Friday Night Forgotten Oldie: Christmas bells in the steeple

From The Epoch Times by Dean George, November 28, 2022:

More music is played during Christmas than any other holiday. A lesser-known song called “Christmas Bells in the Steeple” was penned for singing legend Perry Como by a young Nashville, Tennessee, songwriter in 1967. The song is a subtle reminder about the true meaning of Christmas.

“Christmas Bells,” as it is commonly known, was released as a 45-single, and its two-time Grammy Award-winning composer rereleased the song in 2016 on his own Christmas album.

Readers under 50 years old may not know that Como was an iconic American singer and television personality whose career spanned seven decades from the 1930s to the 1990s. In the 1950s, Como sold more records than anyone but Elvis Presley.

Known affectionately as “Mr. C,” Perry Como recorded over 700 songs between 1936 and 1987. During the quarter century from 1945 to 1970, he sold over 100 million records, with only Bing Crosby, Elvis, and The Beatles selling more.

After three decades of doing records, radio, and television in New York City, Como was ready for a change of scene and type of music. In the 1960s, he began reducing his TV appearances and refocusing his energies on recording.

Como saw guitarist Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer, and saxophonist Boots Randolph at a celebrity golf tournament that Como promoted in 1962. When RCA executive Steve Sholes suggested that Como record some popular country music songs in 1965, they thought: What better place to do that than Music City—Nashville, Tennessee?

Como was offered some country music standards by Atkins to record. Some call the four-day Nashville sessions produced by Atkins some of Como’s best work.

The Nashville recording experience went so well that Como returned there in 1968 to record his third Christmas album, “The Perry Como Christmas Album.”

Atkins was asked to help select material for the new Christmas album. He reached out to a young local songwriter he’d known since 1957 to see if he had written any Christmas songs that could be used on Como’s album.

Known primarily for his funny repertoire of music like “Ahab, the Arab” and “Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving Fast-Acting Pleasant-Tasting Green and Purple Pills,” Atkins’s friend did not disappoint with the request.

“Chet was recording Perry in Nashville and he asked me did I have any Christmas songs,” Harold Ray Ragsdale recalled. “I didn’t, but I said, ‘No, but I’ll get you one real soon,’ and I went home and wrote this and Chet cut it with Perry.” A short time later, Ragsdale, better known as two-time Grammy Award-winner Ray Stevens, sent Atkins “Christmas Bells” with lyrics that highlighted the real meaning of Christmas.

Christmas bells in the steeple,
Ringing out on Christmas morn,
But where are all the people,
Where has everybody gone?

They’re all busy with their presents,
Snug and warm behind their doors
Thinkin’ no one was forgotten,
Empty shelves in all the stores!

Doesn’t anyone remember,
As they wake up Christmas morn
The 25th day of December,
Little Baby Jesus was born?

Christmas bells in the steeple,
How their ringing seems to say
O come all ye faithful,
Get down on your knees and pray
Don’t you know it’s Christmas Day?

When I asked via email how he composed such a moving melody and lyrics on such short notice, Stevens admitted, “It just came to me and I went with it!”

Stevens said that he was impressed when hearing the studio recording for the first time. “I liked the recording a lot. Cam Mullins did it as a simple string arrangement and did a great job with it.” When asked about Como and Atkins’s reaction to his composition, Stevens deadpanned, “They must have liked it!”

“I don’t think it was widely known I wrote the song,” Stevens modestly noted when asked if his fans were surprised that he wrote a Christmas ballad. A couple years later, though, everyone knew Stevens after he recorded his international hit “Everything is Beautiful” That song won Stevens a Grammy Award for Best Male Contemporary Vocal Performance in 1971.

The Georgia native who signed his first record contract at age 18 with Capitol Records also notched another Grammy win in 1976 for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for “Misty,” and another nomination for the same song.

Stevens decided to record “Christmas Bells” on his own Christmas album, “Mary and Jospeh and the Baby and Me,” in 2016.  “I decided heck, I’ll record it myself; it’s been 50 years or so since Perry had it out.”

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