vrijdag 13 december 2013

Frank Sinatra: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas b/w I'll Be Home For Christmas (UK: Capitol, CL 15329, 1963)

Although Frank Sinatra was surely not the first to record 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', his version is probably the most famous version of the song. It has been released on several different 7”'s and EP's – the version I have chosen is the 1963 version released in the UK, and has 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' on the B-side.

'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' was already almost 20 years old, when Frank Sinatra recorded it – not for the first time – for this single. The songs was first performed by Judy Garland, in 1944, in the MGM movie musical 'Meet Me In St. Louis'. Esther, the character played by Judy, sings the song to her little sister Tootie (played by a very young Margaret O'Brien) in a scene situated on Christmas Eve, to cheer her up, as the whole family is sad, because of having to leave their St. Louis, Missouri home for New York, where their father had found a new job.

The song was written by Hugh Martin (lyrics) and Ralph Blane (music), although Hugh Martin later claimed he had also written all music of the 'Meet Me In St. Louis'-songs and that his naivity and lack of businessmenship made him share the credits with Ralph Blane. The music of the song has stayed the same through the years, but Martin has rewritten part of the lyrics several times. Judy Garland, who was supposed to sing the song in the movie, was the first who thought the original lyrics to be too depressing. With lines like "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past” and “Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more'' it was indeed not exactly an optimistic song. In a way, it reflected the time it was written, a time when the US was deeply involved in World War II. Martin first refused to write the song, but after first director Vincente Minnelli (who claimed that his movie was about hope and dreams, so the song also had to have some hope in it) and later Judy's co-star Tom Drake, who was a friend of Hugh Martin, talked to him about, he gave in, and changed several parts of the song. For example, the lines "It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past" became "Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight". Martin, who himself was a religious person, also changed the last part of the original line "through the years, we all will be together if the Lord allows" into "if the fates allow", to remove religious references and make the song a secular song.

The changes turned the song from a song of sadness into a song of hope, hope for a brighter future. But it was still not a light song, because the final line of the song still reflected the sad situation of the moment: ''until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow.'' Judy Garland recorded 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' for a 78 rpm single on Decca Records, and it became especially with popular the US troups abroad, although it was certainly not the big hit from the movie. That was 'The Trolley Song', that got an Oscar nomination for best song of 1944.

But this was not the end of the story for the song. When Frank Sinatra wanted to record the song for his 1957 album 'A Jolly Christmas' (he had recorded it before in 1947), he asked Martin to 'jolly up' the final line. Martin changed the line to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" and made several other changes. This changed the character of the song again, it was no longer a song expressing hope for a better future, but a celebration of present happiness. It is this version that hundreds of artists have recorded through the year, and also the version The Silhouettes have recorded for the flipside of their Christmas single.

To illustrate the differences of the three versions (and how very small changes can totally change the meaning and mood of a line):

The original version had “Faithful friends who were dear to us / Will be near to us no more”.
The Judy Garland version changed it to “Faithful friends who were dear to us / Will be near to us once more”
The Frank Sinatra version changed it again, now to “Faithful friends who are dear to us / Gather near to us once more”.

Martin, who always continued writing songs, wrote a complete new set of lyrics to the song in 2001, when he was well into his 80s. The new lyrics not only brought the original line "through the years, we all will be together if the Lord allows" back, but also turned the song in a completely religious song. It was retitled to 'Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas' and has been recorded by several gospel artists since then.

The version that Frank Sinatra recorded for the single release in 1963 also had the new 1957 lyrics. There are still artists who prefer the Judy Garland version to the more cheery 1957-version, as it acknowledges that Christmas is not all about being cheerful and jolly, but that it is also a time you miss beloved ones, and a time that gives hope in difficult times. It is exactly this feeling that the Judy Garland-version expresses very well.

Besides on the 1963 UK single, that same year, the song also appeared on two more Frank Sinatra 7” records. Also in the UK, 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' appeared on a EP with the same title, that also featured tracks by Sammy Davis Jr, Keely Smith and Dean Martin on Reprise Records. The song also appeared on a split 7” between Frank Sinatra and Les Baxter's Balladeers, who did a Christmas Medley on the B-side, also on Reprise Records.

Other Frank Sinatra 7”'s, that include the song, is a Columbia Records EP (EP 10321), that included three more Christmas classics: 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town', 'White Christmas' and 'Jingle Bells' on Columbia Records (EP 10321). And in 1976, Reprise Records released a Frank Sinatra EP in the UK, titled 'Christmas Mem'ries, with 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas as first track on side B. Other tracks included 'Christmas Mem'ries', 'A Baby Just Like You' and 'Whatever Happened To Christmas'.

The song has been recorded by many other artists, also on 7”. The song got more and more popular with time, making it one of the most covered non-traditional Christmas songs now.

EP's that included the song were recorded by The Michael Sammes Singers (1958), The Singing Nolans (1972), John Denver And The Muppets (1979) and David Grant & Jaki Graham (1985).

On 7” the song appeared as A-side on singles by Margaret Whiting (1949), Ramsey Lewis (1958), The Hollyridge Strings (1965), Andy Williams (1966), Barbra Streisand (1967), David Grant & Jaki Graham (1985), Crystal Gayle (1986) and Fear (2011, as RSD Black Friday release).

As B-side it appeared on singles by Cliff Richard (a promo with A-side 'Mistletoe And Wine'), Sascha Burland And The Skipjack Choir (1963), Andy Williams (1965) and Carnie And Wendy Wilson (1993).

This list is probably far from complete.

On the B-side of the 1963 UK single, there is another Frank Sinatra Christmas classic, 'I'll Be Home For Christmas', a beautiful ballad-kind-of-song, with 'whoowhoo'-female back up vocals, also present on the A-side, that give it both songs a comforting, relaxing and a real Christmas-y feel.

Funny thing is that I was planning to post this today, and when I was visting Concerto Records yesterday (to bring them a new bunch of Snowflakes Christmas singles), guess what I found there: exactly this single, that I did not have in my collection yet – I like these coincidences!

Listen to the Frank Sinatra version from 1963 here: Video

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