Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Beef

Published November 25, 2023

A couple years back, a musicologist at Berklee somehow found the inner strength to analyze over 200 Christmas songs, to see if he could determine what makes us the happiest around the holidays. One of the crucial components was an upbeat tempo of 115 beats per minute (BPM), and the track that comes the closest to nailing that is the cleverly named “Merry Christmas” by Elton John and Ed Sheeran. That’s followed by “Winter Wonderland,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and Leona Lewis’s “One More Sleep.” 

The fourth most-festive track was a tie between Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” Despite the involvement of a musicologist, that’s still a pretty subjective list. One person whose heart-cockles weren’t always warmed by “Jingle Bell Rock” was the late Bobby Helms — and he’s the guy who sang it. 

In 1957, Helms was in-demand after having a couple of country hits, so Decca Records called him — and session guitarist Hank Garland — into the studio to record a song called “Jingle Bell Hop.” That song had been written by Joe Beal and Jim Boothe, and according to Helms, it was shit. 

“I really didn’t want to cut it because it was such a bad song,” Helms told the Indianapolis Star in 1992. “So me and one of the musicians worked on it for about an hour putting a melody to it and we put a bridge to it.” 

“It was terrible, according to Bobby,” John Kleiman, Helms’ manager in the decade before his death, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. “He said the electric organ sounded bad and the guy who was singing was terrible.”

Helms and Garland managed to turn that lackluster “Jingle Bell Hop” into “Jingle Bell Rock,” which has since become a seasonal staple (and perennial Billboard Top 10 track). Although Helms got royalties for singing it, he didn’t get any songwriting royalties. Neither did Garland — and his family claimed that he was owed around $100 million in back payments. “I’m angry about it,” Garland told the Jacksonville Business Journal in 2001.

According to the Journal, Beal and Boothe are both listed as the writers of “Jingle Bell Rock” by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Neither Helms, who died in 1997 nor Garland, who died in 2004, nor their estates were ever compensated for their contributions. 

“Bobby never tried to get royalties,” Dave Davis, another of Helms’ managers, told the outlet. “He said, `David, it’d be a joke. You know how the music business is.’ And I do.”

A version of this story appeared Dec. 22, 2022, on the news page of Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. But it’s Christmas time again, y’all.