Nuttin' For Christmas

Saint Nick's tedious yearly routine of '...makin' a list and checkin' it twice...' to '...find out who's naughty or nice' (as suggested in songwriters John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a seasonal standard since its debut in the mid-1930s) brought attention, if only marginally, to the idea of excluding a portion of the world's children from receiving presents each year, thus lightening the load of Santa's regularly-scheduled but hotly-debated global commitment. This concept of punishing juvenile miscreants at Christmastime was further explored in 1956 by Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett, the composers of "Nuttin' For Christmas," a song intended as a humorous novelty (that nevertheless loosely borrowed from part of the tune of "Vive La Compagnie," a French song from the 19th century). Yet if someone unfamiliar with any recorded version happened to read the lyrics ('...Mommy and Daddy are mad...I'm gettin' nuttin' for Christmas, 'cause I ain't been nuttin' but bad!'), he or she might be appalled that a child would admit to such shenanigans: 'I put a tack on teacher's chair....I tied a knot in Susie's hair...I hid a frog in sister's bed...I broke my BAT on Johnny's HEAD' (harmless enough pranks, I suppose...except for that last one). Several versions of the song were released in late '56, five of which reached the sales charts, four of them playing the "cuteness" angle to the hilt so as not to deter sales while the fifth embraced the song's darker implication.

Art Mooney, a saxophonist from Lowell, Massachusetts who organized his first band in Detroit around 1936, put his career on hold to serve his country during World War II, then started a new band in 1945 that, at various times, featured singers Fran Warren and Jane Morgan, vocal groups The Galli Sisters and The Four Clovers, country singer Tex Fletcher and others. Signed to MGM Records, after a couple of years he jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon (a trend initiated by Ted Weems' chart-topping 1947 reissue of the 14-year-old "Heartaches"). Art hit number one in early 1948 with "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover," revivng a late-1920s tune made popular by Nick Lucas, whose banjo style was replicated in Mooney's hit by Mike Pingitore (whose first-hand experience included a run as Paul Whiteman's banjoist during the '20s). Two more remakes, both top ten hits in '48, made Mooney one of the best-selling acts of the year. "Baby Face" (a '20s tune used as the theme for the 1933 film with the same title starring Barbara Stanwyck) and the mid-'30s standard "Blue Bird of Happiness" had purposely old-fashioned arrangements; the latter ballad even featured a schmaltzy spoken interlude by Art himself. For several years afterwards, Mooney was a reliable hitmaker for MGM. He also recorded a series of Vogue "Picture Record" 78s that have been favorites of collectors for decades.

Barry Gordon, coincidentally, was born in Massachusetts in 1948 during 37-year-old bandleader Mooney's heyday. His family moved from the Boston area to Albany, New York when Barry was a baby and at the age of three the tyke charmed listeners of Ted Mack's Amateur Hour radio series, thus launching one of the longest showbiz careers on the books. In 1955 he crossed paths with Mooney, whose "Honey-Babe" (from the war movie Battle Cry), a chant heard during Army marches, had just become Art's first top ten hit in nearly seven years. They recorded "Nuttin' For Christmas," with six-year-old Barry's innocent (and somewhat indecipherable) reading of the lyrics ('I did a dance on Mommy's plants...filled that sugar bowl with ants...'). Released in November, it got the jump on several cover versions.

Columbia released a "Children's Series" version ("(I'm Gettin')" added to the title) by ten-year-old Ricky Zahnd (with Tony Mottola's orchestra and an adult chorus, The Blue Jeaners, giving the song a cartoonish feel). King Records' entry (respelled "Nuttin For Xmas") came from eight-year-old Joe Ward, a regular panelist on NBC's Juvenile Jury hosted by Jack Barry. The more experienced Ward (his grandfather, Joe, Sr., had performed in vaudeville) delivered his lines in a puckish manner, resulting in more of a "tough-kid" sound; lines like 'I made Tommy eat a bug...bought some gum with a penny slug...' came across with "juvenuile delinquent" overtones and each time he said the song's often-repeated line "Somebody snitched on me," you believed he wanted to get revenge on the little rat (Johnny? Tommy? Susie? Sister? Teacher?). These three recordings competed for airtime with an adults-passing-as-kids rendition by The Fontane Sisters. All four versions were in the top 40 by Christmas, with the Gordon/Mooney version leading them all in the top ten.

