In the run-up to Christmas we are repeating this series about Christmas songs by Jewish writers, which was first published in December 2021.
THE writers of Silver Bells, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, were responsible for a number of songs now considered to be classics, and have been described as ‘the last of the great songwriters of Hollywood’, but their names are no longer as well known as others.
Jay Livingston was born Jacob Harold Levison in1915 to Jewish parents in McDonald, Pennsylvania. He learned to play the piano and went to the University of Pennsylvania (often known as ‘Penn’) in Philadelphia, where he played in the student dance band, The Continentals. Another student in the band was clarinet player Ray Evans, also born in 1915, to a Jewish family in Salamanca, New York.
The two started writing novelty songs together and after graduation they sought a career as a songwriting team in New York. Their break came in 1939 when a song was accepted for the Broadway revue Hellzapoppin’.
In 1945 Livingston and Evans moved to Hollywood to write film music for Paramount. From 1947 onwards they wrote all the material for Bob Hope’s personal appearances, and Silver Bells was for Hope’s 1951 film The Lemon Drop Kid. Before the film was releasedthe song was recorded by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards. It became so popular that Livingston and Evans were called back to shoot a more elaborate version for the film. (The song’s original name was Tinkle Bells but Livingston’s wife was more worldly-wise than the writers and suggested they change it.)
This is the scene in the film:
And this is the Crosby/Richards version.
There are dozens more recordings but this is my favourite, by the mother-and-daughter duo the Judds.
Livingston and Evans had a very successful career, winning three Oscars for Best Original Song. The first was Buttons and Bows from the 1948 film The Paleface. Here it is performed by Dinah Shore.
In 1950 their winning song was Mona Lisa written for the movie Captain Carey, U.S.A. The most familiar version is by Nat King Cole,
but I am very keen on this 1983 performance by Jerry Lee Lewis.
In 1956 they won an Oscar for Que Sera, Sera from the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much.
They also wrote Tammy for the movie Tammy and the Bachelor in 1957. This was a childhood favourite of mine.
Their TV credits include the theme for Bonanza, which ran from 1959 to 1973,
and for Mr Ed (1961-66). The singer is Jay Livingston himself.
He and Evans appear in the New Year’s Eve party scene in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard (right at the end of this clip).
In retirement both lived in Los Angeles, where Livingston died in 2001 aged 86, and Evans in 2007, aged 92. Both are buried in Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery.