Who Sang It Best? "The Little Drummer Boy (Carol of the Drum)"
A Simple Gift of Musical Talent
What gifts do you bring to the Son of God when you have nothing but your talent for drum playing? The story of the little drummer boy is a beloved Christmas carol written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis, an American teacher and classical music composer. It depicts the summoning of the young boy by the Three Wise Men to the nativity scene. Having no gifts, the impoverished child expresses reluctance, but he offers a simple drum performance as Mary nods approvingly. The holy infant smiles afterward.
Davis based her work upon a Czech song and named it the "Carol of the Drum." The story told in the song also resembles a legend from the 12th century that was retold by the French writer Anatole France. The legend describes how a juggler performs before a statue of the Virgin Mary. In response to his efforts, she either smiles at him or throws him a rose, depending upon which version of the old tale one ascribes to.
Davis' song, "Carol of the Drum" was first recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers, the large family whose story inspired the Broadway musical The Sound of Music. However, it found fame when it was subsequently recorded in 1958 by the Harry Simeone Corale. They changed Davis' original line, "the ox and ass kept time" to "the ox and lamb kept time" and renamed the tune "The Little Drummer Boy."
In the years since, the song has been recorded by hundreds of artists. Although it does not mention holidays, snow, Santa, or Christmas trees, "The Little Drummer Boy" has become a perennial Christmas favorite. Recorded in multiple genres, artists have emphasized either the religious aspect or the drums and played it with boisterous excitement or slow deliberation. Listen to the classic song then compare a bevy of contenders before you decide "Who Sang It Best?"
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the traditional version 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 traditional artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the traditional 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 traditional song or a cover version?
- Which of the cover versions do you prefer?
The Classic Song
"The Little Drummer Boy" by Harry Simeone Chorale (1958)
A classic choir offers a high, vibrant melody that is breathtakingly angelic and it is perfectly paired with the low, steady drumbeat of the masculine pum pum pum vocals. As the song progresses, trumpets and snare drums signal increasing excitement, alongside increasing volume and complexity. Then the song comes to a brief halt, giving way to slow, simple vocals, the contrast demonstrating reverence for the newborn King. Imagine that at that moment the little drummer boy first lays eyes upon Him.
Although not the first to sing this Christmas carol, The Harry Simeone Chorale popularized it and made it a holiday tradition. Their version climbed the Billboard charts seasonally from 1958-1962. Can any contender beat this well know favorite? Take a listen then cast your vote!
Which version would you rather listen to -- the traditional version by the Harry Simeone Chorale or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Jennifer Nettles (featuring Idina Menzel) (2016)
Between the high energy and exaltations of glee, not a soul in the manger will get any shut-eye when this enthusiastic duo is on hand. However, there's so much joy to be had in this song, who would mind?
Jennifer Nettles, the Grammy Award-winning country star from Sugarland, teams up with Broadway phenom Idina Menzel in this festive, full-volume version of "The Little Drummer Boy." They represent two powerhouse voices who are at their best when they belt with elation, fully embracing the new Christ child as a celebration of the ages. I especially prefer their upbeat interpretation of the song to slower, more solemn renditions, and they get bonus points for creativity. These two are so jubilant they're trippin' on God's love.
2. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Anne Murray (1981)
In this cover, Anne Murray's voice is as resplendent as ever, crisply standing out against a background of vocal drumbeats by a male choir. The Canadian songstress consistently delivers emotional warmth and vocal precision in this unhurried but carefully paced ditty. You might notice that she refers to the "Baby Gesu" in the lyrics, a deviation from other versions.
Murray was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the "50 Biggest Adult Contemporary Artists Ever." If you like her sound, her version of Silver Bells is particularly superb.
3. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band (1987)
Notice something? The Virgin Mary is missing from this version of "The Little Drummer Boy," which was recorded by Detroit native and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bob Seger and his band for a special charity album. But let's concentrate instead on all the good stuff that is present in the song.
