This 8-line song that paints a picture of holiday nostalgia was written by Irving Berlin for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, where Bing Crosby sings it from the perspective of a New Yorker stranded in sunny California during Christmas. In the film, the song begins with this verse:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA
But it's December the 24th
And I'm longing to be up north
Crosby recorded a version of the song for release as a single with the Kim Darby Singers and the John Scott Trotter Orchestra on May 29, 1942 - a few months before the movie hit theaters. At the advice of Bing's record producer Jack Kapp, this original first verse was excised as it made no sense outside of the context of the film. Now starting with the familiar, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas," the song became a huge hit, going to #1 on the Billboard chart (measuring sales) in October, and staying in the top spot for 11 weeks, taking it through the first two weeks of 1943.
Irving Berlin wrote another holiday song that Crosby also sang in the film: "Let's Start the New Year Right." This was released as the B-side of the "White Christmas" single.
The song enjoyed a sales resurgence every Christmas after it was first released in 1942. It went to #1 that year in America, and again reached the top spot in 1945 and 1947. The song appeared on various Billboard
charts every year until 1963 when it finally dropped off the Hot 100.
A perennial seller for an entire generation, the song is by far the biggest-selling Christmas song of all time. It was the biggest-selling song of all time, going back and forth with Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock
," until Elton John released his tribute to Princess Diana - "Candle In The Wind
Bing re-recorded the song on March 19, 1947, again with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra because the original masters had been worn out from all the pressings. It is this version that is most often heard today.
The original Drifters with Clyde McPhatter as their lead vocalist recorded their Doo-Wop version in November 1953. It hit #2 on the R&B charts in 1954, and made the Pop charts in 1955. The deep bass-tenor voice you hear on this version was Bill Pinkney, who was an early member of the group.
The Drifters version made the Hot 100 (the chart was introduced in 1958) twice alongside Crosby's version: in 1960 (Bing #26, Drifters #96) and in 1962 (Bing #38, Drifters, #88).
By 1954, this song was a holiday favorite, and that year Paramount Pictures released a movie called White Christmas to tie in with it. Crosby starred in the film along with Danny Kaye, and of course performed his famous song.
This won the Academy Award for Best Song of 1942.
Elvis Presley recorded this song in 1957 along with other holiday standards for his Elvis' Christmas Album. Most songwriters dream of having Elvis record their songs, but Irving Berlin spoke out against the King's cover, calling it a "profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard" and claiming that his staff was ordered to call radio stations and ask them not to play it. There's a chance that Berlin was simply drumming up publicity for his song, as there was nothing all that offensive about the Elvis version, and The Drifters had already done an R&B version.
Elvis doing Christmas songs did rub some people the wrong way, but much of the controversy was manufactured, helping Elvis' Christmas Album stay at #1 for an amazing five weeks in late 1957 and early 1958. The best publicity stunt may have been the one pulled off by the Portland, Oregon radio station KEX, which refused to play the song and sparked a debate among listeners as to the merits of Presley's Christmas output. Their disc jockey Al Priddy played the song on a Sunday, and was "fired" the next day, making national news - Priddy even played the phone call of his firing on the air before he left. The station continued to play up the incident, and brought Priddy back two weeks later, claiming that overwhelming listener support made them decide to bring him back.
This has the distinction of marking the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. As the North Vietnamese surrounded Saigon, an evacuation plan was put into effect to bring the remaining Americans to safety. Their cue to evacuate was when a radio announcement stating that the temperature in Saigon was "105 degrees and rising," and followed by the playing of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." That was the signal for the mad dash to the US Embassy where helicopters were waiting.
Phil Spector put this as the first track on his 1963 Christmas album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, which was unfortunately released on November 22, 1963 - the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Spector had Darlene Love sing this one, and he used many of his favorite Los Angeles session musicians on the album, including a then unknown Cher. The sessions were notoriously difficult, with Cher explaining, "Philip was just insane about the Christmas album. We just never left the studio. I mean, you went home to take a shower, you came back. We didn't go home for six weeks, we just were there. I had just turned 17, and I'm thinking, How are all these old people doing this? I am dying, I can hardly drag myself outta bed. How are these old guys doing it?"
Lady Gaga recorded a jazzy version for her 2011 A Very Gaga Holiday EP. Her take includes an original verse in which she jokes, "O.K., I suppose it's not very white outside yet."
Many popular artists have recorded this song, but since 1963, only one has charted in the US: Michael Bolton. He make #73 with his 1992 rendition.
Andy Williams released this song on his very first Christmas album (there were eight total), The Andy Williams Christmas Album
in 1963, which also debuted his own enduring holiday classic "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
." His version of "White Christmas" also became the #1 selling Christmas single that year.
According to Mark Steyn's A Song for the Season, Berlin began writing this on January 8, 1942. The songwriter was in a hurry that Monday morning and shouted at his musical secretary, Helmy Kresa: "Grab your pen and take down this song. It's the best song I ever wrote. Hell, it's the best song anybody ever wrote."
Steyn notes that "White Christmas" owes much of its enduring popularity to World War II, specifically the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to US involvement, because the song adopted a significance beyond the reaches of Hollywood: "Had America entered the war in Europe in 1939, 'White Christmas' might have been just a hit-record from a so-so movie. Instead, 1942 was the American serviceman's first Christmas away, in the Pacific, under glorious sunny skies that only made home seem even more distant."
Christmas was a painful time for Irving Berlin and his second wife, Ellin Mackay, who found their infant son dead in his bassinet early Christmas morning in 1928. Although he was Jewish, Irving grew up celebrating the holiday by sneaking off to his neighbor's house to enjoy the festivities. His daughter, Mary Ellin, told Mark Steyn: "My father believed in the secular American Christmas. There's a lot of controversy about that, about whether there should be, apart from the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, a general festive celebration that anyone can join in with."
Irving Berlin came up with the melody for "White Christmas" on the set of Top Hat, a 1935 musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Berlin pitched the song to director Mark Sandrich for a future Astaire-Rogers film but Sandrich declined. But Astaire loved the song, which eventually went to his Holiday Inn costar Bing Crosby. (Incidentally, Sandrich also directed Holiday Inn.)
Berlin had to write a song for each holiday for the entertainers to perform at the Holiday Inn. The Valentine's Day tune "Be Careful, It's My Heart," sung by Bing and Marjorie Reynolds, was expected to be the big hit, not "White Christmas." While it didn't reach the heights of "White Christmas," it was a modest hit for Frank Sinatra, who took it to #13 in 1942.