Did you know that Bing Crosby’s version of White Christmas remains the best-selling single worldwide of all time? To coincide with the 40th anniversary of Bing Crosby’s death, we’re looking at the story behind this wonderful Christmas number and at what makes it so successful.
White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin in 1942 for the musical film Holiday Inn (1942), starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Berlin had been tasked with writing a song for every holiday of the year, but he found writing a Christmas song difficult because of his Jewish heritage. On humming the tune to Crosby, however, he was assured he had done a good job. But Crosby apparently didn’t see anything special about the song, simply saying “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.” It seems neither of these musical greats knew that they had created something magical.
The song was first performed live by Crosby on Christmas Day, 1941, on the Kraft Music Hall radio show. Crosby, a shrewd business man as much as anything else, hosted the show for a decade between 1936 and 1946, and used the opportunity to promote his own career as a singer, actor and celebrity personality.
Sadly, no extant recording exists of his performance, but, coming only a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the radio station was flooded with requests to play the song again. White Christmas’s nostalgic imagery of snow at home was perfectly pitched for a generation of servicemen forced to spend their holiday miles from their families.
Crosby recorded a version of the song in May 1942 and soon after the release of the film Holiday Inn in August it became very popular, with Irving Berlin receiving an Academy Award for it. A younger generation had been taught nostalgia by the difficulties of the war, and when Bing Crosby went to entertain troops overseas it was his most requested number. However, he once said in an interview that he was reluctant to sing it: “I hesitated about doing it because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men, that it made them sad,” Crosby said in an interview. “Heaven knows, I didn’t come that far to make them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it.”
The version we are used to hearing today was recorded by Crosby in 1947, because – exceptionally – the original master of his 1942 version had got worn out from being overplayed. Since its inception, the song has sold 50 million singles and over 100 million copies have been sold if albums are included.
Inspired by Crosby? Discover more with our Bing Crosby CD
Hear White Christmas and other sing-along festive classics on our Frosty the Snowman CD