contemporary singerthat gets a lot of airplay.

Also off the top ten list this year is "Frosty the Snowman."

Bonus #1: The Interfaith Couple Who Wrote a Christmas Classic

Making the ASCAP list this year, for the first time, ever, is (at #7), "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

It is the only important holiday song I know of that was co-written by an interfaith (Jewish/Christian) married couple. This song has quite a story attached to it and its songwriters led interesting lives.

But, first, I should note that "Do You Hear" is the only song in the ASCAP 2011 top ten that is an overtly religious Christmas song. The lyrics, while a bit oblique, reference the birth of Jesus in a way that is immediately apparent to those familiar with the Nativity or the events surrounding the birth of Christ as told in the New Testament.

Perhaps the song's most famous and oft-quoted lines (besides its title), are these: "Pray for peace, people ev'rywhere/ Listen to what I say!"

These lines are no accident. The song was written at the height of the Cuban missile crisis when the United States and the Soviet Union teetered at the edge of nuclear war.

The song's lyrics are by Noël Regney (1922-2002). The song's music is by Gloria Shayne Baker (1923-2008).

Noël Regney was born in Strasbourg, France. One source claims (and this seems plausible) that he was originally born with the Germanic name of Léon Schlienger and that Noel Regney is simply his original first name spelled backward and most of his original last name spelled backward, too.

Strasbourg is the Alsace region of France, on the German border, and most Alsatians speak a German dialect as well as French and most have Germanic last names.

In 1940, when France surrendered to Nazi Germany during WWII, the Alsace region was ceded to Germany and (non-Jewish) Alsatian men of draft age were forced into the German army. This happened to Noel Regney. However, he told the press that he joined the French Resistance as a double agent and led a group of Nazi soldiers into an ambush. He said he was wounded during this ambush.

Not long after this incident, Regney deserted the German army and lived underground in France until the war ended.

The war had interrupted Regney's classical musical education. After WWII, he came to the United States in 1951 as the musical director and pianist for a touring French singer. In early 1952, he happened to wander into a Manhattan cafe where Gloria Shayne was singing and playing the piano. A 1958 New York Times article said that, ironically, she "looked very French," while Regney, who had a blond crew cut, "looked like a Univ. of Minnesota fullback." They married four weeks after their first meeting.

They were married at the time they wrote "Do You Hear" and they had one daughter together. The couple divorced in 1973. Gloria Shayne went on to marry a man named William Baker and was his widow. Regney also re-married.

Regney was born a Catholic. He appears to have become a Unitarian sometime after coming to America. However, his funeral was held in a Catholic church. Probably Regney's second most famous musical credit is the English lyric for the hit 1963 song, "Dominque, Dominque," by Sister Sourire, "the singing nun."

"Do You Know" reversed the couple's usual practice — usually Shayne wrote the lyrics and Regney wrote the music. The couple had a number of song hits when they divided the work this way, including: "Rain, Rain, Go Away," "Sweet Little Darlin'," "Goodbye, Cruel World" and "What's the Use of Crying."

Gloria Shayne Baker was born (1923) Gloria Shaine in Brookline, Massachusetts. Obituaries say she changed her last name's spelling early in her career. It seems to me that she changed the spelling so it seemed like her last name was of Irish origin. Not an uncommon thing to do in show business.

The 1930 census records show that her parents were both born in Russia and both listed Yiddish as the language they spoke at home before they came to the United States. So it is obvious that Gloria Shayne/Shaine was born into an immigrant Jewish family.

But it wasn't a poor Jewish family. Her father came to America in 1906, at age 14. He apparently worked hard at learning English and at his other studies. By 1930, he was an attorney with his own practice. The family even had one servant living with them.

Shaine, who had a college degree in music, continued to write songs and work as a backing vocalist and musical accompanist after her divorce from Regney. Her additional notable credits are on the linked obituary.

The Billboard Top 25 Holiday Songs

Unlike the ASCAP list, the Billboard list is based not only on radio airplay, but also on song sales ("hard copy" and downloads).

1. All I Want For Christmas Is You
Sung by: Mariah Carey
Written by: Walter Afanasieff, Mariah Carey

Neither Carey nor Afanasieff, her long time collaborator, is Jewish. However, Jewish musician and songwriter Kenny G was the best man at Afansieff's wedding. (Kenny G's version of the holiday favorite, "Silver Bells," is a perennial best seller).

