The Little Drummer Boy

"The Little Drummer Boy" was originally a Czechoslovakian song titled "Carol of the Drum." In 1941, Massachusetts-based composer Katherine Kennicott Davis adapted English lyrics for it, but the song didn't catch on right away in the Western world. At one point it seemed doubtful it ever would. In 1955, a version was released on Decca by The Trapp Family Singers (headed by Maria von Trapp, the family was later the subject of the stage musical and film The Sound of Music). A version recorded by The Jack Halloran Singers in 1957, included on the Dot Records album Christmas is A-Comin', had an arrangement similar to the Trapp recording. Iowa-born Halloran was a composer as well as an orchestral and choral arranger for a number of major artists including Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. Perhaps he deserved a share of the soon-to-be-incredible monetary benefits of "Carol of the Drum." But fate bestowed the fortune, and fame, on someone else.

Henry Onorati, a producer for Dot at the time, was involved in Halloran's 1957 session. He and Harry Simeone were close friends and he suggested Simeone do his own version of the song. The two entered into a pact that, for lack of a more seasonally friendly term, was downright diabolical. With a few minor changes they copied the Halloran recording, going so far as to hire most of the same singers from the earlier session. The one obvious difference between the two versions is the addition of zils (small finger cymbals) on the Simeone recording to make it sound more middle eastern (for a "holy land" feel). Harry gave it a new title as well, "The Little Drummer Boy," which further obscured any relation to "Carol of the Drum," though few were familiar with it at that time. Harry and Henry's master stroke was right there on the labels of those first 45s from 1958: writer credit showed Harry Simone-Henry Onorati, which would guarantee pockets full of cash should the record hit. Besides, who knew the difference anyway...right? Releasing the song as a single, which Dot hadn't done with Halloran's record, made the difference. Radio played it, people bought it, and it was just the first of many, many Christmas seasons to come, a big ball gathering green moss as it rolled up the hill.

Harry Simeone had a solid and lengthy resumé by the late '50s. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1911, he studied classical piano at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, leaving after three years to accept a job as arranger for Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. He worked for many years in the movie industry, composing and arranging music for several films including Crosby vehicle Here Come the Waves and the murder mystery starring the charismatic team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, The Blue Dahlia. An in-demand choral director during television's infancy of the late 1940s and early '50s, he would draw on this experience effectively when Christmas came calling.

Harry Simeone

As "The Little Drummer Boy" spread like wildfire in late '58, Katherine Kennicott Davis got hep to the jive about what was going on with the writing royalties, demanding credit and a fair share of the money. Somehow Simeone and Onorati managed a deal with her to split the songwriting pie three ways, despite their minimal input. The arrangement guaranteed great wealth in the coming years for all three, though they couldn't have foreseen the magnitude of it at the time. Meanwhile, Jack Halloran got nothing beyond whatever record sales he could rustle up on his earlier version; it helped a little when a single was finally released and hit the charts in 1962. The von Trapps were even further out of the loop, as the act had broken up around 1956 when most of the various family members went into other lines of work.

"Drummer Boy" continued to grow in popularity each Christmas season for many years, receiving mass exposure through radio play and TV performances, with Simeone the recipient of the largest percentage of sales. It returned to the top 30 each year through 1962, then spent more than its share of time at number one on Billboard's yearly Christmas charts starting in '63. Other popular versions include a 1959 hit by Johnny Cash, followed by Johnny Mathis in '63, Joan Baez in '66 and notable 1967 releases by Lou Rawls and Kenny Burrell (the latter a jazz instrumental set to a Ravel's "Bolero" beat). More than 200 versions have been released by all types of artists through the years. TV exposure kept the song's popularity rolling as well. An episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show aired on December 18, 1963, featuring a Christmas-show-within-a-show; Larry Mathews (as Richie Petrie) had a spotlight performance of the song, seen by a large audience at the time and in reruns. On December 19, 1968, The Little Drummer Boy was presented as a half-hour animated special narrated by Greer Garson and featuring the voices of Jose Ferrer, Paul Frees, June Foray and Teddy Eccles as the title character.

Simeone cemented his connection with Christmas in the decade after his unexpectedly triumphant hit. In 1962, Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne composed "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and Harry, with his Chorale, was first to get it on the market. A year later, Bing Crosby's definitive version became the hit and a long-lasting classic to boot, and Andy Williams released a much-loved rendition two years later. Harry Simeone's next seasonal project was an album for the Kapp label in 1964, featuring Christmas chart hit "O' Bambino (One Cold and Blessed Winter)," written by fellow Jerseyan Anthony Velona and Italian singer-songwriter Remo Capra. Still, decades later, it's "The Little Drummer Boy" that has us all humming 'pa-rum-pum-pum-pum' for a month out of every year, whether or not we realize we're doing it.

- Michael Jack Kirby


The Little Drummer Boy