One other version, by pessimistic parodist Stan Freberg ("vocal with Burglar" backed by Billy May's orchestra), hit the charts in '55. Stan's delivery was tongue-in-cheek, with a snarky, high-pitched tone and pauses in unusual other words, your usual Freberg record. At the end, burglar Daws Butler comes down the chimney to steal the silverware, in cahoots with the kid, who gets a cut of the proceeds...and the two sing the chorus together. Non-charting covers include a country retelling by Homer and Jethro from the parents' point-of-view ("Johnny is a little brat...I'm-a gonna tan his hide...') and another chapter in Eartha Kitt's sultry "Santa Baby" series begun two years earlier ('I'm getting nothin' for Christmas...'cause I didn't wanna be bad'). In 1959, the blandest version was issued on Bigtop by puppets Kenny and Corky, speeded up to sound like a Chipmunks record...without the humor.

Art Mooney, Barry Gordon

Covering popular film themes ("Giant," "March from the River Kwai and Colonel Bogey") kept Mooney on the charts a few more years. He parted ways with MGM in 1960, then bounced from label to label for awhile, continuing to perform in clubs on a regular basis until he retired in the 1980s. Barry Gordon charted again with an early '56 single backed by Mooney's orchestra and The Ray Charles Singers; "Rock Around Mother Goose" consisted of passages from fairy tales ("Mary Had a Little Lamb," "London Bridge is Falling Down" and "Hickory Dickory Dock") with rock and roll slang ('...the lamb hollered go, go, go!') thrown in for effect. Other MGM singles covered childish topics ("I Can't Whistle," "10 Years to Go (3 Feet to Grow, Gee But the Time is Passing Slow, Blues)") and a '56 seasonal follow-up ("I Like Christmas (I Like It, I Like It)"). On each of these records he sounded about half his actual age.

Acting was the preferred career choice, as Barry made his first of hundreds of television and film appearances. A small part on an episode of The Danny Thomas Show was followed by a funny bit as a paperboy in the all-star rock and roll flick starring Jayne Mansfield, The Girl Can't Help It. A familiar face in the coming years, his resumé includes appearances on The Ann Sothern Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Jerry Lewis comedy Cinderfella and an episode of The Jack Benny Program where he played Jack as a kid. As a singer he moved to Era Records in '58, doing teen-oriented material starting with "They," but the nine-year-old had a hard time pulling it off. As he neared his teens in the early '60s, vocals improved noticeably on singles for Mercury ("She's Got Soul") and Cadence ("You Can't Lie to a Liar"). Meanwhile, Broadway critics praised his performance in the 1962 stage play A Thousand Clowns. He received a Tony nomination (Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play) and later reprised the role of Jason Robards' son in the 1965 film version.

From 1964 to '66, United Artists Records made missteps in trying to market him as a teen idol with remakes of songs like "Sealed With a Kiss" and "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." Efforts for the Dunhill and ABC labels in '67 and '68 were a different story altogether; as his teens were coming to an end, Barry sounded mature and confident on songs like "Angelica" and his own composition, "You Can't Love a Child Like a Woman." For all his efforts, Barry's first two MGM singles in the '50s were the only ones to reach the music charts. Acting assignments piled up, though, and included ongoing roles in three comedy series: The New Dick Van Dyke Show from 1973 to '74, Fish (a Barney Miller spinoff starring Abe Vigoda) in 1977 and '78 and Archie Bunker's Place from 1981 to '83. Many movie and TV appearances have kept him busy in a career spanning more than 65 years, seven of those as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

"Nuttin' For Christmas," that cruel-to-be-funny novelty hit from 1955, rears its mischievous head every so often as newer versions are foisted upon the public. An addendum missing from the Art Mooney/Barry Gordon recording can be found in many others: 'Next year I'll being going year I'll be good, just wait...I'd start now but it's too late...somebody SNITCHED on me!' And a moral can be found in many recordings as well, one best heeded by kids trying to work the angles: 'So you better be good, whatever you do...'cause if you're bad, I'm warning'll get NUTTIN' for Christmas!'

- Michael Jack Kirby


Nuttin' For Christmas