Secrets and Lies: Getting to the Truth about Elvis' Christmas Album

EIN checks the facts and the fantasy

- Spotlight by Shane Brown


Probably more than any other album of his career, Elvis’ Christmas Album is generally regarded as having created the most controversy. 

Some would argue that the first album in 1956 did this, but actually there was relatively little backlash against it or Elvis in the press prior to the second Milton Berle appearance.   Elvis’ Christmas Album, however, has stories of it being banned by radio stations, firings of DJs, and an irate Irving Berlin all attached to it.  

These events make for great stories, have been often repeated, and only add to the legend of the boy from Tupelo taking on the establishment and coming out with #1 album. 

But are they really true?

EIN contributor & Elvis author Shane Brown investigates and checks the facts and the fantasy ...


Like our earlier investigation into whether Elvis ever recorded the song ‘Tiger Man’ during his years at SUN, another questionable myth that surrounds the Elvis Presley legend is whether his Christmas Album really caused that much controversy back in 1957.

Did composer Irving Berlin really order radio stations not to play Elvis' version of 'White Christmas'?

Were DJs really sacked for playing the song?

Was it all clever Colonel Parker hype?

Shane Brown - author of "Elvis: A Listener's Guide" - investigates.


Now Updated with Your Comments and more discussions - see below

 

Secrets and Lies:  Getting to the Truth about Elvis’ Christmas Album

Probably more than any other album of his career, Elvis’ Christmas Album is generally regarded as having created the most controversy.  Some would argue that the first album in 1956 did this, but actually there was relatively little backlash against it or Elvis in the press prior to the second Milton Berle appearance.   Elvis’ Christmas Album, however, has stories of it being banned by radio stations, firings of DJs, and an irate Irving Berlin all attached to it.  

Most fans will remember these stories being recounted by Charles Wolfe in the liner notes of the 1994 CD If Every Day Was Like Christmas.  In the space of a single paragraph, Wolfe tells us a DJ was fired at KEX in Portland, that “almost all” Canadian radio stations banned the record, and that Irving Berlin ordered his staff to begin calling radio stations “to demand that they stop playing it.”  These events make for great stories, have been often repeated, and only add to the legend of the boy from Tupelo taking on the establishment and coming out with a #1 album. 

But are they really true?



The Canadian Radio Ban

The easiest story to deal with is whether “almost all” Canadian radio stations banned the record.  Well, luckily, the December 11, 1957 edition of Variety gives us the real story after they were thoughtful enough to canvas radio stations across Canada about the album so we would all know the truth some sixty years later! 

Firstly, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) – Canada’s national public broadcaster - did not ban the album at all, with them being quoted as saying “we have no objections if listeners want to hear the Presley album and CBC disk jockeys want to play the numbers.” There was a proposed blanket ban in Toronto that did not go ahead, with CKEY saying they would not refrain from playing the LP.  A number of independent stations did indeed impose a ban, but most did not, although some stated they would only play the non-religious numbers, thus leaving out Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem. 

So, this one is straightforward.  The story is false.


The Firing of Al Priddy

So, what of the story of the firing of Al Priddy, DJ at KEX radio in Portland?  Well, here the waters are slightly murkier.  To start with, the reason for his dismissal was not given as playing the Elvis track specifically but, according to the station, “intentional disregard for policy” (Variety, December 11, 1957).   This opens up another question which we don’t have enough evidence to answer:  Had Priddy been disregarding policy on other occasions, and had the playing of White Christmas (banned at the station) simply been the last in a string of such incidents?  This is something we don’t know, but it seems a little odd that a well-known, well-loved DJ was fired after a single incident. 

But was Priddy was even fired at all?

There really should have been questions asked about it at the time, but there were not, so it seems.  Why?  Well, Priddy’s boss apparently heard the playing of White Christmas from home, and rang the station to fire him before the programme had even ended.  What’s more, Priddy recorded the conversation and played it at the end of the show.  This all seems a little peculiar.  Why would you record a telephone conversation with your boss?  And how would that conversation have taken place if Priddy was on air anyway?  Records back then were three minutes maximum.  That barely gives time for you to fire someone. And, if you had been fired, would you dutifully stay on until the end of your slot before leaving?

In 1987, the whole story came out.  In an article for The Oregonian, Margie Boule interviewed another DJ, Barney Keep, who was around at the time of the Priddy sacking, and he told her that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt.  When Boule then asked Priddy himself about the incident, he skilfully dodged the question, and then said "I can't tell you whether it was or wasn't. It could have been, but I don't recall it that way."  The big question here is why he simply didn’t say “no.”  What this sounds like is someone who promised never to tell the truth, and now, as an old many thirty years later, wants to keep that promise. 

