The History of Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Eddie Cantor, a comedian from the 1930s was given a new Christmas song to sing for his radio audience in 1934. Targeted at kids, the songwriters were frustrated at their inability to get it recorded and sold. Record labels thought the appeal too narrow to be successful.

Cantor sang it live in a performance that was never recorded. The song proved such a hit it was recorded later by Tom Stacks in this memorable arrangement:

The song was written in October 1933 by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots, reportedly on a New York subway car while traveling to a music publisher’s office.

Gillespie, known for his children songwriting talent and charged with Coots to come up with a children’s tune, jotted the melody and the lyrics down on an envelope before reaching the publisher’s office.

Santa Claus is Coming To Town became the big hit of Christmas 1934 – radio audiences went wild for the song and requests for sheet music were off the charts. What followed from Cantor’s radio show would eventually make a millionaire of Haven Gillespie.

This swinging version of the song from Perry Como in the mid-1940s was another popular version of the song that keep it at the forefront of Christmas celebration into the 1950s:

Through the 1950s and 1960s the song kept coming back. It was recorded, it seemed, by nearly everyone. Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jr and scores of others took it on and made it their own. It never fell from the Christmas spotlight.

The song took on new life in 1970 when it was animated in a production by Rankin Bass by that same name became expanded version of the story of Santa Claus. The story teller in that version was Fred Astair and Kris Kringle himself was portrayed by Mickey Rooney, now a member of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame:

In recent years the heirs of the songwriters have locked horns with publishers over copyrights and royalties. It is clear to everyone that this song will forever be in the public eye as a beloved staple of the season. It is a complicated case that will no doubt earn lawyers for either side a lot of money.

The song continues to be used by major motion pictures, appearing in everything from Elf to The Santa Clause franchise by Disney and artists such as Michael Buble continue to make the song perpetually a favorite.

8 thoughts on “The History of Santa Claus is Coming to Town

  • September 24, 2015 at 12:10 pm
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    Having seen Eddie Cantor in his movies, on TV, and on radio,I really regret that there’s no recording of him singing this song. I’d love to hear his take on it! It’s too bad he didn’t make a record. (By the way, he’s also the fellow who popularized a song called “Makin’ Whoopee.”)

    Reply
  • October 4, 2015 at 11:56 pm
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    Ditto what MC said. This was an interesting piece–thanks for sharing it!

    Reply
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  • December 20, 2015 at 7:36 pm
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    Christmas is coming so merry Christmas

    Reply
  • December 12, 2016 at 12:37 am
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    I keep reading articles on the song such as this one, but none of them seem to notice a bizarre pattern in Santa Claus is Coming to Town when it crosses genres. Jazz artists typically sing the song straight. However, a pop or rock version is bound to repeat the song’s title three times each time it occurs in the lyrics. The threefold repetition seems to have originated and become popular within a few short years in the early-to-mid ’60s. Does anybody have any insight into the history of the tradition of threefold repetition?

    Reply
    • December 10, 2017 at 9:02 am
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      What I thought of when you mentioned this was the version of the song by The Crystals on Phil Spector’s famous Christmas album recorded in 1963. Maybe other artists of the time imitated that?

      Reply
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