“Write me something for Christmas — a novelty.”
— Leo Feist, publisher, to J. Fred Coots
“Let’s keep the home fires burning, let’s give without a pause, let’s prove to those less fortunate that there is a Santa Claus.”
— Eddie Cantor’s 1934 version
Among the 10 highest grossing songs of all time, there are three Christmas standards: “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” The latter has been recorded more than 200 times. Among the artists who have put out versions are Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Mariah Carey, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, and most famously, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Bublé.
The song was written in 1934 when publisher Leo Feist went to composer J. Fred Coots and lyricist Haven Gillespie, and asked them to pen some Christmas fluff. Coots composed more than a dozen Broadway musicals, and Gillespie — often his writing partner — gave the lyrics to several popular hits of the day.
The song was soon seen by radio star Eddie Cantor, and in November of 1934, in the midst of the depression, Cantor sang a modified version on his radio show, in which he changed some of the lyrics to fit the financial distress of the day. Within 24 hours of the program, the publishing company had orders for 500,000 copies of the sheet music and 30,000 records. A hit was born.
As any song does, popularity began to wane over time, but the song received a perpetual boost when Bing Crosby hit the Billboard charts with it in 1947, the Four Seasons did the same in 1962, and then Rankin-Bass produced, in 1970, an hour-long Christmas special starring Fred Astaire that continues to air on TV to this day. (In fact, it’ll be on Freeform tomorrow at 2:25, and on ABC on Christmas Eve at 9 p.m.)
Late in Coots’ life (he died in 1985 at the age of 87), he decided to sell the performance rights to the song to EMI Feist Catalog, Inc. in order to generate some immediate income for his children and grandchildren. Feist was to have those rights for a period of time and then, before the song slid into the public domain, they would revert to Coots’ heirs. The problem was that there was some ambiguity on when that reversion would occur.
In 2011, Coots’ daughter, Gloria Coots Baldwin, brought a lawsuit against Feist claiming that the rights agreement was to expire in 2016. Feist argued that it was in effect until 2029. The trial court ruled in favor of Feist, the appellate court ruled in favor of Ms. Baldwin, and good ol’ Santa Claus made his way all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Justices could have weighed in on the dispute, but they likely knew that Santa was makin’ a list, and checkin’ it twice, and that he was going to find out who was naughty and nice. Not wanting him to come to Washington and catch them crying and pouting, they declined to disturb the lower could ruling and instead left the appellate court decision in favor of Mr. Coots’ relatives in place. And their timing was excellent. The Michael Bublé version has hit No. 8 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart, and #35 on the holiday chart. For the last several years, the royalties for that have been rolling in to the Coots family. As such, while I hope you’ve been spared exposure to Wham! this December, you can listen to any of the 200 versions of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” secure in the knowledge that the royalties are going to the composer.
May you and your families have a joyous Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, and a healthy and prosperous new year!
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.