The ‘Quiet Ecstasy’ of Harry Simeone’s ‘Little Drummer Boy’

By David McGee

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There’s a quiet ecstasy about this splendid recording. As you listen to it there grows within you, wondrously, a feeling of great peace.

A glorious pageant of sound and song unfolds before you—and suddenly you are following the Christmas star on the night long ago in history, which began the greatest story ever told.

Every human emotion of that ever-to-be-remembered miracle is expressed in these beautiful carols, some of which were written in the fifteenth century and are presented here for the first time. The repertoire and musical sequence, arrangements and orchestra and voice transitions, the brass choir and the stirring sound of the twenty-five voices of the Harry Simeone Chorale are all woven into a magnificent production, which achieves a new high in recorded music and is unlikely to be duplicated.

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Despite the obvious hyperbole of the sentence immediately preceding this one, the liner notes for the original release of the Harry Simeone Chorale’s enduring Yuletide album The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival are right on the money. Arguably the most underrated and overlooked of all Christmas albums, owing to the overarching popularity and ubiquity of its title track, the Chorale’s long-player is a concept album telling the story-in-song of the emotions—from jubilant to solemn—of various players in the Christmas story, as the Star in the East lights the way to the lowly manager where He lay in swaddling clothes protected by his parents and the manger’s full-time residents, the lowing animals.

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Despite its overwhelming popularity, the album’s classic hit single is positioned deep in the narrative, as producer Simeone maintained the integrity of the storyline by placing it not at the beginning of side one, where it might have been expected to be in that era, but as the second song on side two, the nineteenth track among a total of 31, following “O Holy Night.” The album begins with a buoyant Simeone arrangement of the album’s theme song, the traditional French carol “Sing We Now of Christmas,” pared down to its opening phrase—“Sing we now of Christmas, Noel, sing we here!”–and refrain—“Sing we Noel, the King is born, Noel!”—repeated in variations of those lyrics by exuberant, cascading male and female voices augmented by rapturous chimes and booming, brassy orchestral flourishes. From there the story moves to a soft, reverent treatment of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” with a high female soprano keening over it all, and on to “Away In a Manger,” “What Child is This,” “Joy to the World,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Good King Wenceslas” (savvy song selection by Simeone here to bring in a real character not normally included in The Christmas Story but whose experience in aiding a poor peasant on the day after Christmas transformed him from a mere Duke of Bohemia into the patron saint of the Czech Republic—see “How Wenceslas Became The Good King” in the Christmas 2012 issue of our sister publication, TheBluegrassSpecial.com),” “We Three Kings,” a verse of the 15th century Spanish Nativity song “Villancico,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Bring a Torch, Isabella,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Deck the Halls,” “Christian Men Rejoice,” William Morris’s 19th century Christmas carol “Masters In the Hall,” and, closing the first side, a verse of “O Tannenbaum.” (Simeone uses several songs in one-verse form only, almost as expositional devices, before returning to the main narrative.) From the Gospel of Luke, spoken verses of the Christmas story provide between-song transitions as the story progresses.

‘Sing We Now of Christmas/Angels We Have Heard on High,’ the first track from The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival

On side two a snippet of “Sing We Now of Christmas” precedes the reading of Luke 1:42–“Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”—before a female soprano delivers an emotional reading of “O Holy Night,” in an arrangement featuring little more than a soft, delicate harp supporting her. Then comes the star of the show in “Little Drummer Boy,” the tale of a young lad so poor his only gift for the Christ child is his drum, played as best he could, which in turns earns him a smile from the babe; then, in order, “Coventry Carol,” “Rise Up Shepherds,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Come Little Children,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High” (one verse), “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night,” “The First Noel,” “The Friendly Beasts,” “Silent Night,” “Adeste Fideles” and a closing Simeone-penned “Christmas Greeting,” a festive, single-verse sentiment concluding with “And may God bless you all/And may He bring you/A Happy New Year!” As a choral music experience, The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival ranks with the finest efforts of masters such as Robert Shaw and Karl Jenkins and stands as one of the Christmas season’s most essential recordings. To call it “a new high in recorded music” is a bit much, given the advanced audio techniques that had been pioneered by producer Wilma Cozart Fine for the Mercury Living Presence series since the early ‘50s, but the sonics are most impressive, especially for a non-classical session. (It was recorded in an old church in Greenwich Village, where Simeone thought the acoustics would produce a Here’s what Craig R. Clemens has to say about “The Little Drummer Boy” track at Classic Studio Sessions:

The record was first issued in mono, then given a stereo mix. I’d recommend listening to the stereo mix, not only is it the most familiar at this point, but there is a certain power to the separation of the voices that the stereo enhances. Listen on a system capable of reproducing bass frequencies well, and by all means turn it up loud enough to hear the “rumble” created solely by a vocal group. Technically, for not only 1958 standards but also modern bass expectations, the song sounds massive–and thus we may find some of the power of the recording itself, why many if not most consider the Simeone version the definitive recording and arrangement of the song. The advancing recording and mixing technologies of the late 1950s made it possible to add that element–not only the sound itself but the way it is captured and reproduced–to create a classic.