2. Mistletoe
Sung by: Justin Bieber
Written by: Adam Messinger and Nasri Atweh

Justin Bieber is not Jewish. Bieber's manager is Scooter Braun, now 30. Braun, who is a practicing Jew, discovered Bieber by accident while looking at Youtube videos in 2007. He tracked Bieber down with some difficulty and persuaded Bieber's reluctant mother to allow Bieber to come to Atlanta and record. The rest is showbiz history.

Messinger and Atweh are both from Canada, but now live and work mostly in Los Angeles. They write songs and produce under the name, "The Messengers." Messinger is Jewish and Atweh is of Palestinian Christian background.

A very recent, heartwarming press release about a charity toy drive the Messengers were helping noted their respective backgrounds: "Considering Nasri's Christian/Palestinian roots and Adam's Jewish background, the Messengers are utilizing their diverse cultures to rewrite the holiday season in the spirit of fun and hope for every child. Toys collected by the drive will be donated to Children Affected by Aids Foundation. In addition, all monies raised will go to Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation."

3. The Christmas Song
Sung by: Nat King Cole
Written by: Mel Torme and Robert Wells

As noted above, Tormé and Wells were Jewish.

4. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
Sung by: Brenda Lee
Written by: Johnny Marks

As noted above, and in previous articles, Marks was Jewish.

5. Feliz Navidad
Sung by: Jose Feliciano
Written by: Jose Feliciano

Feliciano is not Jewish.

6. Jingle Bell Rock
Sung by: Bobby Helms
Written by: Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe

As noted in previous articles, I don't know much about these songwriters beyond the place and dates of their births. This was the only hit for these songwriters.

7. A Holly Jolly Christmas
Sung by: Burl Ives
Written by: Johnny Marks (words and music)

Marks was Jewish.

8. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Sung by: Andy Williams
Written by: George Wyle (music), Edward Pola (words)

As noted above, Wyle was Jewish.

9. Christmas Canon
Sung by: Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Written by: This song is a re-working of a classical music piece, with new lyrics (the classical piece is Pacabel's Canon)

It is strongly implied that none of the four members of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra are Jewish. As it says, these four guys, who had long struggled, had a surprise radio hit (1995) with the song just below, "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)." The head of their record company, Jason Flom, who is Jewish, and is identified as Jewish in the article, suggested that they write a whole Christmas album and also suggested they take a new group name. They came back with their current group name and a whole Christmas album. I think if any member were Jewish, it would have come up in this article.

10. Christmas Eve (Sarajevo, 12/24)
Sung by: Trans-Siberian Orchestra
See number #9 above

11. Last Christmas
Sung by: Wham!
Written by: George Michael

Michael is not Jewish. Long story short: there is a story on the internet that his mother is Jewish. This story is in error. Available biographical records conclusively show that Michael does not have a Jewish mother (or father).

12. Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Sung by: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Written by: John Lennon

Lennon was not Jewish.

13. White Christmas
Sung By: Bing Crosby
Written by: Irving Berlin (words and music)

As noted above, Berlin was Jewish.

14. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Sung by: Gene Autry
Written by: Johnny Marks (words and music)

As noted above, Marks was Jewish.

15. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
Sung by: Thurl Ravenscroft (in the 1966 animated TV special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
Written by: Albert Hague (music) and Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel (lyrics)

Ravenscroft, a voice actor and singer, who died in 2005, age 91, was not Jewish. Last year, I wrote the paragraphs just below about Geisel and Hague:

Geisel, in real life, was a good and generous man. The son of German Lutheran immigrants, he was an ardent opponent of the Nazis, penning a series of anti-Nazi cartoons just before and during WWII. When he found out, in the '50s, that Jews couldn't buy homes in his San Diego neighborhood, he led a community-wide campaign to end this shameful discrimination.

Knowing this, it is somehow appropriate that the composer of the song's music was Albert Hague, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. In the interest of brevity, I urge you to read Hague's NY Times obituary and read about his dramatic life and his embrace of his Jewish heritage in America.

Some of you may remember Hague as an actor. He played the elderly and very cranky music teacher in the hit original film version of Fame (1980). He reprised this role in the 1980s TV series based on the film and also called Fame.

16. I'll Be Home For Christmas
Sung by: Kelly Clarkson
Written by: Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram

Clarkson is not Jewish.

As noted in previous versions of this article, the late Walter Kent and the late Buck Ram were Jewish.

