Still they ring

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Times Staff Writer

On one of those brilliant winter days in Beverly Hills, the kind that obliterates the very idea of winter, let alone the familiar images of Christmastime in the city, it’s almost a leap of faith that December is upon us. And yet, along Rodeo Drive, the crystal chandeliers have been hung near the palm trees with care. The lobby of the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel is ablaze with the deep red of poinsettias. In the air, there’s a feeling of ... well, not exactly Christmas. But opulence, for sure.

In the hotel’s lounge restaurant, 89-year-old songwriter Ray Evans is eating gently scrambled eggs with ketchup, reminiscing about “Silver Bells,” the song he reluctantly wrote with his partner, the late Jay Livingston, in 1951. He loves telling the story because it’s so typically Hollywood: a major hit that no one, least of all the writers, could have predicted.

Under contract to Paramount, Livingston and Evans were less than thrilled to be assigned a Christmas song for the Bob Hope/Marilyn Maxwell picture “The Lemon Drop Kid.”


They had already won two best original song Oscars -- for “Buttons and Bows” in 1948’s “The Paleface” and for “Mona Lisa” in the 1950 film “Captain Carey, USA.” They’d get their third for the song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” which Doris Day made famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

But they hadn’t had a hit for a while, and they were certain that no new Christmas song would ever strike gold.

“We thought there was no room,” says Evans. “Who needs it?”

Defining what makes a great Christmas song great is very difficult, said veteran songwriter Marilyn Bergman, who is president and chairwoman of the board of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. The favorite songs -- the ones you hear endlessly in stores and on the radio in November and December -- are lyrically creative and, she added, “sometimes there is just something embedded in the music that says Christmas.”

“It’s daunting to think about writing another Christmas song,” said Bergman.

Which is why, when Livingston and Evans got the assignment that led to “Silver Bells,” they did what any good writers would do: They dragged their feet and whined.

“We went up front to the suits and ties, and we said, ‘Let us write something that could be popular,’ ” Livingston recalled in the liner notes of Michael Feinstein’s 2002 CD, “Livingston and Evans Songbook.”

But the movie execs, he said, “were adamant they wanted a Christmas song. So we went back to the office very unhappy about the whole idea.”


Inspired by a little bell on their desk, they grudgingly banged out the song in two days -- Livingston creating the melody, Evans the lyrics. The result, as Evans recalls, was “Tinkle Bells.” But Livingston’s wife pointed out that “tinkle” was a sound associated more with kidneys than Christmas.

“I never thought of that,” says Evans. “That’s a woman’s word. I was very unhappy because I hate to rewrite. I was always lazy.”

Again, they did what pros do: Instead of rewriting, they just swapped in “silver” for “tinkle.” And while one is tempted to say the rest is history, that’s not the case.

The film’s director, Sidney Lanfield, hated the song, says Evans. “When he shot the song, he put a bunch of singers on a riser and just shot them singing without any movement or anything. When Jay saw that, he said, ‘Boy, that song is going to get cut ‘cause it does nothing for the picture.’ ”

Luckily, the film’s producer, Robert Welch, liked the song. He brought in a second director, Frank Tashlin, whose work on the film is uncredited. Tashlin shot Hope and Maxwell singing “Silver Bells” as they traipsed through the streets of New York City.

The rest, by the way, is still not history, and would not be until Bing Crosby, who loved “the music guys,” as Evans puts it, stopped by their lunch table one day in the Paramount commissary before “The Lemon Drop Kid” was released and asked them if they had any songs for him. Crosby loved “Silver Bells” and recorded it. “That,” says Evans, “made it a definitive Christmas song.”


Getting a star like Crosby to bring your song to life “doesn’t hurt,” said Bergman. “[It] doesn’t hurt to have had Judy Garland sing it or Nat King Cole, either.” (Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Cole made “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” a holiday standard.) All of those songs are at or near the top of ASCAP’s annual list of the most-performed holiday songs. “The Christmas Song” was No. 1 this year; “Silver Bells,” No. 11. The Livingston and Evans composition has been recorded by nearly 150 artists and has sold more than 160 million copies.

