I try to avoid writing seasonal or holiday-themed columns, but I couldn’t resist the temptation this year.
I was shopping at a local mall (yes, they still have those) for several hours the other day. The background music was piped in from a local radio station that mixes Top 40 hits with holiday classics.
No, this is not going to be about “how Christmas songs can make you a better businessperson.” That’s too much of a stretch, even for me.
But Christmas classics do offer a profound lesson about the fleeting nature of fame.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, big band singers (called “crooners”) were the rock stars of their day. Everybody knew who they were; everybody bought their records; everybody danced to their tunes; everybody showed up screaming whenever they appeared live.
The three biggest crooners of that era were Bing Crosby, Ruggiero (Russ) Columbo and Rudy Vallee.
Now, you can be forgiven for not recognizing the last two — their names have disappeared forever into obscurity (undeservedly — Vallee’s “Deep Night” is one of the sexiest songs ever written, and nobody ever sang a better college football fight song).
But you all know who Bing Crosby was — thanks to only one of the hundreds of songs he recorded.
A song called “White Christmas.”
One of the biggest stars of the “folk music revival” of the 1950s and early 1960s — right up there with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger — was Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burl_Ives). When not singing “top of the chart” hits, Ives appeared in numerous Broadway shows and classic movies, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The Big Country” (1958).
But you know Burl Ives for only one song: a ditty called “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” with its now cringeworthy lyric: “Ho, ho, the mistletoe/Hung where you can see/Somebody waits for you/Kiss her once for me …”
(Come to think of it, I haven’t heard this song much this holiday season — could it have fallen victim to the P.C. censor?)
Good thing Ives also voiced the role of “Sam the Snowman” in the 1964 Christmas stop-motion television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolph_the_Red-Nosed_Reindeer_(TV_special)), which airs on CBS every holiday season. Otherwise, he’d end up in the dustbin with Columbo and Vallee.
Andy Williams (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Williams) was an extremely popular singer and television personality during the 1960s and 1970s. (My mom never missed an episode of his show.) Yet the only Andy Williams song you ever hear on the radio is “Happy Holiday/It’s the Holiday Season.” (“Whoop-de-doo and dickory dock/and don’t forget to hang up your sock.”)
Brenda Lee (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brenda_Lee) was a top charting female vocalist of the 1960s with 47 chart hits during that decade, surpassed only by Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Ray Charles.
Yet you remember her, if at all, for only one song: “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.”
Nobody remembers Bobby Helms (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Helms), a country-and-western singer from the 1950s — except for a song called “Jingle Bell Rock.”
It’s a bit premature to consign “Saturday Night Live” comedian Adam Sandler to the dustbin of history, although most of my readers would have a tough time naming three of his movies. (OK, I’ll give you “Happy Gilmore” as a freebie).
But as long as people have a sense of irony — and until someone else writes a better song celebrating the Jewish holiday — Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” will guarantee him a place among the immortals.
Jean Shepherd was a radio storyteller and humorist whose fans once numbered in the millions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Shepherd). So was Paul Harvey (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Harvey). Which one do you remember? Jean Shepherd, because the movie “A Christmas Story” (1983) is based on his childhood recollections of growing up in Indiana in the 1940s, and because he narrated the film.
Speaking of “A Christmas Story,” can you name a single actor in the movie without looking it up online? If so, can you name one other film or TV show in which that actor appeared? (I can — Darren McGavin, who played Ralphie’s father, was the title character in the 1960s horror television series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” That’s about it.)
So, what’s the profound lesson? Simply this: When all of these actors, comedians and musicians recorded or filmed their throwaway Christmas “hit,” none of them likely suspected that it would be the only thing anyone would remember them for 50 years later. How many great performers of the past are remembered today only for that one Christmas song standing between them and total oblivion?
You can’t predict what people will remember you for. In a lifetime of working with thousands of entrepreneurs, writing 16 books and countless articles, and hosting a successful PBS television series, the only thing people will probably remember years from now is my “How to Sell” video on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNe7hUAkx4M).
What I really have to do is write a Christmas song. Or even better — a song about Christmukkah. Nobody’s done that yet.
A very Happy Holiday Season to all my readers.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.
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