“Little Drummer Boy” was Simeone’s crowning achievement in a long, productive career as an arranger-conductor-composer. Born in Newark, New Jersey, he grew up listening to radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, inspiring him to pursue a career at a concert pianist. He was good enough to be admitted to the Juilliard School of Music, but dropped out after three years to accept a job at CBS as an arranger for bandleader Fred Waring. In 1938 he wrote the vocal and musical arrangements for the 1938 RKO film Radio City Revels (directed by Ben Stoloff), then moved to Hollywood with his wife Margaret McCravy (who had been a vocalist with Benny Goodman’s orchestra and with Fred Waring, billed as Margaret McCrae). Simeone found steady work at Paramount between 1939 and 1946, including on films starring Bing Crosby. In 1948 he took a position as orchestra leader on NBC’s The Swift Show, and in 1952 became conductor and choral arranger for NBC’s The Firestone Hour.

The Harry Simeone Chorale, ‘The Little Drummer Boy,’ from The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival

In 1958 the Twentieth-Century Fox Records label contracted Simeone to make a Christmas album. While assembling traditional material for the project, he met with his friend and fellow veteran arranger Henry Onorati, who pitched a song Onorati said he had co-written called “Carol of the Drum.” Simeone changed the title to “Little Drummer Boy,” gave himself a co-writing credit and made it the centerpiece of the album that was originally issued as Sing We Now of Christmas. Issued as a single, “Little Drummer Boy” was an instant Christmas classic: It first entered Billboard’s Hot Top 100 chart on December 22nd, 1958, peaking at #13 and logging nine weeks on the Top 100; in the next four years it charted during the Christmas season at #15 in 1959, #24 in 1960, #22 in 1961 and #28 in 1962.

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But Simeone’s “Little Drummer Boy” was only the latest iteration of a song that had been written in 1941 and originally recorded, as “Carol of the Drum,” in 1955 by Austria’s Trapp Family Singers, later of The Sound of Music fame. In 1957 the Jack Halloran Singers had released an a cappella version of it on Christmas Is A-Comin’, an album produced in part by one Henry Onorati. Jack Halloran’s daughter, Dawn Halloran, told the website Songfacts: “This song was originally published as ‘Carol of the Drum,’ a traditional Czech carol, by Katharine K. Davis. My father, Jack Halloran, arranged it and recorded it under the same title on his 1957 Dot album, Christmas is A-Comin’. Henry Onorati was a producer for Dot who worked on the project and took the arrangement to Harry Simeone, who had nothing to do with my father’s recording. Dot was to put out the single of ‘Carol of the Drum’ for the Christmas ’57 season, but for unknown reasons did not get it out in time. Meanwhile, Onorati took the arrangement to Simeone, who hired the same singers, re-recorded it adding finger cymbals and cutting a difficult passage just before the last phrase. It was then put out as a single under the title ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ by Harry Simeone, Katharine K. Davis and Henry Onorati. I’ve seen the master recording of the song and it pre-dates Simeone’s by a year. And for the record, no one else ever arranged ‘for’ my father. He was the arranger for other artists.”

The Trapp Family Singers, ‘Carol of the Drum,’ 1955, the first recording of what became ‘The Little Drummer Boy,’ in the original version written by Katherine Kennicott Davis

So the story of “The Little Drummer Boy” actually begins in 1941 with “Carol of the Drum” and composer Katherine Kennicott Davis. Born in St. Joseph, MO, on June 25, 1892, she studied music at Wellesley College and upon graduation remained at Wellesley teaching music theory and piano, while at the same time studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She later taught music at the Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts and at the Shady Hill School for Girls in Philadelphia. Many of her more than 600 compositions were written for her school choirs. She continued writing music until the winter of 1979-80, when illness incapacitated her. She died on April 20, 1980, at age 87, in Littleton, Massachusetts. She left all of the royalties and proceeds from her compositions–operas, choruses, children’s operettas, cantatas, piano and organ pieces, and songs–to Wellesley College’s Music Department, a trust that continues to support musical instrument instruction.

