Who really wrote the Jingle Bell Rock Christmas magazine?

Bobby Helms couldn’t have asked for a better first year in the music business.

Blessed with a smooth, nasal twang that bore a resemblance to Webb Pierce, one of the reigning kings of country music in the 1950s, Helms caught the eye of Ernest Tubb, who invited the Native American to appear on his popular radio show The Midnight Jamboree.” His performance soon secured the 23-year-old singer a deal with Decca Records. “Fraulein,” the second single he released for the label, shot straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Country Songs chart in early 1957. Syrupy Strings and the Anita Kerr Singers helped propel the swooning follow-up “My Special Angel” into the pop top 10. It was time for Helms to release a seasonal single right away, Time for Christmas.

Paul Cohen, a Decca executive who also served as house producer in Nashville, had a song in mind for Helms: “Jingle Bell Hop,” a tune written by Joe Beal and Jim Boothe, a composer couple in their 50s public background relations and advertising. Someone in the studio pulled out an chord organ and sang the song for Helms. “It was awful, according to Bobby,” says John Kleiman, who managed the singer for the last decade of his life and currently owns the licensing rights to Helms, who died of emphysema in 1997. “He said the electric organ sounded bad and the guy singing was terrible.”

Rather than dismissing the song outright, Helms teamed up with Hank Garland — a high-profile Nashville studio guitarist hired for the session — and reworked it, adding a bridge, changing the melody and lyrics, while being careful to avoid any spiritual to avoid connotation. “Bobby came from a very religious family,” explains Kleiman. “He didn’t want rock ‘n’ roll to be associated with Christmas because he knew his mother wouldn’t like it. And that’s one of the reasons Christmas isn’t mentioned in the song.”

Helms and Garland turned “Jingle Bell Hop” into “Jingle Bell Rock,” a catchy little rock ‘n’ roll song released at a time when the music was young enough to be a fad. The singer cut the record during an early morning session to accommodate his busy touring schedule, then returned to the streets. “He never thought he had anything special,” says Kleiman. “He thought it was just another Christmas carol.”

Far from being “just another Christmas song,” “Jingle Bell Rock” emerged as one of the defining Christmas songs of the rock ‘n’ roll era, as instantly recognizable today as Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” or Nat ” Kings”. Cole’s The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You). Sixty-five years after its initial release, it continues to grow in popularity and profitability with each passing year.

“Jingle Bell Rock” has been streamed over 635 million times on Spotify and currently sits at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, its all-time highest charting position. Daryl Hall & John Oates revived the song at the height of their fame, covered it in a tongue-in-cheek manner in 1983 and made a happy camp video that was a regular on MTV in the 1980s. The floodgates for Jingle Bell Rock opened in 1987 when Lethal Weapon became the first film to feature Helm’s original in a contemporary setting. Since then artists from George Strait to Kelly Clarkson to the cast of “Glee” have recorded versions. It’s rare that a year goes by without “Jingle Bell Rock” appearing on the soundtrack of a movie or TV show.

Generation after generation has grown up with “Jingle Bell Rock” playing in the background, and the years of ambient repeats cemented its status as a holiday classic. It’s also now part of an annual tradition, with a plethora of Christmas records re-emerging on the charts each December. Currently, 15 of the songs in Spotify’s top 50 in the US are Christmas carols, while half of Billboard’s top 40 are Christmas carols. Billboard charting historian Chris Molanphy, who hosts the Hit Parade podcast for Slate, explains, “There’s this odd coincidence where we’ve decided to go with the new Christmas canon and Bobby Helms is part of that core. Alongside Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ and Brenda Lee’s ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ is in the top three.”

Molanphy says the recent popularity of “Jingle Bell Rock” marks less of a resurgence and more of a reckoning fueled by the rise of on-demand streaming music. “It’s not until we have widespread adoption of streaming and now we’re counting every time you click play on Mariah Carey, every time you hit play on Bobby Helms, we realize, ‘Oh my god, these records are huge .’ And they are bigger than we ever thought. What’s also interesting is that they’ve only gotten a little bit bigger every year over the decade of the streaming era. Not because the 2022 Christmas records are bigger than 2013, but because streaming is becoming more widespread.”

The numbers prove it. According to Luminate, the company that generates the data that powers the Billboard charts, “Jingle Bell Rock” has received more on-demand streaming games every year since 2012. The single also remains a radio staple, with over 40,000 spins a year since 2018 – up from the 30,000 spins a year of the early 2010s.

