With the “white Santa vs. black Santa” faux controversy roiling the Internet this year, it is interesting to recall that Elvis Presley pledged allegiance to the dark side of Santa in one of his greatest performances.
One of the early pinnacles of Elvis’ achievement is, rather surprisingly, the Christmas album he released in 1957. It is divided into secular and sacred sides. On the second side, Elvis beautifully sings some religiously-tinged Christmas songs and delivers magnificent and memorable renditions of “Peace in the Valley” and other gospel standards. It’s clear that Elvis loves his gospel, and his renditions are full of the power and dignity that characterize these noblest of popular songs.
The pop/rock/R&B action is on the first side, and Elvis gets right down to business with the opener, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”, a blues carol written by ace songwriters Leiber and Stoller in the studio on a dare in fifteen minutes. It is capped by the memorable couplet, sung in an ecstatic shout by Elvis:
Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the lightCause’ Santa Claus is comin’ down your chimney tonight!
In their joint autobiography, Hound Dog, Leiber and Stoller recalled:
The Colonel doesn’t laugh and the Colonel doesn’t smile when we run down the song for Elvis. I know the Colonel thinks it’s too bluesy and too black, but just before he can say anything, the King speaks out.
‘Now that’s what I call a goddamn great Christmas song!’ he tells the Colonel, ‘I told you these guys would come through’. And with that, Elvis proceeds to sing the [expletive] out of it.
He does it in just a couple of takes. …
For me, ‘Santa Claus Is Back in Town’ lives on as one of Elvis’ great blues performances. It took him back to his Beale Street roots, a place where he was always comfortable.
Elvis was all of 22 at the time.
I had the honor of communicating with Mike Stoller’s management team (Jerry Leiber has passed on) and was assured that the innuendo was completely intentional.
Given this context, it is rather remarkable that the lyric apparently provoked no conspicuous ruckus.
Maybe Irving Berlin had more than an inkling; he called for a boycott of the album, ostensibly because Elvis took some vocal liberties in his cover of White Christmas, which was sequenced right after Leiber & Stoller’s racy cut. Berlin’s objections did not stop the RCA from selling a mind-boggling 3 million units of Elvis’ Christmas Album in its original release, making it that decade’s biggest seller and a holiday soundtrack for generations of Americans (another 10 million sold as a budget-priced edition in the 1970s; indeed Elvis’ Christmas Album is his top-selling album, period, and No. 142 on Billboard’s all time list).
Sneaking Santa Claus double entendres into pop songs seems to have been quite the vogue around this time. In 1960 Ella Fitzgerald sang about “fat and round” Santa Claus who “got stuck in my chimney.”
About the same time, Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded “Santa Claus Blues” for Chess Records. Williamson’s double entendre of choice involves “drawers”:
“Lookin all in my baby’s dresser drawers.
Tryin to find out,
What did she bought me for Santa Claus.
When I pulled out the bottom dresser drawer,
The landlady got mad and called the law..”
In fact, in the R&B world in which Leiber and Stoller and Elvis were steeped at the time, “Santa Claus” had been invoked as the good thing, male principle division, since the pre-war era, as Gerry Bowler relates in his Santa Claus: A Biography. Blues scholar Paul Oliver has a chapter on Santa Claus in Screening the Bluesand quotes a melancholy lyric from the great Texas country bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson:
Just the day before Christmas let me bring you your present tonight,
I wanna be your Santa Clause even if my whiskers ain’t white.
So Santa is black and white. Get used to it! Happy holidays, everybody.