During the holidays, radio listeners around the nation get their fill of pop tunes about Santa, reindeer and Grandma, in no particular order. Secular holiday music with a rock-and-roll beat is so ubiquitous now that it’s hard to imagine the season without it. But in 1957, Decca Records producer Paul Cohen went out on a limb in releasing a Christmas single by a chart-topping Hoosier.
Bobby Helms was already getting plenty of play on both country and pop stations with the hits “Fraulein” and “My Special Angel” when Decca rolled out “Jingle Bell Rock.” Debuting December 23 rd, 1957 the novelty song captured the #6 slot on the pop charts that year. Along with two other Christmas records, the perennial favorite is credited with having made the most separate appearances in the Billboard Hot 100 during the rock era, charting again in four of the five years that followed.
Bobby Helms’ recording career had started in his own backyard. Born in Bloomington in 1933, Helms started singing early with his father Fred’s outfit, the Monroe County Jamboree; regrouping with guitarist brother Freddie as the Helms Brothers. The nine-year-old Bobby performed live on two daily radio programs broadcast on WTTS. By the time he was 18, Bobby had regular appearances on the local TV program Hayloft Frolic . Airing first in 1952, the WTTV production became the most popular county music show in the state; second favorite in the whole Midwest region. The program proved to be a launching pad for Helms, who was invited to perform on Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree in Nashville, Tennessee. Helms was signed to Decca soon thereafter.
In 1958, Helms made the country charts with “Just a Little Lonesome” and “Jacqueline,” but never again dominated the hit parade as he had the previous year. Appearing with a patch over his right eye in later years, Helms continued to tour and record for a number of other labels until he was sidelined by emphysema and asthma. After his death in 1997, Helms was buried in Martinsville’s Hilldale Cemetery. On a stone emblazoned with a pair of guitars, the rocker’s epitaph reads “Here Lies a Legend: Mr. Jingle Bell Rock.” Helms’ signature single has sold more than 120 million copies worldwide.
You can find more information about Bobby Helms at Hill Billy Music.com.