An early rock 'n' roll singer in a suit adorned with music notes

Bobby Helms around 1955.

(GAB Archives/Redferns via Getty Images)

Long-lived as it is, “Jingle Bell Rock” is a product of its time, a merry slice of holiday sales made with one purpose only: to sell records during the 1957 holiday season. Helms threw it out so quickly, neither he nor Garland attempted to claim credit for their songwriting contributions.

Helms often recounted the story of the “Jingle Bell Rock” session, and told it in such detail that Kleiman says, “I have no doubt that Bobby wrote most of the song. I asked him, ‘If you wrote that, why didn’t you confront Decca Records at the time?’ He said he won’t get involved with the record label because if you get involved with them, they would stop releasing your music.

Helm’s fear of reprisals from the record company was probably justified. In the 1950s, the music business was full of shady deals. Labels were reluctant to pay royalties, and songwriting credits were often given as payment to loyal colleagues, as when Chuck Berry’s debut single “Maybellene” co-wrote a Cleveland disc jockey.

A seasonal perennial like “Jingle Bell Rock” generates quite a bit of money every year. The late songwriters Beal and Boothe are paid every time the composition is streamed or played on the radio, whether it’s the original hit version or a subsequent cover. For example, if you stream Lindsay Lohan’s new version of “Jingle Bell Rock” from the Netflix movie “Falling for Christmas,” the named songwriters get paid, but Helms doesn’t. Recording artists only receive royalties when their own version is either sold or streamed. Additionally, in a longstanding legal quirk, terrestrial radio airplay generates royalties only for songwriters, not recording artists.

Helms received royalties on the single — Kleiman says, “Bobby was a grateful man” — but he and Garland likely missed a sizeable payday on their songwriting. Kleiman says he has no way of guessing the amount of money Helms could have made writing the holiday standard, but he posits, “I’m sure it’s in the millions.”

It’s anything but an unusual story. Susan Genco, co-president of the Azoff Co. and founder of the Music Artists Coalition, sees that scenario repeating itself today. Genco recently tried to convince the manager of a major artist that if his client’s share of the songwriting of a new song was not properly accounted for prior to release, he would be missing out on a stable, reliable source of income. The manager and the artist decided to release the song anyway. “It was more important for the record to come out, explode on streaming,” she says.

Genco argues that the publishing rights are “these people’s pensions. These are annuities and you want to get it right at the start so they have it. It is rightly theirs.”

Helms received regular performance royalties from Jingle Bell Rock, and he was also able to tour with his success until his last days. Hank Garland wasn’t so lucky.

Immediately after the release of Jingle Bell Rock, he became Elvis Presley’s regular studio guitarist, appearing on hits like Stuck on You, Little Sister and (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame. He continued to play sessions in Nashville, including an appearance on Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and recorded the 1960 album Jazz Winds From a New Direction. All of his success came to an end when he suffered a crippling car accident in 1961. After the accident, Garland was unable to play the guitar and the royalties he earned from his work as a session musician were meager. He spent his final years under the tutelage of his younger brother Billy, who helped spearhead a 2003 lawsuit against Warner-Chappell Music, the publisher that eventually owned Jingle Bell Rock. Billy filed the lawsuit himself. Months before Hank Garland’s death in December 2004, a federal judge dismissed all but one of the charges. Garland’s tragic story was told in Crazy, a 2008 film starring country singer Waylon Payne as Garland and Ali Larter as his wife.

Billy Garland passed away in 2021.

With Helms, Hank Garland, Beal, and Boothe all long dead, it’s difficult to definitively determine the song’s authorship, especially since very little hard evidence has survived: there’s no songwriting demo or studio documentation to support either side . “Jingle Bell Rock” sounds more like subsequent songs attributed to either Helms or Garland than “Unsuspecting Heart,” an old-fashioned pre-rock-pop number released in 1955 by Terri Stevens and bearing Beal’s name as a co-writer (a search for recordings of other songs written by Boothe was empty).

It could also be argued that the appeal of “Jingle Bell Rock” lies as much in the record as in the song itself, and that Helms and Garland owe its success: the singer has a warm, upbeat disposition that matches the guitarist’s glee , jazzy licks. As Molanphy says, “Now that we have streaming data, we know people are coming back to the standards every year, and ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ is a standard.”

Or as Kleiman puts it, “As long as we celebrate Christmas, we’ll play ‘Jingle Bell Rock’.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *