Frank Sinatra: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
The world-famous singer, Frank Sinatra, was one of the most popular musical artists and actors of the 20th century. He sold more than 150 million records across the globe, making him one of the biggest-selling vocalists in history.
He rose to fame singing swing and big band numbers with the likes of legendary bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. Born in New Jersey in 1915, he signed for Columbia Records in 1943, becoming the pop idol of the teenage generation.
A punctured eardrum caused by a difficult birth didn’t affect his musical tone, although it did mean he was considered unfit for service during the Second World War.
It was by no means instant stardom for the man from Hoboken city. On the contrary, he worked hard to gain his position at the top of the entertainment industry, starting out by performing at family gatherings and working full-time as a delivery man for the Jersey Observer newspaper, after leaving AJ Demarest High School in 1931.
He was then a riveter at Tietjen and Lang shipyard, while trying to launch his music career in his spare time, singing at numerous local clubs, such as The Comedy Club and The Cat’s Meow. He also sang for free on WAAT radio station in Jersey City for extra publicity.
Moving to New York, he took singing jobs in exchange just for food at first. He learned music by ear and was never able to read it. His big break came in 1938, when he began working as a singing waiter at The Rustic Cabin diner in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Singer and movie star
He was paid $15 a week, with the added bonus that the diner was connected to New York’s WNEW radio station. He won a slot performing with a big band live on the station’s Dance Parade show. In March 1939, saxophone player Frank Mane arranged for Sinatra to audition and record his first solo single, Our Love.
This was the start of his recording career, which saw him release an astounding 297 singles and 59 studio albums, over a career spanning six decades.
He also became a heartthrob movie star, making several feel good musicals, including MGM’s Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly in 1945, On the Town in 1949, Guys and Dolls in 1955 and High Society in 1956. He won an Academy Award for his role as US Army soldier Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity in 1953.
He joined the informal band, the Rat Pack, along with fellow crooners Dean Martin, Sammy Davies Jnr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford in the 1960s – the term ‘Rat Pack’ was invented by journalists and referred to the fact that when one of the singers did a show, the other members would turn up for an impromptu performance, which thrilled the audience.
It was said that the members didn’t refer to themselves as the Rat Pack, despite the name having stuck ever since.
As a solo artist, Sinatra enjoyed massive success, with one of his most popular and enduring hit songs being Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in 1948.
Of all the Sinatra hits, it’s the one that’s played every Christmas, its poignant lyrics conjuring up images of old friends coming together to enjoy the festive season. It was released on his album, Christmas Songs by Sinatra, on Columbia Records.
The narrator sings, “Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more,” as he reminds everyone, “Next year, all our troubles will be miles away.”
It’s a song of hope, suggesting there are better things to come on the horizon and that any current problems will soon be forgotten, if we can just hang in there.
The song was originally written for Judy Garland when she starred in the 1944 musical, Meet Me in St Louis. It was written by the regular song writing team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine. Martin said later that the song began with the melody, but he felt he couldn’t make it work – and it almost ended up in the waste bin!
However, Blaine had heard Martin playing the tune and liked it. He actually fished it out of the waste basket and the two of them started working on some lyrics.
The plot of the film centred on the Smith family, who lived a comfortable life in Missouri. The story covered the year leading up to the World Fair in St Louis in 1904.
Garland played Alonzo and Anna Smith’s teenage daughter, Esther, who was secretly in love with the boy next door, John Truett, but he didn’t seem to notice her at first and her love was unrequited. This all changed when they went to the World Fair and after a series of ups and downs, he arranged to take her to an elegant black-tie ball on Christmas Eve.
The night was tinged by sadness, as Mr Smith had told the family they were moving to New York in the new year, where he was to start a new job. None of them wanted to go, but they had little choice.
After the ball, John proposed to Esther and she said “yes”, but her future remained uncertain, due to her youth and the fact her father expected her to move to New York. On returning home, Esther found her little sister Tootie awake and upset at the thought of leaving Missouri.
This was the moment when Garland sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, as it was meant to soothe Tootie. It was intended as an upbeat song to show that Esther was smiling through her tears, saying that next year, all this sadness would be far away and forgotten.
Martin said afterwards that Garland didn’t like the original version of the song. She thought it was too sad and would make Tootie cry, rather than soothing her. Martin described himself as “young and arrogant” at the time, telling Garland if she didn’t like it, tough, because that’s the way it was!
However, actor Tom Drake, who played John, took Martin to one side and said it had the potential to be a great song and that he should amend and finish it. So Martin went home that night for a rethink and came back the following day with the beautiful version that appeared in the movie.
Incidentally, there was a happy ending, of course, as Mr Smith decided not to take the new job when he saw how thoroughly miserable it had made his whole family at Christmas!
Martin said the song was close to his heart because he had his own fond memories of Christmas when he was growing up. He had vivid recollections of being six or seven and seeing his mother decorating the Christmas tree, which he described as “a real joy” every year.
His beautiful song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, became one of Frank Sinatra’s most popular songs. There have been more than 50 cover versions since, including versions by Michael Bublé, Bing Crosby, Christina Aguilera, John Denver, Neil Diamond, the rock band Twisted Sister – and even Kermit the Frog from the Muppet Show!
It’s Frank Sinatra’s version which seems to tug at the heart strings though. It still receives airplay during the festive season and has become an all-time classic. This Christmas marks the 70th anniversary of Sinatra releasing the song.
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In the meantime, have yourself a merry little Christmas!