William Studwell, a retired university librarian who has written extensively about Christmas music, said great songs have great melodies and great lyrics and don’t sound like anything else.

“Silver Bells,” he said, meets that criteria.

In addition, said Studwell, “Silver Bells” is distinctive because it’s an urban song. “There are no country references, no references to ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”

A golden age

As it happens, the year that Livingston and Evans reluctantly wrote their Christmas hit was near the end of what is considered the golden age of contemporary Christmas music. Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1942. In 1943, Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Mel Torme and Robert Wells famously composed “The Christmas Song” in Toluca Lake on a blazing hot summer day in 1945. In 1949, Johnny Marks turned the bestselling story by his brother-in-law, a Chicago ad man named Bob May, into “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Like most of the enduring Christmas songs from that era, “Silver Bells” was written by secular Jews. (That’s not an exclusively American phenomenon, either. In 1847, the French composer Adolphe Adam, who was Jewish, composed the music for “O Holy Night.”)

Evans is relentlessly secular. “I think religion is the worst thing that ever happened,” says Evans, who, with the exception of “Silver Bells,” isn’t much fond of Christmas carols either. “People have been killing each other over it ever since the world started.”


He doesn’t hear carols often, but he happily reports that his Benedict Canyon neighbor Kelly Lange recently returned from a trip to New York and told Evans she heard “Silver Bells” everywhere.

Evans has lived in Benedict Canyon for more than 50 years. He and his wife, Wyn, built a low-slung multilevel home with floor-to-ceiling windows and spectacular views on four hillside acres. Wyn Evans was an architecture buff whose friends included Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler. In 2002, she died at the age of 102. (It wasn’t until they’d been married 20 years that Wyn confessed to Ray she was 14 years older than he. He’d always thought they were seven years apart.)

In the carport, next to a Lexus sedan, sits the 1962 Studebaker presented to Evans when he and Livingston composed the theme song for “Mister Ed.” (Studebaker sponsored the show; Livingston sang the theme.) They also wrote the theme for “Bonanza,” but the four Cartwrights looked so goofy singing on horseback at the start of the show -- “We got a right to pick a little fight, Bo-NAN-za.” -- the lyrics were dispensed with.

But it is “Silver Bells” that proved to be the frosting on the cake for Evans and his partner, who in their 64-year collaboration wrote nearly 400 songs. This tune alone has generated millions of dollars in royalties that will continue until 2050.

“Go ahead,” says Evans, when the subject of sales comes up. “Ask me anything about it. I have no sensitivity.”

OK, then, how much money does the song generate?

He pauses to think.

“My publishing royalties, ASCAP and everything come out to close to $800,000 a year,” he says. “The ‘Silver Bells’ part of that, I would say, would be almost three-quarters.”


Evans invites a reporter down to his bedroom to check his royalty records. He thinks he may have overstated his “Silver Bells” income at lunch and wants to double-check.

“You’re sure your husband won’t mind?” he asks as he sits down on the motorized chair that allows him to avoid the strain of the staircase.

At his desk, near a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus, he opens a notebook with pages and pages of handwritten and typed figures representing income from 64 years of a fruitful songwriting partnership. The wall above his bed is hung with memorabilia from his career. A crimson silk cummerbund -- the kind a sophisticated guy might wear to a nightclub on New Year’s Eve -- dangles from a hook in his closet.

“I should have been an accountant,” Evans says with a sigh as he riffles through the papers. He pulls out the song sheet for “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues,” composed for the scene in “Sunset Boulevard” in which William Holden gets out of Gloria Swanson’s creepy mansion and runs off to a party with his studio pals. In one scene, Livingston and Evans can be glimpsed briefly at a piano, not playing “Paramount,” which was deemed too “inside,” but their hit “Buttons and Bows.”

After going over the columns of figures, dates and cumulative totals for some time, it turns out it’s not so easy to figure out exactly what “Silver Bells” is worth in dollars and cents.

And anyway, when it comes to one of the world’s most cherished Christmas songs, maybe counting change is the wrong way to measure its value. Maybe the song’s true value is not what it earns, but what it inspires.