So, yes, the waters are still muddy.  However, the facts are that Priddy was back on air at the station within a month, and confirmed in the Boule interview in 1987 that he had received full pay during all the weeks he was off-air, thus making it even more unlikely that the firing was real.

 


Irving Berlin and White Christmas

And so we come to the biggest issue – that of Irving Berlin supposedly getting his staff to call radio stations across the country and to “demand” (according to Wolfe) that White Christmas not be played. 

Elvis’s version is based upon that by The Drifters, which was released in 1954, getting to #2 in the R&B charts, and entering the Billboard charts the following year.   While Elvis clearly models part of his recording on the earlier version, the notion that his is a carbon copy is simply untrue – the structure, backing vocals, instrumentation, and vocal line are all changed in Elvis’s version.  There are certainly many Elvis recordings where he copies arrangements to a much greater degree than he does here.  We don’t know if Irving Berlin heard The Drifters’ version – Wolfe says he didn’t, but he has no way of knowing, and it seems unlikely given the airplay that it got.

 
Let’s start by saying where this story about Irving Berlin leading a campaign against Elvis’s White Christmas comes from.  It seems to have been first told in 1990 in a book called As Thousands Cheer by Laurence Bergreen, a biography of Irving Berlin.  The story, according to the notes, comes via an interview between the author of the book and a man named Walter Wager. 

Who was Walter Wager?  His main occupation was an author of thrillers – he wrote the novel that Die Hard 2 is based on, bizarrely.  However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Wager was heavily involved with ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).   This, we must assume, is when he met, and became friends, with Irving Berlin – some ten years after the events he described to the author of the Berlin biography in 1990.  

We don’t exactly know what Berlin and Wager’s relationship was.  After all, in over 700 pages of the 1990 biography, Wager is never once mentioned in the main text – only in the notes at the back.  We must therefore make the assumption that he was not a major part of Berlin’s life or, for example, a close friend. 

So, what we have so far is a story told in 1990 by Wager to the author, Laurence Bergreen, that Irving Berlin was so incensed by Elvis’s version of White Christmas that he got his staff to call radio stations across the country to try to get them to ban the record from airplay.  As we already know, this didn’t succeed – if the incident happened at all. 

It’s easy to take a story such as this from a seemingly reliable source (Wager) and assume it is true.  There was no reason why Laurence Bergreen wouldn’t assume it was true back in 1990.  However, we now have many more tools available to us when it comes to research.  Almost all newspapers and trade journals from the 1950s have been digitised, as have many books.  We can search with a click of a button the entire contents of Billboard, for example.  Or we can head over to the Media History Digital Library and search over a million pages of trade journals and fan magazines.  Or we can pay a fee (some big, some small) to access the archives of Variety, The New York Times, Life, and virtually every newspaper across the USA.

I wrote my book on Elvis’s music back in 2014 and I confess that I included the Berlin/White Christmas story in it, having heard it so many times that I automatically assumed it was genuine. 

It was a mistake on my part. 

About a year ago, something that was said on an Elvis forum suddenly made me question it.  So, I went back to those archives (which thankfully I have access to) and started looking for how the story was reported back in 1957.  What I found surprised me.

I found nothing.

This major story, about Irving Berlin, celebrating his 50th year in show business in 1957, and Elvis Presley, the biggest star in the world, never made it into the New York Times.  Or any regional newspapers.  Or Billboard.  Or Sponsor.  Or Variety.  There was/is no logical reason why such a huge story would not have been reported in some (or all) of these publications –unless it never happened.   This would have been big news, and would have been picked up by the trade magazines and journals at the very least.

Since I brought this to the attention of fans about a year ago, people have tried to make excuses as to why the story wasn’t reported.  Irving Berlin, I’ve been told, must have wanted it kept quiet.  He must have told his staff to ring radio stations and ask politely.  There is no reason, though, why Berlin would want it kept quiet. 

He was a man basking in publicity in 1957, thanks to his 50 years in showbiz, but yearning for a hit.   The publicity of him standing up for conservative America against Presley would have been good for him, not bad.   And just because he wanted it kept quiet didn’t mean those his staff were calling would have wanted the same.

We also need to remember there are other issues that suggest this story never happened. 

Why didn’t the story appear before 1990, some 33 years after it happened?  I have yet to find a single trace of it prior to that date.  

Why has no-one else ever come forward to verify the story? No-one ever has – not Berlin’s staff, not radio bosses, not DJs. 

