By Dave Price (this article 1st appeared in Booming Encore)
Once the sounds of rock n’ roll started filling the airwaves by the late-1950s, it was only a matter of time until someone would record and release the first Christmas-themed rock song destined to become a holiday classic.
And that honor goes to Bobby Helms with his 1957 hit “Jingle Bell Rock”.
Although today, Helms is considered a relatively obscure artist, the rockabilly singer had recorded two #1 hits on the country chart – “Frauline” and the still-performed doo-wop classic “My Special Angel” before “Jingle Bell Rock,” which peaked at #6 on the Billboard Chart. Helms’ version charted again in 1958 and 1960.
At first, Helms, who had moved to Nashville from his native Indiana, didn’t think much of the tune, which is credited to songwriters Joseph Beale and James Booth. Helms claims he and session guitarist Hal Garland worked to improve the song including adding the bridge which begins “What a bright time, it’s the right time, to rock the night away …”. Neither Helms nor Garland ever received songwriting credit for their work.
“It was such a bad song. So, me and one of the musicians (Garland) worked on it for about an hour, putting a melody and a bridge to it,” Helms said during a 1992 interview which appeared in the Indianapolis Star. “I really didn’t want to record it, but now I’m sure glad I did”.
For his part, Garland, is recognized as one of Nashville’s greatest session guitarists, playing on records by Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, and Roy Orbison. Producer and guitarist Chet Atkins called Garland, who also played on the other 1950s rock-and-roll holiday classic, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” the best guitar player “to ever come out of Nashville”.
“Jingle Bell Rock” has been recorded by artists as diverse as The Platters, the Beach Boys, and southern rockers .38 Special. Two cover versions have made the charts. In 1962, a Philly version by Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell made it to #40 in England and in 1983 a version by another pair of Philly musicians Daryl Hall and John Oates peaked at #6 on Billboard’s holiday play chart.
Helms’ song has been featured in dozens of TV shows and three holiday movies – Lethal Weapon 1, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and Jingle All the Way, all of which brought new, younger listeners to his classic.
Obviously, “Jingle Bell Rock” resurfaces each season from November to New Year’s Day and continues to be popular. It has sold more than 1 million copies in the United States alone. In 2016, StationIntel rated the song as the third most played that season. In that same year, the song was downloaded 700,000 times according Nielsen SoundScan, making it the 9th most popular song that Christmas season. Rolling Stone magazine names “Jingle Bell Rock” as the 10th greatest Christmas song of all-time, while Esquire magazine has it in 16th place in its list.
Helms’ Christmas classic, along with his other work, helped secure him a place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Even though he never had another big hit, Helms continued to tour and perform for three decades after the release of “Jingle Bell Rock”. He died in 1997 at age 63 in Indiana.\