After World War II, music consumption was at an all-time high with the industry making $10 million in 1945. Years of research at Columbia Records led to introduction of the new long-playing LP in 1948. While this format was introduced in both 10" (more familiar to classic 78 fans) and 12" (borrowed from the "soundtrack" records that played along with films in the theatre), by 1951 the MicroGroove 12" was the gold standard. Record company executives like Jim Conkling at Columbia saw the need to use the LP to at least try to satisfy the needs of every consumer possible.
In 1942, in sunny Arizona, the great Irving Berlin penned these words:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There's never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the 24th
And I'm longing to be up north.
The song, penned for the upcoming film "Holiday Inn," would change almost everything. When given to the luminous baritone of Bing Crosby on May 29, his recording would have such an impact that the song would have to be re-recorded in 1947 because the masters were damaged from being used for so many pressings. At the wise advice of producer Jack Kapp, the aforementioned verse was excised. The new recording would begin with the chorus and become a perennial seller during the holiday’s year-after-year.
Originally Irving Berlin told the BBC he thought his other song in "Holiday Inn," "Be Careful, It's My Heart," would be the hit. (It peaked at No. 2). Berlin's main composition slowly climbed the charts following its October 1942 release and would land in the Top 5 every year until 1950. The song ultimately became successful because of Armed Forces Radio playing it for those soldiers serving overseas.
Its popularity led its inclusion on an "album" that was 10 songs on five 78 records in 1945. By 1949, Bing's "Merry Christmas" became the first true Christmas album pressed on a single slab of 10-inch wax. In 1955, the 12-inch version of "Merry Christmas" was released, now bearing its iconic color cover of Bing in a Santa hat. The less regarded holiday fare (namely, "Danny Boy" was removed and replaced with four new Christmas singles including "Silver Bells" and “It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas”).
Released just as rock ‘n' roll was taking root, "Merry Christmas" was a refined album of Christmas spirit. While there
were other Christmas albums before from choirs singing traditional carols, most of the newer Christmas songs were limited to singles (because executives did not see year-round sales in that product).
"Merry Christmas" mixed modernity and tradition. When he sang both the soothing "Silent Night" and the more romantic "I'll Be Home For Christmas" in his mellifluous voice, there was no difference between century-old Austrian Christmas carols and Tin Pan Alley songs of
longing. Finally, there are the four additional songs. Der Bingle easily puts the silvery "Silver Bells" into the list of standards and his version of "Adeste Fideles" would be his last charting single in 1960.
Crosby got a lot of life out of this single record that was reconfigured for both technological and commercial purposes. A staple of the season, the never-mentioned- until now "White Christmas" remains the biggest selling single worldwide at 50 million copies sold. The album "Merry Christmas," through all of its releases and reissues, has topped the charts for 36 weeks overall and sold 15 million copies (second to 1957's "Elvis' Christmas Album" where the King tackles the Irving Berlin song against the author's protests). Even today, where "White Christmas" has achieved 1.8 billion streams (on average 18 million on Christmas Day), the Crosby family has launched a campaign to get it to the top.
Today, Christmas albums come out beginning in October by the dozens. Like Jim Conkling's wishes, there is something for everyone. However, for a time of year that is steeped in tradition and reflection the mild playfulness and sincere virtue always push this first Christmas album’s stockinged head and shoulders above the rest of the fray.