Every single retelling of the story, from the liner notes of If Every Day Was Like Christmas in 1994 through to the 2014 FTD issue of Elvis’ Christmas Album (see EIN review here) comes from the same source – Walter Wager’s comments from 1990.  His interview is the only evidence we have – and probably the only evidence we will ever have.   And we know that he wasn’t even an eyewitness to the events.  He wasn’t there at the time. 

Some have said that there were reports prior to 1990 that Irving Berlin didn’t like Elvis’s version of White Christmas, and that may well be true – although I have found no evidence of that either, and nobody has managed to bring any to me – but that is certainly not the same as him trying to get the record banned. 

Wager passed away three years ago, so we will never get to the bottom of where the story came from originally.   Sadly, it is a fact that interviewees are often unreliable, and this is something we are discovering more and more now that we can go back and check facts for ourselves with relative ease.  Why would Wager twist, exaggerate or lie?  Sometimes, it appears that interviewees tells us what we want to hear, or memories are dimmed and foggy thirty years after the events.  Or perhaps Berlin told him the story and Wager was simply repeating it – and it was Berlin who was exaggerating or fabricating a good tale.  What is clear, however, is that Berlin never did set in motion an attempt to get Elvis’s recording of his beloved White Christmas banned.

Perhaps there is a nugget of truth somewhere – that, perhaps, Berlin wanted to ring those radio stations but was advised against it, or he thought it would bring too much unwanted attention to a recording he disliked, or perhaps the royalty cheques were just too tempting.   We will never know the answers to these questions.  But, thanks to the ongoing digitisation of our recent past, we do know that neither Berlin nor his staff made those calls.

The White Christmas tale is a great story – but it is, alas, as fictional as one of Walter Wager’s novels.

 

Spotlight by Shane Brown
-Copyright EIN September 2016. Do Not reprint or republish without permission.

Click here to comment on this article - What is YOUR opinion?

YOUR COMMENTS and more...

Further to this article it has been noted that at some point Elvis sent a signed photo to Irving Berlin noting..

"To Mr. Irving Berlin with respect and admiration, Sincerely Elvis Presley”

Some fans have suggested that this could have been an apology of some sort due to the possible idea that Irving Berlin had complained to radio stations disliking Elvis' version and asking for it to be banned.

EIN however suggest that it actually seems to support Shane Brown's viewpoint - as why would Elvis write a nice signed autograph to Berlin if he was trying to get his record stopped from being played on the radio?

Elvis was the world's biggest entertainer and money earner at the time and had no reason to apologise for any reinterpretation of any composition.

The money the composers would have earned due to Elvis' recording of any tune would have been massive.

To EIN it looks more like an apology because of Col Parker's publicity prank with the Canadian radio stations.
and that Parker would have suggested that Elvis write it.


 

From John
Great stuff there Piers. The Irving Berlin story always sounded a bit strange. You can imagine him getting all fired up about it, particularly after the success of the very straight version by Bing, but to have the record banned? I can't see that he would.

From Colin B
I have a slight problem with the Irving Berlin bit !
I'm certain I heard the story of him having the radio stations telephoned a lot earlier than 1990 !
In 1957, in fact !
To make amends, or perhaps offer an olive branch, Elvis sent a signed photo to Irving as noted above..
How did Shane come to miss all the (uncited) earlier references to it ?
 
From Barry S
As a 'knowledgeable' Elvis fan it seems to me that we have known this story for a long time.
However I cannot find anything in my archives that proves this Urban Myth existed before that BMG Christmas CD.
Perhaps like the Pied Piper story it has grown over the years.
After all the 'Elvis Is Alive' story is still in the media this week.
I think the author may be right.
Sadly Elvis passed away in 1977 and this was all a Col Parker beat up.

From Colin B
What this boils down to is that Shane couldn't find any documentary evidence, about the Berlin story, dated before 1990. The fact remains that many fans were aware of it many years before then.
We must have read it somewhere !
It's my guess that the story must have appeared in some long-defunct magazine which never got 'digiitalised'
& exists today only in our collective memory...

From Susan T
Thanks to EIN and yet another intersting article.
I love that fact that nearly 40 years after Elvis died we can still be discussing stories from the 1950s.
It only goes to prove how amazing Elvis was and STILL IS.
Long live Elvis.
And really, Irving Berlin should have begged for Elvis to record his song.
He was a has-been from another old fashioned era and should have been truly grateful that his song was on a number one million selling "ROCKANDROLL" album.

 

SHANE BROWN's reply..

