Arizonans and holiday music nuts like to share that old saw about how world-renowned songwriter Irving Berlin wrote his famous “White Christmas” at Phoenix’s Biltmore resort. The year was 1940, and the song — first recorded by Bing Crosby two years later and featured in the Crosby film Holiday Inn — went on to become the world’s best-selling single, having moved more than 100 million copies of the Crosby version alone in years hence.
Alas, that holiday Hollywood tale is as true as most anything coming from Tinseltown. Author Jody Rosen, in her book White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, poked around until she came up with the truth: While Berlin did write music during long stays at the Biltmore, his “White Christmas” was composed in 1939 at a friend’s home in Beverly Hills.
One need look no further than the song’s lovely prelude, which is often excised by artists who record the tune, for proof that it wasn’t written here:
“The sun is shining, the grass is green,?
The orange and palm trees sway.?
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North.”
While “White Christmas” has failed us, there’s plenty of warm-weather holiday music to get hot for. There’s lots of hokum, too. Country star Kenny Chesney has waxed melodically about how “All I Want for Christmas is a Really Good Tan,” for example. The Dukes of Surf attempted Hawaiian ho-ho-ho with “Aloha Christmas,” and Jimmy Buffet tried to heat things up with his “Christmas in the Caribbean.”
There are higher-minded holiday warm-ups. “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” as recorded by Dean Martin, is another Irving Berlin Christmas standard, although this one’s a bit of a cheat. Its lyrics never mentions any holiday season, and are really about a monster blizzard that isn’t bothering Dino quite so much. He’s hot for some unnamed bimbo whose presence has Mr. Martin doffing his winter duds:
“Off with my overcoat
Off with my gloves?
Who needs an overcoat?
I'm burning with love”
Originally a hit for Billie Holiday in 1937, the year it was written, it was reimagined as an instrumental nearly 20 years later on Jackie Gleason’s 1956 Merry Christmas long-player. Martin recorded it for his Capitol Records holiday release, A Winter Romance, three years later, and that recording’s success made the song a de facto Christmastime standard.
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Other nice versions include Julie London’s from 1964’s Tenderly Yours, as well as the Tony Bennett arrangement that pairs the song with “I Love the Winter Weather” on his first Christmas album, Snowfall, from 1968.
The all-instrumental Ventures’ Christmas Album from 1965 doesn’t include any material that’s specifically warm-weather themed, but it’s impossible to hear anything by the kings of California surf-rock without imagining bikini-clad babes and blistering beaches.
The band’s excellent holiday LP includes playful references to other sunshine pop of the era: Their "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" alludes to the Beatles' "I Feel Fine," while the surf-scented "Frosty the Snowman" riffs on the Champs' "Tequila." They even plagiarize their own hit, "Walk Don't Run" in a killer rendition of "Sleigh Bells." The Yuletide surf is definitely up on the album’s best track: a keen mashup of Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room” and the Elvis Presley perennial “Blue Christmas.”
Farther afield, there’s “Christmas Island,” penned by songwriter Lyle Moraine in 1946 and popularized by the Andrews Sisters that same year. This one’s all about hosting holidays in a warmer clime. Christmas Island is a real place, an Australian territory located in the Indian Ocean, and according to Patty, Maxine, and Laverne, folks hang their stockings on coconut trees and Santa arrives in a canoe. Jimmy Buffet, Bette Midler, and a slew of other island-friendly carolers have covered this one over the years, but it’s the original that captures the novelty without any campy shtick. Or maybe it’s the guest vocal by “White Christmas” maestro Bing Crosby on the Andrews’ version that says “warm weather Christmas!” so well.