Excerpted from the book: "The Stories Behind Country Music's All-Time Greatest 100 Songs"*
"He often wrote or worked as he rode on the trains," recalled Judy Olmsted. "He loved to play with words. He made up all kinds of limericks and poems. He wrote for some the top shows on radio (The Fred Waring Show, The Kate Smith Show - and his own radio show on WOR in New York City and the Mutual Network) He later wrote for television too. He was a vaudeville veteran, played around with Broadway shows, and had dozens of songs published."
On this particular rainy day, as the train chugged toward the Big Apple, Johnson pulled out an old piece of hotel stationery. The holiday season was just around the corner, and tunes like Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" were being written into many of the radio shows for which he worked.
Jay considered the long list of Christmas classics he could draw from
his scripts, an original idea began to take shape. At first glance it
almost too obvious. With the success of "White Christmas" and the
impact of blues music during the forties, surely, Johnson thought,
had combined the two concepts into a song. A number about a blue
seemed so natural. Yet as he considered the idea, he suddenly and
realized that no one had yet tackled this play on words. Picking up a
he scribbled down his first thoughts:
I expect to have a colorful ChristmasThese lines were destined to become the rough first verse of a lyric sheet which Johnson would call "Blue Christmas." Over the course of the next few days several more verses followed. Once Jay was satisfied with all his words, he met with friend and composer Billy Hayes.
Tinged with every kind of holiday hue,
And though I know I'll find every shade in the rainbow,
This design of mine will be mostly blue.
Though no one recalls, Hayes probably offered a few suggestions about the lyrics. Long before the two men finished the song, Johnson's first two verses were dropped, using the writer's later lines, and Billy neatly wrapped the package with an appropriate musical score. When the song was finished, Jay and Billy took it to Choice Music who agreed to publish it.
It was copyrighted in 1948 and Choice Music began to shop their new holiday number. Hugo Winterhalter and His Orchestra made the first record which went to #9 on the charts. A year later the Winterhalter record would undertake another successful trip up the pop charts. Still, these modest numbers didn't forecast a long run on the hit parade. At that time "Blue Christmas" was far behind holiday standards such as "Silver Bells," "White Christmas, "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in both recognition and popularity. Most felt it would be soon forgotten.
Ernest Tubb must have heard the song during its initial Winterhalter release, because the Texas Troubadour worked it into his act at about that time. A year later, in 1950, he cut the number for Decca and took it to the top of the country charts. For the next five years "Blue Christmas" would become Tubb's holiday theme song and standard hit fodder for country radio playlists.
Before Tubb's "Blue Christmas," Gene Autry had scored big numbers with "Rudolph" and "Here Comes Santa Claus," but those songs were really children's numbers. With its lonesome message and clever lyrics, "Blue Christmas" was truly a hillbilly ode. It may have been written on an East Coast commuter train, but Tubb had put it on the map and shaped it into country music's first true Christmas standard.
By the mid-fifties almost every country act was using "Blue Christmas" in their November and December shows. The song probably would have remained strictly a part of the Music City genre if not for a young singer who had grown up idolizing Ernest Tubb.
Elvis Presley had listened to a lot of black blues and white Southern gospel during his youth, but he had also spent a great deal of time checking out certain country acts. The one and only time he worked the "Opry" he met a childhood hero, Ernest Tubb. It was probably Presley's affection for Tubb and his music that led him to record "Blue Christmas" on his initial holiday album. Yet Elvis's cut was far different from Tubb's - and anyone else's. The rocker was the first to put real blues in "Blue Christmas." In one brief three-minute recording, Ernest had lost his lock on the song. It was now Elvis's Christmas classic.
Presley's recording of the song assured that it would become one of the best-known holiday songs of all time. Since Elvis first cut it, "Blue Christmas" has been recorded by hundreds of artists from every musical genre. And for that reason the Jay Johnson / Billy Hayes song has become the gift that keeps on giving.
"I will tell you this," Judy Olmsted said with a laugh. "It wouldn't be Christmas at our house without 'Blue Christmas.'" And a host of music fans would probably agree that while there are a lot of great holiday songs, Christmas isn't complete until it's sung blue.
*The Stories Behind Country Music's All-Time Greatest 100 Songs"
Written by Ace Collins
© 1996 by Ace Collins
A Boulevard Book Published by The Berklley Publishing Group
Used by permission.