Silver Bells: Embracing the Myth

The origin of things — especially things about Christmas – is always intriguing.  Here’s one:  that the song that eventually became known as “Silver Bells” was inspired by a bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa in Spokane. Well, maybe not.  But “Silver Bells” wasn’t the original name of the song. True.

I’m not going to paraphrase the following great piece in the Spokesman-Review. It’s written by Rob Curley and edited for presentation here.

Thank you,
Ron DeHart

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This year, our annual Bing story would be the origin of “Silver Bells.” And I was going to write it. My first Bing story for this newspaper was going to be a humdinger with a little “ring-a-ling.”

The research began.

The very first thing you figure out is that “Silver Bells” isn’t actually written by Bing Crosby, let alone by Bing Crosby after hearing those iconic bells during a Christmas in Spokane. And it doesn’t take much effort. All you have to do is actually look at the record.  Ugh. The problem is I was emotionally invested in this story now.  Even if it wasn’t true.

To make matters worse, Bing wasn’t even the first to perform “ Silver Bells,” but that’s a little complicated, as well.  “Silver Bells” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1950 for the movie “The Lemon Drop Kid” starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. But the movie wasn’t released until 1951.

Carol Richards, Bing’s duet partner

By that time, our boy Bing had not only recorded his classic version with Carol Richards, it had become a huge hit. Bing was a massive star at this time. He was the nation’s first true multimedia superstar. The guy recorded more hit songs than Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson, and even won an Academy Award.

Because of Bing, “Silver Bells” was so popular before the movie debuted that Hope and Maxwell were summoned back to Hollywood to reshoot the original scene with the song in it so it could become the new focal point of the film. Even though the movie was going to be released in March.

That’s not the best part of the story, though.

The original name of the song was “Tinkle Bells.” Come on, be honest, you just giggled, right?

So did the wife of one of the song’s writers. She explained to her husband that tinkle meant something very different to most other people. The original title was flushed and silver was now in.

Was there at least any truth to the part of the story about the Salvation Army’s iconic bell being the inspiration? Kinda. In several interviews, Livingston always said that was exactly the inspiration behind the song … only from bell-ringing Santas in New York, not Spokane.

But Evans once explained in an interview with NPR that the song’s origin started with a bell that sat on a desk shared by Livingston and himself. How did Bing end up recording the song, anyway? The guy knew a great song when he heard it. And with his golden touch, you didn’t say no to Bing if he wanted to record one of your songs.  Even if it was a song really written for Bob Hope.

What makes “Silver Bells” so classic is how many different artists have performed it through the years and what those different versions mean to different people.

What version do I hear in my head? That’s easy. The version that Bing Crosby wrote after being inspired by the sweet sound of the Santa bells during a visit to his beloved hometown during the holidays.

…….by Rob Curley (Spokesman-Review)

“Silver Bells,” Bing & Carol Richards with their famous ’50s rendition

Author: Ronald DeHart

Ron DeHart is a former newspaper and broadcast journalist and a retired Public Affairs Officer from both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve. His historical accounts of Pacific Northwest broadcasting are published by Puget Sound Media. View more articles by Ron DeHart  

3 thoughts on “Silver Bells: Embracing the Myth

    1. Dick ~ I have always liked this Christmas tune … even a number of coral groups have done nice versions. Hearing it every holiday season takes my memories immediately back to a six-year-old boy Christmas shopping with the $5 my folks gave me to buy gifts with in downtown Yakima, when it looked just like the city in the lyrics of this song.
      Tony Bennett did an interesting arrangement with the Count Basie Orchestra a number of Christmases ago. For an enormous change of pace from the original, take a listen:

  1. Glad I stumbled onto this article posted by R. DeHart almost exactly 2 years ago to the day. My youngest boy (now nearly 40) always said that “Silver Bells” was his favorite Christmas song & I’m sure this touch of background about its origins will interest him … so I’ll pass it along. We play a lot of Christmas songs by der Bingle around our house.

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