“If it weren’t for this song, I would probably be long gone,” Philip Springer admits. “Its success is what kept me alive.”
Springer’s “Santa Baby,” first released in 1953, remains one of the United States’ most famous Christmas hits. Springer is Jewish and an emphatic Zionist – his middle name is Pesach – but he has loved Christmas since he was a child.
“As opposed to Easter, which is a holiday with clear Christian religious significance, for me, Christmas is a far less religious holiday and far more of a civil holiday,” he says. “It’s a holiday where everyone exchanges presents, who doesn’t like presents? Jews give presents too, but we call it Hanukkah.”
Springer, 95, is alert, lucid, malicious and friendly all at once. He has composed songs for a bevy of famous singers, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, to name a few. “Without music I have no life,” he says. “Nothing interests me except music.”
Springer isn’t the only Jewish musician to write a famous Christmas song. Singer Mel Torme was among the composers of “The Christmas Song;” Sammy Cahn wrote “Let It Snow;” Eddie Pola and George Wyle wrote “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas.”
Springer wrote “Santa Baby” with Joan Javitz at the request of a production company looking for a Christmas song for singer and actress Eartha Kitt. It was the most played Christmas song in the U.S. in the year of its release. Later, it topped the singles charts in many countries, including England, Canada and France.
It stood out among the saccharine melodies and jingle bells ringing in the background of traditional Christmas songs. “Santa Baby” sounds more like a tune from a cabaret show than a traditional carol. Kitt’s seductive voice croons out a sensual melody, asking Santa for a list of lavish gifts – from a convertible sports car to a duplex. “Think of all the fun I’ve missed/ Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed,” she sings. The song infuriated quite a few people in the conservative South. Several radio stations boycotted it over what they saw as a challenge to the traditional holiday spirit.
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Innumerable cover versions have been recorded, including those by pop goddess Kylie Minogue, The Pussycat Dolls, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Gwen Stefani. “Anyone can record a new cover version, as long as she doesn’t change the melody or the words. I don’t agree to that under any circumstances,” stresses Springer, who owns the rights to the song.
‘I almost fainted’
Madonna’s 1987 cover version rebooted the song’s popularity. “One of the producers called and said that there’s a huge star who wants to do a cover version on the song, but only on condition that I agree to waive the royalties and donate the revenues from the new rendition to charity,” he recalls. Springer asked who the star was, but the producers refused to reveal her identity until he agreed to waive the royalties. Springer agreed immediately. “When they told me it was Madonna I almost fainted,” he says. “She was the greatest thing in pop music at the time, and actually, still is to this day.”
He didn’t meet Madonna, but “her rendition brought the song back to life,” he says. “Without it I wouldn’t have been able to support my family. Suddenly everyone wanted to perform the song again. Suddenly, two years later, it starred in the film ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ Madonna turned the song into one that every female singer who considered herself great wanted to perform.”
Still, he isn’t satisfied with her rendition. “When I heard it for the first time I was extremely disappointed. I expected her to give the song a meaning of her own, instead she tried to imitate Marilyn Monroe in her rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for President John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Garden. After all, she was the queen of pop of that period and I hoped that she would perform the song in the style that she was so identified with.” He’s not impressed with the other versions either. “Kylie Minogue’s rendition is all right. So are Taylor Swift’s and Ariana Grande’s. But in the final analysis, as far as I’m concerned, no rendition can be as moving as Eartha Kitt’s.”
It took him 10 minutes to write the melody. It took three weeks until he and Javits finished writing the lyrics. “When the song was ready I was ashamed of it,” he recalls. “I was sure that the melody was too simple, not to say simplistic. When I submitted it to the musical producer I apologized for the mediocre version but he said ‘What are you talking about, it’s an excellent piece of work.’ At first I didn’t believe him, I thought he was trying to be nice, but of course he was right.”
When asked about the secret of the song’s success he evades an answer with mixture of assertiveness and humor. “My lawyer doesn’t allow me to answer such questions,” he says. “What gives the song its meaning is the lyrics. There’s no such thing as some kind of holiday melody, the melody can be pretty or not, it’s the lyrics that turn it into a holiday song.”
“I knew that Kitt wasn’t a real singer, she was a nightclub star, that’s why I didn’t want to write a complicated song for her. I knew that a song whose melody would be more than one octave, eight notes, would be something that she couldn’t do. That’s what guided me when I wrote the melody.”
A new musical
Springer was born in New York, in 1926. His father was a lawyer and his mother a pianist. After high school he enlisted in the army during World War II, serving as a truck driver and later as the musical producer of the army radio station that broadcast to American soldiers serving in Germany. He earned his doctorate in musical composition from the University of California Los Angeles, started an independent production company, Tamir, and composed songs for TV shows, films and musicals. Among the songs he wrote are “Never Ending” for Elvis Presley, “Her Little Heart Went to Loveland” for Aretha Franklin and “How Little We Know” for Frank Sinatra. “[Sinatra’s] rendition became one of the most successful songs of that year and gave his career a big push,” he says.
Recently, Springer finished writing a musical. “It’s called ‘The London I Remember’ and it’s based on a 1930s play that was a total failure,” he recounts. “It’s a story about an affair between an American soldier stationed in London during World War I and a prostitute.” He sent the musical to 30 producers, mainly in England and Wales. “One producer got back to me. The others probably won’t bother to read it.”
In recent years he has been living with his wife Judith in Los Angeles, near his daughter Tamar, who also manages his public relations, but he misses New York. “Los Angeles is its complete opposite,” he says. “The best show you’ll find in New York is the people in the streets. It’s a city where everyone walks from one place to another, that’s what’s so nice about it. In Los Angeles nobody walks in the streets, everyone drives from place to place.”
Recalling New York’s Fifth Avenue, he enthusiastically starts to sing a line from a song he wrote – “You’ll never know how much happiness is in you until you walk back and forth on Fifth Avenue.” His voice cracks with longing for the city that his advanced age has kept him from visiting for many years.