The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Silver Bells

Words & Music by Jay Livingston (1915-2001) and Ray Evans (1915-2007)
Copyright 1950

From the movie "The Lemon Drop Kid", performed by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell

Recorded by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards

 

Songwriter Ray Evans and composer Jay Livingston created hundreds of songs for Broadway, the movies, and television in their 64-year collaboration. Among their many hits is the perennially popular Christmas song “Silver Bells.”

In 1950, under contract with Paramount, they were assigned a Bob Hope movie from a Damon Runyon story called “The Lemon Drop Kid.” The picture takes place in New York at Christmas, and the studio wanted a Christmas song.

Evans and Livingston objected. "It's impossible to write a hit Christmas song", they said. "Every year everybody sings the same old Christmas songs, and new ones never make it".

Also, they were uneasy because they had an option coming up in their contract, and they hadn't had a hit for awhile. They believed was that a Christmas song was not the kind of big-hit, Oscar-caliber song that they needed. They grumbled, but the studio insisted.

The pair went back to their office and inspired by a little bell on their desk, in two days they cranked out the song about the Santa Clauses and the Salvation Army workers who stand on New York street corners tinkling their bells. Livingston provided the melody, Evans the words. Evans later said, "We set our attention on the 'bell’ side of Christmas and to Christmas in the city – in contrast to 'White Christmas' and other standards, with lots of snow and country and small-town images." The result was a holiday classic. "It's practically the only song about Christmas in a big city, with department store lights, window displays, shoppers and all the rest,” said Evans.

They called it “Tinkle Bell,” but Livingston's wife reminded him that "tinkle" had another association. "It was something you did in the bathroom," Evans recalled years later, "but that's a woman's word and I'd never thought of it. But I was very unhappy again because I hate to rewrite."

They put aside "Tinkle Bell" and started to write a new song. But they liked the music and melody of "Tinkle Bell", so they just changed "Tinkle" to "Silver", and the money's been pouring in ever since. To give the song added dimension, they wrote the verse and chorus so that they could be sung at the same time, and even added a lyric counterpoint to the chorus. They also purposely put it in three-quarter time, in contrast with most other Christmas songs.

However, the film's original director disliked it and the song languished until the producer – who loved the song – brought in a new director, Sidney Lanfield. He filmed Hope and co-star Marilyn Maxwell singing it together as they strolled through New York.

Before its release, Bing Crosby came by the songwriters' lunch table at Paramount and asked if they had any songs for him. "He loved it and recorded it [with Carol Richards] and that made it a definitive Christmas song," Evans recalled. The Bing Crosby recording, he also said, "gave it some stature."

Although it never won an Oscar, it became one of their most popular collaborations. In his later years, Evans calculated that it brought him about $600,000 annually in royalties. He appreciated the irony that as a Jew and a non-believer he had never liked Christmas carols. As of 2001, “Silver Bells” has sold over 160 million records since it was created.

Now a standard among Christmas songs, William Studwell wrote that “'Silver Bells' combines a contemporary urban setting with old-fashioned emotional responses. This skillful blend is the essence of the song's continued prosperity.”

"Silver Bells" regularly ranks in the top Christmas songs heard on the airwaves, according to news reports from ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; www.ascap.com). It is one of only three of the top 25 ASCAP Christmas hits that were introduced in a movie. The other two were "White Christmas" in Holiday Inn (1942) and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

 

 

The team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans have been described as the last of the great Hollywood songwriters. Livingston was the composer, although both men wrote lyrics. Both were born in 1915, and both attended the University of Pennsylvania; Livingston studied journalism while Evans studied economics. While there, Livingston formed a band called "The Continentals;" Evans played clarinet and saxophone.

The band also worked on Cunard Line cruise ships during their breaks from school. "Life on the ships was so exciting and so glamorous; we were living like millionaires," Evans said. "One day on our last cruise we were coming up the Hudson River and I said to Jay, 'Let's stay in New York and write songs.' Eight years later it paid off."

When they began their collaboration, they both had day jobs, Evans as an accountant and Livingston making $18 a week as a stand-by pianist for NBC Radio (providing a musical interlude when a live program ended too soon). They wrote songs in their spare time; Livingston wrote most of the music and Evans penned most of the lyrics.

Their first big break came when their song "G'bye Now" – written for Olsen & Johnson's 1941 Broadway revue “Hellzapoppin',” – became a major hit.

They continued to write in New York for several years, producing songs for Ole Olsen of the comedy team Olsen and Johnson, and then moved to Los Angeles in 1944. They signed a contract with Paramount in 1945, writing dozens of songs during the next 10 years. After 1955, the pair free-lanced for many different Hollywood studios.

During their career, they wrote over 100 songs for Hollywood, including 12 Bob Hope films and later for Hope's television specials. They also wrote songs for Hope leading ladies Dorothy Lamour, Marilyn Maxwell, Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Jane Russell and Rosemary Clooney.

Seven of their songs were nominated for Oscars; three won the award. Among the team's best work:

Evans credited Livingston with the idea for their Oscar-winning hit "Que Sera Sera." "Jay... had seen a movie where a family used it as their motto. He said, 'Gee, that would be a nice title for a song.'," Evans said. After the team gave the song to Hitchcock, it's been reported that he said, "Gentlemen, I told you I didn't know what kind of song I wanted, but that's the kind of song I want."

Like “Silver Bells,” the song “Mona Lisa” started out with a different title: “Prima Donna.” According to Evans, "That sounded so banal and uninteresting. Luckily, my wife was [familiar with] the art world. She said, 'Why don't you call it Mona Lisa instead? Make it a metaphor or allegory about a woman who is very mysterious to her lovers.'" Evans says it remains his favorite.

