Who Sang It Best? "Silver Bells"
The Christmas Carol That Was Almost "Tinkle Bell"
"Silver Bells" is different from most Christmas carols in that it focuses on the festive cityscape: holiday shopping, decorations, and joyful preparations for the upcoming Christmas celebration. But did you know that if it weren't for the songwriter's wife, we'd be calling the song "Tinkle Bell" and making bathroom jokes about it like a bunch of second graders?
The song was originally written for actors Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell to sing in the 1951 motion picture, The Lemon Drop Kid. Jay Livingston composed the melody, and Ray Evans penned the lyrics. At the time, they were one of Hollywood's top songwriting duos who also wrote the Academy Award winning numbers, "Buttons and Bows," "Mona Lisa," and "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)."
Tasked with writing a new Christmas song for the movie, the song creators were inspired by the silver bells of the Salvation Army donation collectors and the bell-ringing Santa Clauses (although some accounts mention the silver bell on a desk in their office). The duo drafted a ditty they named "Tinkle Bell," and Livingston took it home to play for his wife.
The missus responded that he had to be kidding. Using a word like "tinkle" had a double meaning involving urination. Livingston and Evans went back to the drawing board. Substituting "tinkle" for "silver," they averted embarrassment. Feedback can be a real gift!
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With so many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some versions off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original rendition of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
Of all the cover versions, which you prefer?
The Classic Song
"Silver Bells" by Bing Crosby & Carol Richards (featuring John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and the Lee Gordon Singers) (1950)
Some classic songs are easily overshadowed by cover versions that follow. By no means is "Silver Bells" one of them.
Released in 1950, this original Christmas tune by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards employs lyrics that depart somewhat from those sung in The Lemondrop Kid, the motion picture for which this song was written. Thankfully, however, it was Crosby and Richard's rendition that became the standard version of "Silver Bells" that most people know.
This holiday carol features a heavenly vocal pairing. Crosby takes a gentleman's lead and Richards adeptly responds, her voice gliding elegantly up and down the scale. It's as if these two vocally waltz through the holiday tune while the orchestra plays on. The instrumentalists provide perfect support, accentuating the efforts of the primary vocalists without stealing their limelight. Not everyone can master such a feat.
By the time "Silver Bells" was released, Crosby was already an all-star entertainer. The crooner was America's top recording artist, an Academy Award-winning film star, and he led his own radio show. He had also hit it big with "White Christmas" (which is still the bestselling single of all time) and was just beginning his long series of television appearances. In contrast, Carol Richards was a relative unknown talent. In this song, she clocks a performance that equals Crosby's, and as a result, the duet became the work Richards was most known for. Throughout her later career, she worked with stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis.
This twosome masterfully captures the nostalgia and excitement of the Christmas season. Can any contender outdo their original version?
Which version would you rather listen to -- Bing Crosby's original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Silver Bells" by Martina McBride (1998)
Martina McBride has been called the "Céline Dion of Country Music" for good reason, and in this 1998 rendition of "Silver Bells," the soprano songstress graces us with her cherubic voice, full and joyful. She conveys such a sweetness with her resplendent vocals, spreading an authentic and thoughtful message regarding reminiscing and seasonal togetherness.
McBride has been nominated 14 times for Grammy Awards over the years. Although she has won many other awards, surprisingly, she has failed to snag a Grammy so far. However, the songbird doesn't hold the record for most nominations without a win. (That unfortunate record goes to sound engineer Morten Lindberg at 26 nominations, followed by Snoop Dogg and Brian McKnight, with 17 nominations each.)
2. "Silver Bells" by Anne Murray (1981)
Anne Murray paved the way for Canadian female vocalists in the American music market like Shania Twain or Céline Dion. Rolling Stone magazine named Murray one of the "50 Biggest Adult Contemporary Artists Ever."
