'Santa Baby' at 65: Songwriter Philip Springer on the History of His Christmas Classic
When Lindsey Stirling was putting together her debut holiday album Warmer in the Winter, she was trying to cover all of her bases. “I wanted there to be lots of different flavors of Christmas music,” she explains. “I had some that are big band style and I hired real big band musicians to play them. Other songs have full orchestration, like the more spiritual tracks. And, of course, I wanted to throw in a little bit of sassy Christmas flavor too.” For the latter category, the choice of what to cover was clear. “There’s no song that does it like ‘Santa Baby.’ It’s a little sassy, it has a little edge to it. It’s a harmless, classic, sexy Christmas song.”
Stirling isn’t alone in her love of “Santa Baby,” which is celebrating its 65th anniversary in 2018. A Christmas standard originally recorded by Eartha Kitt in 1953, the track has become one of the most recognizable non-traditional yuletide recordings in the genre. While Kitt’s original is currently charting on both Billboard’s 2018 Holiday Digital and Holiday Streaming charts (peaking at No. 11 and No. 6 so far this year), the song has spawned a plethora of covers by the biggest female names in music, whether pop interpretations from Madonna, Ariana Grande, Kylie Minogue or Gwen Stefani or a country rendition courtesy Taylor Swift. Michael Buble also covered it for his hit 2011 album Christmas, personalizing the lyrics by asking for Canucks tickets and a Mercedes. Even The Muppets' Miss Piggy has a place in “Santa Baby” lore, with her version naturally including the line “Think of all the froggies I haven’t kissed.”
It’s a dizzying number of artists for even the song’s writer, Phil Springer. “I can’t even keep track,” the now 92-year-old Springer told Billboard from his Los Angeles-area home. “When we first wrote it, I never had any idea that it’d have this kind of popularity.” In fact, when Springer initially submitted his draft of “Santa Baby,” co-written with Joan Javits, he apologized. “I said it wasn’t one of my greatest melodies, but it was the best I could do. The publisher said, ‘Phil, it’s great.’ I had no idea. Only time has proven to me they were right.”
How “Santa Baby” became a Christmas classic involves multiple generations of flukes, a variety of music’s major players and a dash of controversy that all stemmed from a chance meeting back in 1950. At the time, Springer had a minor hit under his belt thanks to the success of “Teasin’” courtesy big band singer Connie Haynes, and was playing piano in the resort community of Nantucket, Massachusetts when an older couple approached him. “They knew I wrote ‘Teasin'' so they wanted advice for their daughter Joan who wanted to be a lyric writer. They said, ‘Would you recommend that as a career for someone who went to Vassar and has no connection to the pop industry?'" Springer replied he thought it’d be best for her to stay out of the music industry (“I said, ‘If your daughter goes to the Brill Building and starts writing songs, she’s going to be chased around 100 desks by producers'") and promptly forgot about Joan.
Fast forward three years later. “I was looking for a new lyric writer, so I asked someone who had a lot of contacts and they suggested Joan Javits, the exact person who I suggested stay out of the industry!” Intrigued to hear her name again, Springer phoned Javits, but she brushed him off. “She said she was too busy. I asked her if she had ever written a hit and she said hadn’t, so I said, ‘l have. Are you going to tell me that you refuse to write songs with a songwriter who’s done more than you in the business?’” With that, Javits met up at Springer’s Manhattan apartment on East 61st Street that night and the two immediately hit it off, penning three songs.
Two weeks later, Javits caught wind from RCA Victor Records’ Charles Gerhardt that the then-Broadway star Eartha Kitt was looking to record a Christmas song. Luckily, Javits had a new collaborator to bounce ideas off of. “We were all sitting in the office at the Brill Building and we were wondering what kind of a song could we write for Eartha Kitt,” says Springer. “Suddenly, Joan jumped up and said ‘Santa Baby!’ and we all hit the ceiling. We knew that was right and that was how the song started. It just popped into her mind. We thought it was a wonderful title.” From there, to avoid the noise of the famed Brill Building (with a piano famously clanging in every office and competing music filling the hallways), Springer and Javits hopped in a cab back to his apartment. “Within 10 minutes I had written all of the music and Joan had penned a few of the lines.”
With both the concept and structure of the song in place, Springer brought the promising track back to Gerhardt who then put Javits and Springer back in a cab, this time to play for the then-head of Victor Records, Joe Carlton. “I don’t know if you know the word flipped, but he flipped (and knew it was going to be a hit).” After that, RCA Victor arranger Henry René worked on the track with Kitt; it was René who added its now instantly recognizable “Ba-booms,” and a classic was born.
Upon its release in 1953, “Santa Baby” became the breakout of the holiday season and the top selling Christmas song of the year, in part because of the chatter that swirled around it. “Quite a number of people were upset because it was the first sexy Christmas record,” remembers Springer of its tawdry lyrics during the prim-and-proper early '50s, with some stations going so far as to outright ban it from airplay. One such occasion of outrage is documented in the Nov. 28, 1953 issue of Billboard under the headline "Santa Baby Performance for Royalty Creates a Fuss":
“A royal hassle nearly broke out this week involving the King and Queen of Greece, thrush Eartha Kitt and the new Christmas tune ‘Santa Baby’... Some of the politicos (at a Civic banquet Kitt performed at) felt the song was too adult for royalty and made their feelings known before newspapermen who happened to be in attendance.”
By fall 1954, RCA Victor Records, looking to capitalize on the success of their yuletide breakout, released a variety of different versions of “Santa Baby,” all with different lyrics. According to Springer, the avalanche of cash-in tracks sullied the Kitt original and watered down the license in subsequent years. It wasn't until more than three decades later, in 1987, when the song would enjoy a second coming. “I remember someone at A&M Records called me and said there was a major star who wanted to record ‘Santa Baby,’ but she’s giving up her royalties to charity and will only record it if you do the same. I said, ‘Who’s the star?’ They said that they were not going to tell me until I answered yes or no. So, I thought for about eight seconds and said, ‘I will not take any royalties. Who’s the star?’ It was Madonna, and of course I fell down on the floor.” The exposure of the Madonna cover, released to benefit the Special Olympics, helped reintroduce it to a brand-new generation. “That was about the best news you can have. It began the revival of ‘Santa Baby’ to where it is now.”
Throughout his career, Springer’s written a multitude of other hit songs for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin besides his yuletide hit, but “Santa Baby” is the cornerstone of his career. “It became a very important copyright after Madonna and every year hundreds of singers and shows want to use it,” says Springer who, with the help of his daughter Tamir, handles song licensing, clearing for covers and use in shows ranging from The Sopranos, The Simpsons, and Pose earlier this year. “It’s an amazing song and I never had any idea that it’d have this kind of popularity.”
With an iconic career under his belt, that’s not to say Springer, who at age 92 recently released the devotional track “Turn, Turn To Him,” is ready to call it a day just yet. “I feel the stuff I write still has standard potential even though the current market has no recognition of the golden age of songs. Regardless, I think I’m writing as good now as I did in the ‘50s. I’ve been very blessed to still be as active as I am.”