“It’s Christmas time in the city,” and beyond, and “Silver Bells” has certainly become a big part of its soundscape. The song has a catchy tune and easy-to-remember lyrics and illustrates a great song-writing team: Ray Evans and Jay Livingston. In this blog, let’s explore the story of the song and its creators.
Ray Evans (1915-2007) and Jay Livingston (1915-2001) both grew up in small towns. Jay was born in McDonald, Pennsylvania, 15 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Ray was born in Salamanca, New York. Both loved music, and spent a lot of time listening to the radio. They both attended the University of Pennsylvania. Jay studied journalism and took classes in musical composition. Ray studied finance and attended the Wharton School of Business.
Both were amateur musicians and played in the college orchestra called “The Continentals.” That orchestra performed on cruise ships during Easter and summer vacations. This is where the two musicians connected and became friends, especially while on a cruise that brought them to Cuba. In Havana, they bought themselves Cuban instruments and started playing them on the ship. Apparently, the cruise director heard them, loved it, and asked them to keep going. In fact, he was so enthusiastic about the duo, that he offered them to play on any future cruises that they wanted. This enabled the pair to explore the world and start a musical duo as college students.
Having gotten a taste for playing music together, after their last cruise, Ray suggested to Jay that they should stay in New York and become songwriters. They gave it a shot. Jay would write the melodies and make the musical arrangements, and Ray would write the lyrics. For several years, the only way this was sustainable was to work some jobs during the day. In the beginning, Jay made his living as a piano accompanist, and Ray as an accountant. They wrote their songs at night.
It was when they started composing for Broadway, specifically for the comedians Olsen and Johnson, when their careers as songwriters gained momentum. One of the first songs they wrote was “G’bye Now” for the show “Hellzapoppin’”. Played by the Horace Heidt’s orchestra in 1941, “G’bye Now” made it into the top 10 hit records and ranked no. 51 in the 1941 “US Billboard Top 100”. That put the composing team on the map.
World War II put a short break on the musicians’ career. From 1942-1943, Jay enlisted in the army, and Ray worked in an aircraft factory. They got back together afterwards and continued writing songs. It then so happened that Olsen and Johnson asked Ray and Jay to come to Hollywood in 1944. This is where their career really took off, with them being introduced to the movie scene, and being given the chance to write songs for various motion picture companies.
Starting in 1945, they worked for 10 years with Paramount Studios. During that time, they were nominated for several Oscars and won two of the desired trophies. The first nomination was for song “The Cat and the Canary”. They won their first prestigious Academy Award for “Button and Bows,” written for the movie “The Paleface” in 1948. The second Oscar was for the most famous song “Mona Lisa,” and was featured in “Captain Carey, U.S.A.” in 1950. Then, six years later in 1956, they received their third Oscar for song “Que Sera, Sera,” featured in the famous Hitchcock movie of 1956 “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” starring James Steward and Doris Day.
While “Silver Bells” did not receive an Oscar, it may be the one song that is best known and permanently established in the Christmas song repertoire. In 1950, Paramount Studios asked Ray Evans and Jay Livingston to write a Christmas song for a movie called “The Lemon Drop Kid,” featuring Bob Hope. Both musicians felt very skeptical about such a project, because so many traditional songs already existed.
In fact, at the age of 91, Ray Evans still remembered in an interview: “Well, we had no enthusiasm for writing a Christmas song, cause we figured … that the world had too many Christmas songs already. We shared an office with two desks. And on one of the desks there was a little bell. We said, ‘Oh, there’s our theme for Christmas and the bell makes a tinkling sound when it’s ringing, so we’ll call our song “Tinkle Bell.”
After finishing the song, Jay went home to his wife, who, in her typical manner would ask him: “Well, what did you do in school today?” Jay answered: “We wrote a Christmas song called ‘Tinkle Bell’,” to which she immediately responded: “Do you know what ‘tinkle’ means to most people? You can’t have a song with the word ‘tinkle’ in it. Don’t you know what the word ‘tinkle’ means?” And that’s how the title was changed to “Silver Bells”.
Decca Records released the first recording of the song, featuring Bing Crosby and Carol Richards with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and the Lee Gordon Singers, in October 1950. The movie “The Lemon Drop Kid” was released in 1951.
Ray and Jay continued working in Hollywood and wrote music for 100 movies. When their first big contract with Paramount expired, in 1955, Jay and Ray freelanced for other Hollywood studios and wrote many songs and films scores until 1966. Among the famous songs that they wrote are, next to “Mona Lisa”, and “Que Sera, Sera”, “The Cat and the Canary”, “Tammy”, “Almost in Your Arms” and of course, “Silver Bells”. Additionally they wrote the theme songs for the television shows “Bonanza” and “Mr. Ed”.
Many of their songs have each sold over a million records or more. Ray Evans’ papers and other primary source documents are held at the Ray and Wyn Ritchie Evans Foundation¹ in California and at the University of Pennsylvania.²
If you would like to learn to play “Silver Bells” or any of the other songs, check out the resources listed below. You can download most of them from BARD. To borrow hard copy braille scores or music audio instruction materials on digital cartridge, please contact the NLS Music Section either by phone at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]
Audio Music Instruction
Bill Brown, Piano by Ear
–Silver Bells. (Cartridge only) DBM03741
—Mona Lisa. Piano by Ear. DBM03461
Audio Music Appreciation
—For guitar and voice. In: The 666 Fake Song Book. BRM24360
—For piano. In: Christmas Piano Solos, level four, arranged by Fred Kern. BRM28164
—For piano, beginner. In: Piano Solos. Primer Level, by Jane Smisor Bastien. BRM24694
—For violin. In: Big book of Christmas Songs. BRM37649
—For violin. In: Christmas Songs. BRM36637
—For organ and other instruments. In: Christmas Songs. Vocal, with words, guitar chords and melody for organ, piano, guitar and chord organ. BRM27964
–For voice and piano. BRM23395
—For voice and piano. In: Nat “King” Cole: Unforgettable. BRM36841
Que Sera, Sera (whatever will be, will be)
—For voice and piano. BRM34930
–For organ. In: The Complete Organ Player, book three by Kenneth Baker. BRM29397
—For ukulele. In: The Daily Ukulele. 365 Songs for Better Living. BRM35979
Tammy. For voice and piano. BRM33761
Large Print Scores
Silver Bells. For piano. In: Christmas Songs. LPM00330
Que Sera, Sera (whatever will be, will be). For Piano. In: Popular Waltz Favorites. LPM00376