The classic cover is unusually high spirited, featuring Seger's full, throaty vocals and a saxophone player who makes this a jam session for Jesus. This is a rendition with unexpected gusto, and it's hard not to love it. Seger was a genius for interpreting the tune with such vibrancy.
4. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Pentatonix (2014)
The little drummer boy's jubilation and love for the newborn Christ child overflow in this first-rate, carefully crafted a capella cover of the classic holiday hymn. From the get-go, Pentatonix beatboxes a drum-like sound, and it draws in the imagination of the listener. (Beatboxing refers to those unusual mouth sounds that are meant to resemble a percussion instrument.) The song begins with muted tones then Pentatonix amplifies and speeds up their vocals, ultimately reaching a crescendo that celebrates the simple gift of giving whatever you can in the spirit of love.
The a capella group first rose to fame in 2011 after taking home the prize in the third season of NBC's competition, The Sing-Off. The quintet has since gained international prominence, Grammy Awards, and several billion YouTube views singing a capella covers of pop and Christmas songs. If you like Pentatonix's sound, another especially good Christmas song by the group is Mary Did You Know?
5. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Leann Rimes (2015)
Country-pop crossover star Leann Rimes' voice is strong and clear in this notably competent version of "The Little Drummer Boy" although the excessiveness of the drums seems to rush her along. The ad nauseam drumming is both rapid and energetic. Its volume needs to be dialed down so that it becomes background music instead of an ever-looming threat to Rimes' vocal spotlight. (Know your role, musicians!) At the end, Rimes provides lots of "rum pum pum pum" vocal filler instead of knowing how to end the song.
Rimes first burst on the country music scene in 1996 at the tender age of 13 and was lauded as the new Patsy Cline. The following year, she became the youngest person to win a Grammy Award and Country Music Association Award.
6. "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" by Bing Crosby and David Bowie (1982)
The crusty old crooner and the 30-year-old androgynous glam rocker make an unlikely pair as they collaborate to achieve one of the most famous holiday duets of all time. Their cover was recorded in 1977 for a Bing Crosby Christmas special only five weeks before the legendary elder singer died of a heart attack.
Because Bowie hated "The Little Drummer Boy," scriptwriters rushed to write a new counterpoint, "Peace on Earth," specifically for him. After less than an hour of rehearsal, the two artists recorded this version. Their lack of chemistry and subpar harmony in the beginning give way to a sublime creation as Crosby sings "The Little Drummer Boy" and Bowie sings "Peace on Earth." Five years later, this version was released as a single and became an international hit.
7. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Josh Groban (2007)
Josh Groban's voice reverberates with energy in this Christmas tune as the soft vocals of a female choir add an angelic flair. There is a steady beating drum beat in the backdrop to accent his vocals. Excitement builds up to peaks of full volume high notes and bagpipes add a Celtic feel.
Groban may be hitting his marks, but unfortunately, the pop-opera star is missing emotional persuasion. He accents the song in some odd places. The tune feels a little hollow, like he's not really feeling it. Groban's version, therefore, seems to be more of an exercise in professional artistry than a channeling of the drummer boy's persona.
8. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Toby Keith (2007)
With hit country songs like "Trailerhood," "Beer for My Horses" and "Red Solo Cup," here's a guy who has spent nearly three decades cultivating an image as a cowboy and proud redneck. However, Toby Keith tones that down during this Chistmas tune and plays it straight in honor of Jesus.
Country fans particularly should appreciate the commanding quality of his voice and will likely overlook a rough spot or two, such as the transition near the mention of Mary. Although the background music is overblown, sounding almost Scottish in some portions, overall, Keith delivers a version that is decent enough that it shouldn't be discounted.
9. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Ray Charles (1985)
Hold on to your Christmas stockings and cookies because you'll either love this one or hate it, depending on your tastes in musical genres. Just when I thought I had heard rum pa pum pum in every rendering possible, Ray Charles reimagines the holiday favorite by kicking some old fashioned soul into it.
