Jimmy Boyd, a singer best known for recording the Christmas novelty hit “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in 1952 when he was 13, died Saturday. He was 70.
Boyd, who also was a child actor, died of cancer at a Santa Monica convalescent hospital, said Eleanor Pillsbury, a longtime friend.
Three weeks after the yuletide kiss-and-tell was released, the song was No. 1 on the Billboard charts. It sold 2 million records in less than 10 weeks.
Tens of millions of copies of the much-covered song written by Tommie Connors have been sold over the decades, according to the Allmusic online database.
It has been interpreted by such artists as the Jackson 5, John Mellencamp and Amy Winehouse. Molly Bee was also 13 when she later had a hit warbling about the unlikely pair kissing “underneath the mistletoe last night.” Bee died last month at 69.
Although it came to be regarded as a holiday classic, the ditty about a child who can’t understand why Mommy is cheating on Daddy with Santa Claus caused controversy in some quarters when the original featuring Boyd’s childish treble was released.
The Catholic Church condemned the song for implying even a tenuous link between sex and the religious holiday, and radio stations in several markets banned it. The ban was lifted after the 13-year-old Boyd appeared before church leaders to talk about the lyrics.
Recorded at the urging of Columbia record executive Mitch Miller, the tune made “something of an overnight national musical figure” of the vocalist, a “freckle-patch” who lived in Van Nuys, Time magazine reported in 1952.
Lyrics such as “She didn’t see me creep/Down the stairs to have a peep” weren’t “quite up to the title-line,” the magazine huffed. Even the young singer was surprised by the song’s success.
“I like it personally,” Boyd told Time, “but I didn’t think anyone would buy it.”
He was born dirt-poor in a shack in McComb, Miss., on Jan. 9, 1939, to Leslie and Winnie Boyd. His father, Leslie, was a carpenter from a big musical family -- Boyd’s grandfather was known in Mississippi as Fiddler Bill and had 21 children, Pillsbury confirmed.
At 4, Boyd started playing the guitar. He grew up on a ranch near the San Fernando Valley. While at a country-western dance in a Colton barn, the 7-year-old was called on stage to sing with Texas Jim Lewis’ troupe. Boyd was soon regularly appearing with the band in shows that were broadcast on the radio.
After winning a talent contest on KLAC-TV Channel 13, Boyd appeared on “The Frank Sinatra Show” and was signed to a recording contract with Columbia. His first recording success was with a country song, "(The Angels Are Lighting) God’s Little Candles.”
His recording career essentially lasted until 1967 and encompassed such hits as “Dennis the Menace,” sung with Rosemary Clooney, and several duets with Frankie Laine, including “The Little Boy and the Old Man,” “Poor Little Piggy Bank” and “Tell Me a Story.”
On television, Boyd made several appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the early 1950s and moved into acting. From 1958 to 1961, he portrayed Howard Meechim, the high school boyfriend on “Bachelor Father,” a sitcom that starred John Forsythe and Noreen Corcoran. He also played the teenage nephew of Betty White’s character on “Date with the Angels,” a late-1950s sitcom.
In 1960, Boyd appeared as a biology student in “Inherit the Wind” with Spencer Tracy and, the same year, married Yvonne Craig, an actress he met while making the Bing Crosby film “High Time.” Craig would go on to play Batgirl in the 1960s TV series " Batman.” Their marriage ended after two years.
Soon after marrying, Boyd was drafted into the Army and later performed in two USO shows in Vietnam. For several years, he toured the U.S. in his own music and comedy show.
He was an avid tennis player until he discovered sailing, Pillsbury said, and for years lived in Marina del Rey on a sailboat he named Unplugged.
He is survived by a son, Devon James Boyd, 28.