I would like to address the issue of the Berlin story not raising its head before 1990.  If it was known prior to that date, I don't know where the information came from.  Virtually every UK and US newspaper (including regionals) is digitised now, and I have access to them through subscriptions and/or through university access.  They are all fully searchable, and there is no mention at all of Berlin reacting to Elvis's recording prior to the book from 1990 that I discuss in the article.  The same is true for the likes of Billboard, Variety, Sponsor, and other trade journals. 

Bearing that in mind, I'm not sure how anyone would know about the story before it appeared in print in 1990 (the interview with Wager was carried out for that book). 

The signed photo is a mystery to me.  I confess I have no idea how that fits in - not least because, if someone supposedly hates you and your music and your recording of his song, would you really send him a pic? 
That's rubbing it in a bit, isn't it?
After all, if Irving Berlin hated Elvis and his recording of White Christmas so much (as others suggest), why did he keep the Elvis signed photo until he died? 

If you were that upset about something wouldn't you tear it up and put it in the bin?  



It's interesting that the Irving Berlin story is NOT in the Jerry Hopkins 1971 biography, and that a book such as the Elvis A to Z from the early 1980s comments on the negative publicity regarding the album and the song, but no mention of Berlin's participation (the same is true for other books from the era). 

What was reported in 1957 (and elsewhere afterwards) was the issue of certain radio stations banning the Elvis album from the airwaves, but these were reported at the time in newspapers and trade journals anyway, as I stated in the piece.  The Berlin element was not reported.   Perhaps, once upon a time, there was a story in an Elvis Monthly (or similar) that might have mentioned something, and if that's the case then we have to re-evaluate my findings, of course - providing the sources there seem legit rather than based on rumour.  But going by the substantial archives we have access to, that wasn't the case. 

As an aside, the comment from Jody Rosen quoted on the thread is seemingly an exaggerated regurgitation of what was written in the Berlin biography from 1990, just as Wolfe's liner notes are an exaggeration of the same source.  The notes at the back of her book says her info comes from a website, which seems a little odd given there was an award-winning biography to take the info from, but the site is now defunct, and so we can't check out the details of that. 

All in all it is still a fascinating story that only helps prove the impact of Elvis' legacy.


"Elvis: A Listener's Guide" EIN Interview with Author Shane Brown: Since Elvis's death in 1977, hundreds of books have been written about Presley, but very few concentrate on the most important thing: the music.
The new book by Shane Brown 'Elvis Presley: A Listener's Guide' discusses the remarkable and yet often frustrating legacy that Elvis left behind. Buy why do we need a new critique?

Author Shane Brown kindly agreed to be interviewed by EIN about his interesting new look at Elvis' music.
We ask..
- What insights does this new book bring?
- Was Felton Jarvis important?
- Was Col Parker good or bad?
- Do you really review every song Elvis recorded?
- What songs does he never want to hear again? and much much more
Go here to our detailed interview - EIN's Piers Beagley asks the questions...
(Interviews, Source;ElvisInfoNet)

Did Elvis Record 'Tiger Man' At Sun?: A question that has puzzled Elvis fans through the years is whether he actually recorded the song ‘Tiger Man’ during his years at SUN studios.
The basic question is why did Elvis refer to 'Tiger man' several times in concert as “The second song that I ever recorded, not too many people heard it”?
And if Elvis DID record it, then why hasn’t any reference to it at SUN or proof of its existence been found?
Elvis would first perform ‘Tiger Man’ in concert at his first 1969 Las Vegas International season and would continue playing it through the years – usually in a medley with Mystery Train - until his last performance at Saginaw on May 3 1977. He would sing it over 150 times on stage!
The thought that there might be an acetate or undiscovered tape of Elvis at SUN singing ‘Tiger Man’ is a mouth-watering concept - but is it an unlikely fantasy or strong possibility?
Go here to our detailed 'TIGER MAN' spotlight as EIN's Piers Beagley puts in the hard yards to check the facts from the fantasy .
(Spotlight; Source;ElvisInfoNetwork)

Go here for more relevant EIN articles:

'Elvis' Christmas Album' FTD Review:

'Suppose - Did It Inspire Imagine':

'Big Boss Man: What Kind of Technical Advice Did Parker Provide for Elvis’s Movies?':

The Dark Side of Colonel Parker

'All Shook Up' - EIN Spotlight:

"If You're Going To Start A Rumble" -The Importance of Fights In Elvis Movies:

"Elvis: A Listener's Guide" EIN Interview with Author Shane Brown:

'Elvis was not a Racist'- A Spotlight Revisited:

 

 


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