During their career, they not only contributed individual songs, but also wrote complete scores, including the score for “The Lemon Drop Kid,” “My Friend Irma” starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and others.

In 1958, Livingston and Evans first full Broadway score for “Oh Captain.” This was a stage adaptation of the successful film, starring Alec Guinness, “The Captain's Paradise.” It was a Tony Nominee for Best Musical. In 1961, Livingston and Evans scored the Broadway musical “Let It Ride!”

They also wrote two classic TV themes, “Bonanza” in 1959 and “Mister Ed” in 1961, as well as the lesser known “To Rome With Love” in 1969. In 1959, Livingston and Evans scored a television musical 'No Man Can Tame Me".

The duo continued writing through the millennium and are credited with creating the songs from "Godfather: Part III" in 1990. Their last project was "Michael Feinstein Sings the Livingston and Evans Song Book," set for release early in 2002.

The pair also performed benefits including a benefit for the American Heart Association took place Oscars Night, at the Roosevelt Hotel, the site of the first Oscars ceremony. "We write special things every once in awhile, but in the rock and roll and rap world, we ain't it," says Evans, who lived in Beverly Hills, Calif. Before his death. "We haven't done anything significant for twenty years." He loathes current popular music. "If George Gershwin were alive today, he'd be on the corner with a tin cup, because an art form [of songwriting] has disappeared... It's a sad commentary on our society. We were the last of a golden age when songs made sense."

Both were elected to the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. They were presented with a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame in 1995. In 1996 the Motion Picture Academy honored them with an evening of their songs and accomplishments, including film clips and live performances at the Sam Goldwyn Theater. In 1998, the duo performed several of their songs as part of "ASCAP Salutes The National Press Club." As recently as 2006, their songs are still being included in Hollywood movies, including “Take the Lead” and “Unaccompanied Minors.”

Livingston and Evans had twenty-six songs that have sold over a million records or more, and the total record sale of their songs has exceeded $400 million. In total, they would write over 400 songs total in their 64 years together.

 

 

Jay Livingston was born March 28, 1915, in McDonald, Pennsylvania. As a child, he studied piano with Harry Archer in Pittsburgh, PA. Later, while attending the University of Pennsylvania, he studied composition and orchestration with Harl McDonald. During WW2, Livingston served in the U.S. Army. Livingston died October 17, 2001, Bel-Air, Calif. His first wife, Lynne Gordon, died in 1991; his second wife, actress Shirley Mitchell, survived him.

"He was outgoing and great fun and he just loved to play the piano, he had two in his living room," family spokesman Frank Liberman said. "He used to sing and play all the time, all his own stuff. He'd have parties and all the hot people from the music business would come."

Evans told Reuters: "We had a wonderful relationship. He was a very talented man and I felt very lucky to be his partner. We had a very rewarding career. I feel like half a person now. A relationship like this is very unique. We never wrote apart."

Evans said both men always took credit for every song they produced. "We decided two heads were better than one, we didn't take individual credit."

"We were different personalities but we got along very well as a team. Most of our successes came from movies because we had a script to work from. We'd try to get a song title first and then we'd figure out a reason for a song, a situation, etc., and then we'd dummy some lyrics. If Jay liked the lines I'd written he'd sit at the piano and start to compose. If he didn't like the lyrics he'd start from scratch," Evans said.

 

 

Raymond Bernard Evans born February 4, 1915 in Salamanca, N.Y., the son of a paper dealer from Latvia. Evans met his future partner Livingston at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s while Evans was studying economics. Evans joined Livingston's band playing the clarinet and saxophone.

In a 1995 interview Livingston said he was at a loss to explain how his partnership with Evans endured 64 years. "It works, that's all. I talked to my business manager once, years ago, and said I'd like to spread out and write with other people. He said, 'When something works, don't mess with it.'"

In 1947, Evans married Wyn Ritchie; she died in 2002 aged 102. Evans died February 15, 2007.

 

Sources:

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995.

William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook. Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, 1981, revised 2003.

Composers – Lyricists Database, http://www.nfo.net/.CAL/tl4.html [Accessed 20 October, 2001]

Songwriter's Hall of Fame, Accessed February 10, 2008.

Yahoo! Movies, Accessed February 10, 2008:

Jeff Wilson, The Associated Press, October 20, 2001 [Accessed 20 October, 2001]

Livingston & Evans, "On Assignment"  [Accessed 20 October, 2001]

Sarah Tippit, Reuters, Wednesday, October 17, 2001; 5:15 PM, The Washington Post  [Accessed 20 October, 2001]

Authentic Autographics.com  [Accessed 20 October, 2001]

Alumni Profiles, Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette | Last modified 6/11/97, Profile by Susan Lonkevich, http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0597/0597pro1.html [Accessed 20 October, 2001 and February 10, 2008]

"ASCAP'S Twelve Songs of Christmas Keep Sleigh Bells Jingling," Dec. 13, 2007, https://www.ascap.com/press/2007/121307_chipmunk_song.aspx [Accessed February 11, 2008]

"ASCAP Announces Top 25 Holiday Songs," Nov. 12, 2007. http://www.ascap.com/press/2007/111207_holiday.aspx [Accessed February 11, 2008]

"ASCAP Salutes The National Press Club," October, 1998. http://www.ascap.com/playback/1998/october/pressclub.html [Accessed February 11, 2008]

 

 

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