Bobby Helms

Jingle Bell Rock

By the time Bobby Helms was seven years old, he was singing in the family band consisting of his grandfather, uncles, his father Fred and his older brother Freddy at family get-togethers. This was the way of life for the Helms family in Bloomington, Indiana in 1943. In fact, Freddy and Bobby were so good that Fred had lined up a gig at a local radio station that featured his boys singing live for fifteen minutes daily. Billed as The Smiling Boys, the duo won the hearts of locals. Still, Fred had bigger plans for his sons.

In 1948, Fred built a large barn behind the family business (a general store) and featured his sons on The Monroe County Barndance. The boys packed the place on Friday and Saturday nights where alcoholic drinks weren’t allowed as families could enjoy an evening out.

In time, nearby stations added the radio show and their performances were extended to a pair of fifteen-minute shows with one on Saturday. The first local TV station, WTTV in Bloomington hit the air in 1949 and the pair was chosen to perform on The Happy Valley Show. In 1950, the station added the duo to another entertainment show, The Hayloft Frolics. Being an NBC affiliate, the show covered the local broadcast area from Terre Haute to Indianapolis and beyond to parts of Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois. Bobby and Freddy were childhood stars.

The Smiling Boys continued until Freddy enlisted in the Army in 1953. Bobby continued to perform on the Barndance through 1953 and Frolics through 1956. He performed in Indianapolis in February of 1956 where Ernest Tubb, the Grand Ole Opry star, caught his act. Tubb invited Bobby to appear on his show, The Midnight Jamboree from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville on April 7. Bobby brought the house down. Tubb’s manager, Gabe Tucker called Decca Records in New York and spoke with Decca’s A&R man, Paul Cohen. Tucker knew talent when he heard it.

Bobby Helms in the late 50s.

Photo by Getty Images

Apparently, Tucker’s word was gold for Cohen as Bobby was invited to audition in Nashville on April 14. At Owen Bradley’s studio, known as the Quonset Hut, Cohen and Helms met for the first time. By Helms count, he sang seventeen songs before Cohen called it a day. Cohen presented Bobby with a standard contract for one year with four annual options at Decca’s choice. No guarantees, no upfront money—it was a contract that favored the company, as did all contracts in those days. It didn’t matter to Bobby. He saw it as means to a successful singing career. “I was a fortunate kid and didn't even realize it. One out of ten-thousand ever gets that chance,” Bobby recalled. (1)

Helms, being under twenty-one and needing his parents’ signature on the deal, returned to Indiana. Cohen began the search for material for his star in the making. On April 25, Bobby returned to Tennessee with contract in tow and a recording date waiting for him. Among the songs recorded that day would be his first release, Tennessee Rock N’ Roll. The song was released in August of 1956. It got some airplay but little else. A possible reason for the lackluster showing was that it was a country song that had a “jungle beat,” a racially-directed term referring in general to rock and roll songs. That didn’t play well with the historically conservative south. The music world was changing but certain factions held what was near and dear to them.

Paul Cohen

Photo by Elmer Williams of Getty Images

In early November, it was time for another studio session. When Bobby showed up to collect his copies of the material planned for the session, Paul told him, “I've got the hit here. Fraulein was written for Ernest Tubb, but he didn't like it." After hearing the demo tape, Bobby wasn’t sure he liked it. When Bobby mentioned Fraulein to Ernest Tubb, the country star responded, “You're not really gonna' record that song?" he groaned. "They tried to get me to do it and I said, 'Hell no, I hate it!'” (2)

With members of Nashville’s A-Team backing him, Bobby entered the Quonset Hut on November 15. Paul Cohen produced the session that had Hank Garland on lead guitar, Owen Bradley on piano, Buddy Harmon on drums, Grady Martin and Ray Endenton on guitar and Bobby Moore on bass. Bobby was satisfied with the songs recorded in the session but not totally sold on Fraulein. Cohen reassured him yet again that the song was a future hit.

Released on January 16, 1957, Fraulein met with lukewarm response. In March, a Houston DJ added the song to the rotation and it took off. It debuted on Billboard’s Country chart on March 30. Fraulein entered the top ten in July, stayed four weeks at #1 on the country chart and eventually lasted 52 weeks—an entire year—on Billboard’s chart. (3)

Paul Cohen was a realist and he knew what goes up, must come down. Out of four studio sessions in July, two songs were chosen for the next single, the A-Side was Standing At The End Of My World backed with My Special Angel.

The single was released on September 1, 1957. It was a DJ in Buffalo, New York who turned the record over and played My Special Angel. The song caught fire. It happened so fast that Decca shifted gears on the promotion of the release and when Bobby appeared on the September 22nd Ed Sullivan Show, he premiered My Special Angel.

My Special Angel hit both the Billboard Pop and Country Charts on October 14, 1957. It stayed on the Country Chart for 26 weeks, spending four weeks at #1. (3) On the Pop side, a nearly identical showing as the song peaked at #7 with a stay of 23 weeks. (5)

Paul gathered some new material that was previewed at a meeting in Nashville in early October of 1957. Playing demos recorded on a reel-to-reel, nothing stood out for Bobby. “Listen to this one!" Paul grinned, gesturing toward the recorder. "A fellow was playing an organ and singing a strange, very slow, very flat and awful song called Jingle Bell Bop," Bobby remembered. Paul asked, "What do you think of it?" Bobby told him, "It's not my kind of song, I don't like it.” (6)

Paul admitted the song needed some work and asked Bobby to take it with him and work with it while on his current tour. Meanwhile, Paul arranged a session in Nashville for the 29th of October. Bobby, in Vancouver, Canada on the 28th, caught a late-night flight to Nashville where he landed about 2:00 AM. At 4:00 AM, he arrived at the Quonset Hut just as the band, the Anita Kerr Singers (who also sang background on My Special Angel), the engineers and several others including Hank Garland were in various stages of an early morning recording session.