17. Where Are You Christmas?
Sung by: Faith Hill
Written by: James Horner (music), Will Jennings (lyrics), Mariah Carey (lyrics)

As noted above, Carey is not Jewish. I simply don't know about Jennings.

Horner, 57, is a top film music composer and the winner of two Oscars for his songs/scores. His works include the score for Titanic and the hit song, "My Heart Will Go On." "Where Are You Christmas" was written for the film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) (not to be confused with the famous 1966 animated TV version).

Horner's father, Harry Horner, an Austrian Jewish set designer, traveled to the United States with Max Reinhardt, the famous Austrian Jewish theater director, to put on a theater spectacular (The Eternal Road) about the history of the Jewish people. The Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, when the play was being presented in America. Harry remained in America and he married James' mother, a member of a prominent Canadian Jewish family, in the 1950s.

18. Blue Christmas
Sung by: Elvis Presley
Written by: Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson

I know little about these obscure songwriters (Hayes and Johnson).

Presley was not Jewish. Yes, some sources repeat a tall tale that Presley's third cousin told 20 years ago to a Jewish biographer of Presley. This cousin said that he and Presley shared a very remote Jewish maternal ancestor (a woman who lived in the early to mid 1800's).

This biographer did no further checking on this cousin's story. She just reported it as "fact."

A detailed check of available records shows that this maternal ancestor was not Jewish. Presley and his parents did share a two-family house in Memphis, Tenn. with a poor Orthodox rabbi and his family in the early '50s.

I spoke to the adult daughter of this rabbi. Sadly, her father, the rabbi, died young. She was a child at the time of his death and she never talked to him about Elvis.

She told me that her mother, the rabbi's wife, and Presley's mother, Gladys, were close friends. Gladys, her mother told her, never said a word about any Jewish ancestor. Her mother said that if Gladys had any knowledge of any Jewish ancestor, the mother was sure Gladys wouldn't have hesitated to mention it.

Presley worked for the rabbi's family, doing tasks Jews were not permitted to do on the Jewish Sabbath. He did this for free. The rabbi, in turn, did things like lend Presley his record player and arrange for a summer camp trip for Presley. When Presley hit it big, he made a major donation to the rabbi's religious school.

As I often tell people, the true story of the lovely relations between this rabbi's family and the Presley family is a more important and meaningful story than a story about Presley having a remote Jewish maternal ancestor.

19. Please Come Home For Christmas
Sung by: The Eagles
Written by: Charles Brown

Brown, an African-American blues singer, penned this song in 1960. He was not Jewish. I am quite confident in saying that the Eagles rock group has never had a Jewish member.

20. Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town
Sung by: Bruce Springsteen
Written by: Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie

I still do not have much on Gillespie. Last year, for the first time, I confirmed that co-writer Coots was of Irish-American background and was not Jewish.

Two members of Springsteen's band are Jewish, keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg. Bruce Springsteen is not Jewish.

21. All I Want For Christmas Is You
Sung by: Michael Buble
Written by: Walter Afanasieff, Mariah Carey

See #1, above, for songwriters. Michael Buble is not Jewish.

22. It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
Sung by: Michael Buble
Written by: Meredith Willson

Willson, most famous as the creator of The Music Man, was not Jewish.

23. Last Christmas
Songwriter: George Michael (see #11, above)
Sung by: Taylor Swift

Swift is not Jewish.

24. All I Want for Christmas is You
Sung by: Justin Bieber
See #1, above, for songwriters, and #2, above, for info on Bieber.

25. Do They Know It's Christmas?
Sung by: Band-Aid
Written by: Midge Ure, Bob Geldof

Geldof, who was raised Catholic, has one Jewish grandparent.

Again, if you are keeping score, 10 out of the 25 top holiday songs on the 2011 Billboard list were written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.

Epilogue

Finally, a personal point: Each year, people post two types of comments about this article. First, they ask or say something about a traditional Christmas carol. Once again, this article is limited to songs on the ASCAP and Billboard lists. All these songs are still under copyright protection. Virtually all traditional Christmas carols were not copyrighted or the copyright has long expired.

Second, people write comments to the effect that I "missed" other famous holiday songs written by Jewish songwriters, like "Santa Baby." Once again, I am not trying to cover, in this article, every famous holiday song by a Jewish songwriter. Just the most popular ones as judged by their appearance on the ASCAP top ten list or the top 25 songs on the Billboard holiday song list.

You are certainly free to mention additional songs in your comments and other readers may well be interested in them. Please just don't say I "missed" them. Thank you and Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year!

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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