In commenting on his recording of the Christmas classic, “White Christmas,” legendary crooner Bing Crosby once quipped, “A jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.” The quote speaks volumes about the magnificence of the song. Which is to say, almost anyone can make a great song sound good (and vice versa). “White Christmas” is incontestably one of the greatest secular Christmas songs of all time. Indeed, “White Christmas” is a masterpiece.

Irving Berlin, a titan among American songwriters, penned “White Christmas” in 1940. The following quote by composer Jerome Kern speaks to Irving Berlin’s unparalleled skills and staggering success as a songwriter: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.” Berlin wrote over 1000 songs, many of them standards. And, in case you may not know, one of those songs is “God Bless America,” widely considered to be the unofficial national anthem of the United States.

“White Christmas” was composed for the 1942 movie, “Holiday Inn,” a musical based on an idea by Berlin and starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Since the movie was about a hotel that was only open on public holidays, it was Berlin’s task to write a song about every major holiday. He found writing about Christmas, however, to be particularly challenging, and this highlights a great irony of the song: that an Eastern European Jewish immigrant wrote one of the biggest selling Christmas classics of all time. In any event, Berlin was clearly up to the task, and, in addition to becoming a standard, the song won the Academy Award for best original song.

Bing Crosby first performed the song for the public on his NBC radio show (the “Kraft Music Hall”) on December 12, 1941. Sadly, it is suspected that the recording of this broadcast may have been lost or inadvertently destroyed. On May 29, 1942, however, Crosby recorded the song for Decca Records, with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra supplying a lush accompaniment. (Because the master tape of this recording was damaged from excessive use, Crosby rerecorded the song in 1947. This reissued recording is the version most commonly sold and broadcast today.) The song became wildly successful, and by the end of World War II, was the best selling single of all time.

“White Christmas”, the movie based on the song, was released in 1954. The plan was to reunite Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but, for reasons not entirely clear, Astaire passed on the movie. (some sources note that he was unhappy with the script; others indicate that he bowed out due to illness). In any event, the role ultimately went to Danny Kaye, and the movie went on to become the highest grossing film of the year.

For many years, “White Christmas” was the best selling single of all time. It dropped to number two, however, after being surpassed by “Candle in the Wind 1997,” Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana. Of course, to those who adore Princess Diana and “White Christmas,” statistics such as these are irrelevant. What is relevant is what the songs mean to them. Indeed, every holiday season fans of “White Christmas” derive enormous pleasure from listening to the venerable Bing Crosby softly croon this timeless classic.

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