Rather than feature a prominent drum, this rendition lets brass instruments do the heavy lifting as background music. Although traditionalists may find it too idiosyncratic for their taste, Charles gets bonus points for both his creativity and for the way he totally feels this song. He ain't just singing it, folks.
The artist that many affectionately called "The Genius" was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." Among Ray Charles' many accolades was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
10. "The Little Drummer Boy" by The Temptations (1970)
There's a struggle going on in this version of "The Little Drummer Boy." The Temptations grapple with whether to paint this song flat and solemn or instead perky (with a dash of funk). They start out on a high note and use upspeak to give the phrase "me and my drum" an unusual inflection, thus drawing attention to the narrator's simple gift. Racing through the lyrics, the group conveys an unsatisfying sense that they are holding something back.
Rolling Stone magazine named The Temptations as one of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." Three songs by this Grammy Award-winning Motown quintet are among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll."
11. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Bob Dylan (2009)
Upon winning a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, Bob Dylan was described as "a singer worthy of a place beside the Greek bards, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards.... ."
In reality, the sixties counterculture icon usually can't carry a tune in a bucket, and he often mumble-sings. Dylan's performance on this song, therefore, comes as a surprise because he can be understood, and it's not simply because we already know the words.
Supplemented by hushed harmonies and accents of a snare drum, Dylan's vocals are subdued, and there's not a lot of variation to his emotional tenor. However, if his voice is fitting for any Christmas song, it would be this one. The aging folk-rocker's cover of "The Little Drummer Boy" feels like the clinically depressed version, one that actually exceeds excessively low expectations. Not everyone wants their drummer boy feeling a lot of mirth.
12. "The Little Drummer Boy" by FOR KING & COUNTRY (2017)
A frenzied, intense, and nerve-rattling experience that is neither Christmasy nor festive. That's what you get from this Grammy Award-winning Christian rock duo of Australian brothers. Slow but expectant vocals of okayish quality are punctuated by startling bursts of energy. There's a lot more than just a simple boy and his drum in this cover. Instead, it sounds like an army of half-crazed drummers running at you full force. Prepare to be overwhelmed.
13. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts (1981)
The Godmother of Punk doesn't try to spin this religious but rather emphasizes the drum part of the drummer boy in this ditty. It was released as a track on the same 1981 album as Joan Jett and The Blackhearts' hit singles, "I Love Rock 'n Roll" and "Crimson and Clover."
Jett has been called the hardest working woman in rock music, but with this holiday song, she and the band just seem to be kicking back and having a rockin' good time. Noticeably she rolls her r's and doesn't invest too much effort in her vocals. Then the group speeds up the tempo towards the end of the song, launching into a rock fest in honor of the Baby J. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-honored band goes full tilt with electric guitars—because what would Jesus do?—to deliver a performance that is memorable but not praiseworthy.
14. "The Little Drummer Boy" by Justin Bieber (featuring Busta Rhymes) (2011)
Leave it to Bieber to ruin a song in this way. His cover of "The Little Drummer Boy" is like a regifted fruitcake. You question the gift-giver's sincerity and can't wait for them to turn their head so you can toss it straight in the garbage.
Beebs delivers this disastrous rendition, chock full of noisy, clanging, mechanical sounds. He tries to be artsy in the way he draws out some of his notes to ill effect, and Busta raps some nonsense that includes references to Twitter and his Blackberry. I can picture this racquet waking up the holy infant as Mary cringes and Joseph does a slow head-shake. Then the Beebs and Busta's song just suddenly stops cold, no explanation. So strange.
It's too easy to dismiss Justin Bieber as wrong for Christmas music, however. While he didn't give "The Little Drummer Boy" the effort it deserved, his version of Silent Night is otherworldly. Bieber was discovered in 2007 when he posted his videos on YouTube, and in less than 10 years became one of the world's best-selling music artists, a Grammy Award-winner, and one of the top 10 most powerful celebrities in the world, as named by Forbes magazine.
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