The Story of... 'Jingle Bell Rock' by Bobby Helms

6 December 2023, 14:30

Bobby Helms recorded one of the biggest Christmas hits
Bobby Helms recorded one of the biggest Christmas hits. Picture: Get

By Tom Eames

As the Christmas season approaches, the familiar strains of 'Jingle Bell Rock' can be heard emanating from radios and shopping centre speakers.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

But how did this catchy tune, which seamlessly blends rock’n’roll with festive joy, come to be a staple of Christmas music playlists?

A favourite with American listeners for years, in recent times it has found its way into the hearts of British and European ears, mainly thanks to its use in various TV shows and films, and to its appearance in popular Spotify playlists.

The story of 'Jingle Bell Rock' dates back to 1957, when country music singer Bobby Helms was presented with the opportunity to record a new Christmas song. Despite his initial reservations about mixing the burgeoning genre of rock’n’roll with the traditional sounds of Christmas, Helms was soon swayed, and the single released by Decca Records in October of that year quickly became a beloved classic.

Over the years, 'Jingle Bell Rock' has been covered by numerous artists, further solidifying its status as a Christmas favourite.

  1. Who was Bobby Helms?

    Bobby Helms in 1957
    Bobby Helms in 1957. Picture: Getty

    Bobby Helms was an American country singer. Born Robert Lee Helms on August 15, 1933, in Bloomington, Indiana, he came from a musical family and began his career performing with his brother as The Helms Brothers, before embarking on a successful solo career.

    Helms signed with Decca Records in 1956 and achieved success with his first single 'Fraulein', which reached No. 1 on the country music chart and entered the Top 40 on the Billboard Best Sellers in Stores chart. His subsequent release 'My Special Angel' also topped the country charts and made it into the Top 10 on Billboard’s pop music chart.

    'Jingle Bell Rock', released in late autumn of 1957 and produced by Paul Cohen, became a massive hit and a Christmas classic, re-emerging in the charts for several years and achieving gold disc status.

    Helms continued to tour and record for three decades, and his contributions to the genre were recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

    He suffered from several health issues, including emphysema, asthma, diabetes, and stomach problems, and spent his later years near Martinsville, Indiana.

    Bobby Helms passed away on June 19, 1997, from complications related to emphysema.

  2. Who wrote 'Jingle Bell Rock' and how did Bobby Helms come to record it?

    Bobby Helms - Jingle Bell Rock (Official Lyric Video)

    'Jingle Bell Rock' was written by Joseph Carleton Beal and James Ross Boothe, two American songwriters who were not widely known before the song’s release.

    The song was first recorded by Bobby Helms in 1957, during a time when rock’n’roll was beginning to gain popularity.

    The story goes that Helms was initially hesitant to record 'Jingle Bell Rock' because he was primarily a country singer and the song had a distinct rock’n’roll vibe, which was a departure from his usual style.

    However, he was convinced by his record label, Decca Records, to give it a try. The session guitarist Hank Garland contributed to the song’s distinctive guitar riff, which helped to blend the country and rock’n’roll styles together.

    The recording session was a success, and 'Jingle Bell Rock' quickly became a hit, establishing itself as a Christmas classic.

  3. How did it perform in the charts?

    'Jingle Bell Rock' performed remarkably well in the charts upon its release and has continued to be a seasonal favourite.

    Bobby Helms’ original version of the song was released by Decca Records in October 1957 and quickly became a hit. It crossed over to the pop charts, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Best Sellers in Stores chart, and at No. 11 on Cashbox magazine’s Top 60 on the week ending January 11, 1958.

    The song has received frequent airplay in the United States during every Christmas season since then. Helms’ version of 'Jingle Bell Rock' has been performed by many artists over the years, but his first version from 1957 is arguably the best-known and most popular.

    The enduring popularity of 'Jingle Bell Rock' is evident in its chart performance over the years. For instance, it re-appeared in the charts in 2018, more than six decades after its original release. Its peak on the Hot 100 is currently number 3 as of 2023.

    In the UK, it didn't actually reach the top 40 at the time of release. However, since the days of streaming it regularly re-enters the chart. Its current peak is number 7 as of 2023.

  4. Who else has recorded 'Jingle Bell Rock'?

    Mean Girls | Jingle Bell Rock FULL DANCE | Paramount Movies

    In the UK, it was Max Bygraves' soundalike version that was a hit in 1959, reaching number 7.

    Some notable covers include:

    • Brenda Lee: Her version charted every year on the Billboard Top 100 since 2019.
    • Hall & Oates: They brought their own style to the classic tune.
    • The Platters: Known for their vocal harmonies, they also recorded a version.
    • 38 Special: The rock band gave the song a more modern twist.
    • The Beach Boys: Their rendition added a surf rock flavour to the holiday classic.
    • Chubby Checker & Bobby Rydell: They released a version in 1961.
    • Neil Diamond: Included the song in his holiday repertoire.
    • Randy Travis: The country singer recorded his own take on the song.
    • The Mean Girls cast: Lindsay Lohan and her castmates performed the song in a memorable moment in the film