In this 1981 holiday song, her voice is rich and emotional. Murray doesn't allow herself to be overshadowed by a flamboyant musical accompaniment. Instead, the background music stays in the background. Although Murray isn't particularly creative with this song, the Grammy Award-winning singer solidly delivers the right combination of wistfulness and holiday celebration, and you may notice that the mood of her version relays less "urgency" than others.
3. "Silver Bells" by Johnny Mathis (featuring Percy Faith & His Orchestra) (1958)
When you combine Johnny Mathis' mellow vocals and the light, airy orchestra music of Percy Faith and company, what you get is pure holiday magic. This 1958 version of "Silver Bells" has a dream-like quality, thanks to Mathis' silky-smooth voice and a musical crew that is blissfully heavy on the strings. Faith was a conductor known for popularizing "easy listening" or mood music, and Mathis is such a pop legend that he was honored with the Lifetime Grammy Achievement Award in 2003.
In this otherwise splendid version, the only thing I didn't care for was Mathis' deletion of the stanza that starts:
Strings of street lights, even stoplights
Blinkin' bright red and green… .
He replaces the usual lyrics with a few lines absent from other versions, thus making it hard for listeners to sing along unless they know the following modified lyrics:
Christmas makes you feel so emotional
It may bring parties or thoughts devotional
Whatever happens or what may beHere is what Christmastime means to me... .
In so doing, he stays true to the version of the song that appears in the 1950 movie, The Lemondrop Kid for which the song was originally written. The distraction of these word changes are easily forgiven by the focusing on Mathis' voice quality.
4. "Silver Bells" by Alan Jackson (2002)
Informal and unpretentious. That's what you get in this 2002 cover version by Alan Jackson as he presents a decidedly country twist on this favorite seasonal tune. Jackson's version offers familiarity and comfort like a cozy sweater.
Although he didn't take any creative chances here, many listeners appreciate a singer who just plays it straight with no new fancy stuff. The Grammy Award-winner sticks to his classic roots and uses the power of his voice to paint a picture. He puts you right in the middle of the snowy holiday rush, even if you live in a climate where you haven't seen a frost in years.
5. "Silver Bells" by John Legend (2018)
Who would imagine dancing to "Silver Bells?" This one's a total jam session. You'll either love it or hate it. Legend completely reimagines this Christmas classic by speeding up the tempo and altering its rhythm. He brings forth a dazzling and altogether artistic performance in this 2018 cover, giving the tune a retro soul feel.
If you prefer that holiday songs stick to their traditional roots, then you'll dislike Legend's 1970s flair, but if you're more adventurous and openminded, this could become a new seasonal favorite. This rendition of the "Silver Bells" grew on me significantly after playing it several times.
6. "Silver Bells" by Elvis Presley (featuring The Imperials) (1971)
The King of Rock and Roll delivers this uncomplicated pop cover of "Silver Bells" with the help of The Imperials, a southern gospel quartet. The 1971 tune appeared on his album, Elvis Sings The Wonderful World of Christmas and features gentle ukulele strumming, understated background music, and Elvis looking forward to "chrizz-mus." The King may be gone, but he'll live forever in his music.
7. "Silver Bells" by Michael Bublé (featuring Naturally 7) (2011)
Michael Bublé sounds like a man who stepped straight out of the 1940s. As a youth, the Grammy Award-winning star was inspired by Bing Crosby and jazz musicians, and you can hear their influence in this 2011 version of "Silver Bells." Bublé's performance is classy, emotionally controlled, and pleasant (but sorry, I won't go further than that).
It's your father's version—or even your grandfather's—and a good option for the holiday office party. Overall, Bublé is talented and has pizzazz, but if I wanted "Silver Bells" to sound like Bing Crosby or the artists of a bygone era, I'd opt for the original.
8. "Silver Bells" by Twisted Sister (2006)
You might eye roll at the thought of a metal version of "Silver Bells," but I say, "Why not?" Don't be so quick to discount this one. This song by heavy metal group Twisted Sister totally works for the right environment and crowd. It's full of energy, demonstrates imagination, and features a chorus of what sounds like slightly drunk guys echoing the lead singer. You might also notice that the guitar riff is based on AC/DC's classic song "Problem Child." Although one of the least "Christmas-sy" versions on this list of contenders, this 2006 metal version provides welcome diversity.
The carol is from an entire Christmas album by the heavy metal group. Twisted Sister peaked in popularity in the 1980s and is considered a one-hit wonder for their song, "We're Not Gonna Take It," although they had other tunes that didn't quite reach Billboard's Top 40 pop charts.
9. "Silver Bells" by BeBe & CeCe Winans (1993)
Brother and sister gospel duo BeBe and CeCe Winans offer up this 1993 R&B version featuring a tempo significantly slower than most other covers of "Silver Bells." CeCe Winans uses the higher notes of her impeccable voice, conveying wispiness and reflection. Specifically, the reverential manner in which she sings "soon it will be Christmas Day" helps to add a different layer of meaning when contrasted to the hustle and bustle on the city sidewalks. This secular tune thus resonates with spirituality.
The pair was first "discovered" by disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, and they performed on The PTL Club for five years. CeCe Winans has become both the best selling and most awarded female artist in gospel music.
10. "Silver Bells" by Meaghan Smith (2011)
We all have that family member or friend who can sorta sing but their confidence outshines their actual talent. That's what's going on here as Canadian songstress Meaghan Smith carries her holiday tune a slightly leaky bucket. She makes her vocals the focal point of this 2011 song by minimizing background music and varying both the song's tempo and emphasis on words. The result is a folk pop version that is quirky, light-hearted, and youthful.
11. "Silver Bells" by Tony Bennett (featuring The Count Basie Big Band) (2008)
Although not particularly seasonal, this jazzy number from 2008 lends itself to finger snapping if that's your vibe. It's the type of holiday music you'd find in Bloomingdale's and other upscale department stores. The piano solo was impressive, but it lasted so long that I nearly forgot what the point of the song was.
Although Bennett registers a respectable performance, the song was a bit vanilla when it came to holiday spirit. Bennett was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. His career has spanned nearly seven decades.
12. "Silver Bells" by Lady Antebellum (2012)
In this low energy country version from 2012, there are a couple of bars of unChristmaslike background music that play on repeat. Distracting? You bet. They are the first thing you hear, and unfortunately, you hear them throughout the entirety of this understated rendition of "Silver Bells."
I would have preferred to hear a stronger duet with more emotion and energy, featuring Hillary Scott on lead vocals. What we have instead is an okayish effort by a notable group. Lady Antebellum has experienced crossover success on the pop charts with songs like "Need You Now" and "Just a Kiss."
13. "Silver Bells" by The Temptations (1970)
The harmony begins flatly and doesn't get much better in this uninspired 1970 version of "Silver Bells." It's as if someone took a wet blanket and tossed it over The Temptations' holiday spirit. Then there's the out-of-place deep bass intonations of the group member who speak-sings his part of the lyrics (starting at 1:29). (Insert slow headshake here.)
Sadly, this doesn't sound like the same group that sang "My Girl," "Just My Imagination," or "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Out of fairness, however, I guess even the best artists can't nail every song. The group was undergoing a shift during this time from an early soul sound to a psychadelic soul groove, and this holiday song must have gotten lost in the experimental mix. The Temptations were named to Rolling Stone's list of "100 Greatest Artists of All Time," and in 2013 they were honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
14. "Silver Bells" by Gloria Estefan (1994)
Zoinks! This is a hot Christmas mess if I've ever heard one. Believe it or not, this 1994 tune launches with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" followed by the music from "Joy to the World." Then it segues into "Silver Bells" with a distinctive Latin vibe. It's bewildering to process what's going on. Esteban's jazzy intonations are just "off," and her mood is markedly buoyant—too intense for a holiday song that is meant to be more nostalgic. Unfortunately, this offering of "Silver Bells" is about as desirable as those ugly holiday sweaters and gifts to return.
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