Katherine Kennictott Davis

Katherine Kennictott Davis

The original Czech tune on which Ms. Davis based her “Carol of the Drum” has been lost to history, although educated guesses pinpoint the Czech “Rocking Carol,” published in 1928, as the likely source. In an interview Ms. Davis said the lyrics came to her as she was nodding off to sleep one night and “practically wrote themselves.” Presumably she knew of the Trapp Family’s recording of “Carol of the Drum,” but she was most surprised when, in late 1958, a friend called with news that “your carol is on the air, all the time, everywhere on the radio!”

“What carol?” Ms. Davis asked.

“‘The Little Drummer Boy,’” came the reply.

Sure enough, “Little Drummer Boy” was “Carol of the Drum” with a new title and some minor changes, and it was a hit. And nowhere was her name to be found in the songwriter credits. In short order she asserted her legal rights to the song, securing both credit and royalties and taking her rightful place of ownership of a Yuletide monument that has since been covered in more than 200 versions in seven languages and multiple genres—even Marlene Dietrich took a mordant German language run at it in 1964.

“What made Harry Simeone’s version stand out?” asks the abovementioned Craig R. Clemens. He answers his own question: “For one, the song itself is brilliant in its simplicity. Just as Katherine K. Davis had identified and tried to fill the need for songs appropriate for untrained singers, as well as female groups, the song has little harmony and an easy to sing melody…which also creates a song and melody which those listening can easily remember, if not sing along after just a few listens. It is wholly in the tradition of folk music, and the folk process in general, as well as some of the more traditional Christmas carols which were designed to be easier to perform and sing, as well as less challenging and more memorable for the audience, encouraging them in fact to participate and sing along.

Marlene Dietrich, ‘Der Trommelmann (The Little Drummer Boy),’ 1964

“The recording and arrangement done by Simeone is again brilliant in its simplicity, yet Simeone (and Onorati) managed to add a few touches that transformed the song from the earlier versions. If we consider the Trapp Family‘s version, they obviously are a smaller vocal group, but are basically following the same melody and lyrics. The female voices carry the lead, while the male bass voices carry the drum-like rhythmic pulse, based on parade-like snare drum rhythms. However, the male voices singing the ‘drum’ parts do not stray from the tonic bass note, in fact for most if not all of the recording they stay on a pedal tone of sorts, delivering a monotone, single-note rhythm that pulses underneath. The rhythms they sing are also more simple, and less layered, than subsequent versions.

The Harry Simeone Chorale, ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain,’ from The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival

“Simeone‘s recording, on the other hand, added a melodic element to those bass voices, as well as offering more complex and layered rhythm figures as the song develops, closer to a full orchestral percussion section. They are transformed from emulating a snare drum into a full drum section, with bass, snare, and the key addition: Tympani-like voices. With those strong melodic elements in the bass voices, they act as both the rhythmic foundation acting as the ‘percussion’ as well as providing a strong and memorable melodic counterpoint to the main melody.

The Harry Simeone Chorale, ‘Silent Night/Adeste Fideles/A Christmas Greeting’ from The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival

“The first sound you hear on the record is that of the bass voices providing the drum beat. Eschewing what many arrangers would think of when charting a song about a drummer, there is no actual percussion on the record. Except, that is, for a well-placed triangle, chiming accents on beats three and four after each vocal phrase is sung by the high voices. It punctuates each phrase, as well as adding an almost reverent chime or bell-like effect to the performance. Again, an addition brilliant in its simplicity, and a simple triangle part that speaks with more power than a full line of actual drums in this context.”

The Harry Simeone Chorale, ‘Bring a Torch, Isabella/Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming’ and expositional Bible verse from The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival

Lest anyone think Harry Simeone purloined and profited from the credit he took for writing “The Little Drummer Boy,” think again. Much as Katherine K. Davis left a trust to her school to support the music program there, Simeone and his wife established the Harry and Margaret Simeone Music Scholarship at Yale University in 2000 with a gift of $1 million. Margaret Simeone died a year later. On February 22, 2005, Harry Simeone died at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, three months shy of his 94th birthday. All these years later, the assertion at the end of the liner notes on The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival withstands scrutiny: Elvis’s first Christmas album—the best selling Christmas album of all time—has produced a seasonal classic in “Blue Christmas,” but Harry Simeone’s conceptual model, with one of the most popular Christmas songs ever embedded deep within its narrative, has no serious parallels. Its “quiet ecstasy” is a joy forever.

 

Sources: “Classic Studio Sessions: The Twelve Songs of Christmas Series: Song #11”; Harry Simeone, Wikipedia entry; Katherine Kennicott Davis, Wikipedia entry; The Little Drummer Boy, Wikipedia entry; “The Little Drummer Boy,” Songfacts.com; “Katherine K. Davis—The Little Drummer Boy Almost Wrote Itself,” by Kathy Warnes, historybecauseitshere.weebly.com;