When Garland and Bobby tried to make the composition Jingle Bell Bop work, they realized they would need to reconstruct the song, adding a bridge, a different tempo and rewrite many of the lyrics. The original song written by Joe Beal and Jim Boothe was unrecognizable after the changes were made. “It wasn’t any good,” exclaimed Garland. Garland and Helms considered it “a whole new song” and recorded their creation, Jingle Bell Rock, that night. Nevertheless, the authors of the original song, Beal and Boothe, got full credit for the new version and made a fortune off it. (7)

Hank Garland

No photo credit found

The session began at 4:14 AM and was finished at 5:01AM. It was three takes before the song was completed — astonishing by today’s standards due to multi-tracking. Cohen immediately got on the phone and started promoting it by playing the tape of the session over the phone to distributors across the country. According to the Davis/Brown biography, Paul had verbal orders for over a million copies before the song was pressed to vinyl. Bobby, most likely exhausted from the tour and subsequent trip to Nashville, didn’t show excitement until Cohen’s sales proclamation. “You're a damn wheeler dealer Paul," Bobby said, laughing heartily. "I didn't have to wheel and deal Bobby," Paul retorted. "That damn song is a smash hit and anybody who hears it will tell you so!” (7)

Jingle Bell Rock was released on November 28, 1957. It debuted on both the Country and Pop Billboard Chart on December 23. It spent just a week on the country side peaking at #13 while kids danced to it for five weeks on the Pop chart hitting the top ten at #6. (3) (5)

Dick Clark told Bobby that if the song returns in 1958, it could be a hit forever. Not only did the song make an encore appearance in 1958, Decca released it every year through 1973, making a perennial appearance on the Billboard Holiday chart and a holiday staple still heard on the radio today. According to Billboard magazine, Jingle Bell Rock was the fourth best-seller on the Holiday Chart dated January 7, 2017. (10)

Still, a stigma has been attached to the song ever since it was released. The label received letters of protest and hate mail over the use of the word Rock, that dog whistle of racial overtones, in the title of not only a song, but a Christmas song. Then there’s the issue of authorship of the song.

The claim for songwriting credits is a curious one. Garland, known for his extensive notes on sessions he worked since the early 50s, has no notes on the Jingle Bell Rock session. Bill Whitacre, an entertainment attorney working for Garland’s estate was quoted in an article stating “Garland's trouble resulted from mishandled paperwork. Session guitarists often composed music on the fly, neglecting to write notes. What I believe happened is that they (Decca) treated this as a session where they owned it and controlled it," Whitacre said. "If you judge it as a derivative of the original work, then Hank's claim may not be as strong. If, as I believe, he and Bobby Helms created a new work, then he has a copyright interest and he has an entitlement to publishing royalties." (9)

Another opinion was rendered by website Business Lessons From Rock. “At the very least, Helms and Garland should have been granted co-writer credit, given the new melody, verses, bridge, and lyrics. But six decades later we can’t say for certain whether the song was substantially revised or completely rewritten. Changes to an arrangement of a song don’t customarily affect ownership, but changes to the substance of the song—melody, chords, lyrics—do. The phrase “jingle hop” in the first verse of the song was probably left over from the first song, but that alone would not be sufficient for Beal and Boothe to claim authorship.” (7)

Bobby Helms placed songs on the Billboard Top Pop Chart twenty-six times—only with five songs other than Jingle Bell Rock. (5) He scored much higher on the Country Chart with thirteen entries—twice with Jingle Bell Rock. (3) He passed in 1997 from a bout with emphysema.

Hank Garland was a child guitar prodigy who recorded his first hit, Sugarfoot Rag at 18. His work with Nashville and country music’s elite included Elvis Presley (A Fool Such As I, Little Sister, Stuck On You), The Everly Brothers (Bye Bye Love, Wake Up Little Suzie), Patsy Cline (I Fall To Pieces, Crazy) and Brenda Lee (Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree). Garland died December 27, 2004.

Jingle Bell Rock was originally released in monaural. It's presented here in digitally extracted stereo.

For those who wish to learn the guitar part of the song, here's a quick tutorial.

1) Davis, David Ward & Lisa E. Brown. Jingle Bell Rock. Pages 94, iBooks Edition, 1998.

2) Davis, David Ward & Lisa E. Brown. Pages 98-99.

3) Whitburn, Joel, Top Country Singles 1944-2001. Page 150.

4) Davis, David Ward & Lisa E. Brown. Page 105.

5) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 310.

6) Davis, David Ward & Lisa E. Brown. Pages 118-119.

7) Business Lessons from Rock, Jingle Bell Robbery? December 18, 2003. Link.

8) Davis, David Ward & Lisa E. Brown. Page 123.

9) Devan, Stuart, Jacksonville Business Journal, No Jingle In His Pockets, August 27, 2001. Link.

10) Billboard Magazine, Holiday 100, Link.

Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives with Getty Images

Copyright  2009