Frank Sinatra sang every type of song for every type of mood, and something for every season. So when it came to celebrating Christmas, you better bet ol’ Blue Eyes was had that holiday spirit. In fact, his third solo release was a collection of Christmas song released on 78 RPM in 1948 titled “Christmas Songs by Sinatra.” But when Sinatra was recording his second, and much more popular, collection of Christmas songs titled “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra” that he put his own personal demands on a Christmas classic, changing the way that its been sung forever.
The song was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Originally written in 1943 by songwriters Hugh Martin (music) and Ralph Blaine (lyrics), the song was written for the 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” where it was introduced to the world by Judy Garland. A melancholy little song, Garland sings the song with a trembling voice and tears while comforting her young sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, in the film’s most memorable and emotional scenes. Although the film had a few bangers that became musical standards, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” really hit the emotional heart strings of the film’s audience, and the song managed to extend itself far beyond the original source, becoming one of the most important Christmas songs ever recorded. Ironically, director Vincnet Minnelli felt the song was too depressing and had a few rewrites written to it, but it still comes off as emotionally powerful, if not a bit sad. Not long after Garland’s performance, everybody wanted a crack at it, and over the decades thousands of recording artists have taken a go at it.
Now Sinatra recorded a really sweet version at “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for his first collection of Christmas music in 1948. But when he went back into the studio in 1957 to rerecord it, he felt a lot different about it. Now at this time of his career, Sinatra is back on top and calling the shots after a few years of struggling as a marketable recording artist. His albums are amongst the best-selling albums for Capital, and he is one of the most powerful recording artists in the world. Sinatra is at the height of his popularity, and whatever Sinatra wants, Sinatra gets. Well he wanted “Have Yoursle a Merry Little Christmas,” but he wanted to do it his way.
While recording “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” there was one key line in the song Sinatra didn’t like which, ironically, was probably the most potent line in the song. Near the end of the song the original version goes “Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
After a number of attempts to record the song, Sinatra apparently interrupted recording and demanded that someone get Ralph Blaine on the phone. Now who knows how long that took, but once Sinatra got Blaine on the other end he said, in total Sinatra style “What’s with this song? It’s depressing. How can I record ‘a Jolly Christmas’ with this lyric? Write me something jolly!” Well, maybe he liked Sinatra, or maybe he was scared that Sinatra was going to send some thugs over to his place to break his kneecaps, but despite the song’s popularity, Blaine got to work and rewrote the line especially for Sinatra. When Sinatra went back into the studio to lay down the track he sang the new line – “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow/Hang a shining star on the highest bough.” Well, the lyric worked, and Sinatra’s take on the song became possibly the most famous version after Judy Garland’s original. Although Sinatra recorded lots of Christmas songs over the years, his 1957 version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was one of his finest recordings.
Ever since the Sinatra imposed rewrite, musicians recording “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” have picked and chosen which version they want to record based on how they want to interpret it. Do they want the sad and moody version, or Sinatra’s “jollier” version. Whatever the case, I think the story is pure Sinatra, who is one of the only artists who would actually demand the writer of such an iconic Christmas song to rewrite one of its most powerful lyrics to fit his demands. That’s pure Sinatra. Anytime you hear a version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” where they hang the shining star upon he highest bough, remember that that’s Frank Sinatra’s lasting personal contribution to the Christmas holiday.