Here is Elvis Presley’s dirty-sex Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Back in Town”, written by the great duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote many of Elvis’ greatest hits.
The song includes images like: Santa abandoning his sleigh for a “big black Cadillac,” Santa demanding that “you” take off your “stockings” for him, Santa snarling about how he will be “coming” down “your chimney” tonight and you better be ready. It’s still hard to believe he got away with it. Elvis recorded a lot of dirty-sounding songs, “Polk Salad Anne” and “Power of My Love” (You know the one. That’s the song where he commands: “You know, baby, you can lick it.”) being the most obvious examples, but those came from his mature period. “Santa Claus is Back In Town” is also one of Elvis’ rhythm-and-blues-iest performances.
Elvis recorded the song in 1957 at the ripe old age of 22, and it just makes his confidently nasty performance that much more remarkable. (Unlike a lot of the other singers who were his contemporaries – those also on the Sun Records roster, but elsewhere – Elvis was not a particularly “dirty” man. Or a mature man. Those other Southern cats were practically outlaws, drinking, drugging, womanizing, wild. Elvis wasn’t that at all. He had tons of sex, of course, but that’s normal. In terms of lifestyle, though: at 22, or even earlier, at 18, 19, he wasn’t out living a wild juke-joint fire-liquor fast-women kind of life. He lived at home, his Mama kept his plates separate from the other plates, she wiped his mouth for him at the table, and he drank milkshakes and dated a nice Christian girl, and they went roller-skating and attended gospel concerts on their dates. Elvis was a “good boy,” albeit a poor Southern one, the son of part-time sharecroppers. In other words: he wasn’t an Episcopalian or any of the more “high-class” religions, where an APPEARANCE of holiness and “good”-ness was paramount, with the belief that salvation was possible here on earth if you appeared good enough. In Elvis’ religion, appearances didn’t matter at all, because everyone was too poor. Church was about relief, release, comfort, the reassurance that their lives had value, even if the culture de-valued their class. Elvis was an Assembly of God member, and the Pentecostals understood that salvation was not possible on earth, that if you asked for forgiveness, God would grant it. It was a religion that was – despite the speaking in tongues and all that – quite realistic about the condition of man. Others who know more about this than I do have observed that poor Southern mamas were more realistic about the sex lives of their children than middle-class mothers obsessed with appearances. (June Juanico, Elvis’ girlfriend in 1956, tells a great story about messing around with Elvis in his room in the house he shared with his parents – no sex, but “heavy petting” in the terminology of the day, and suddenly Gladys knocked on the door, saying through the door, “Elvis, honey, we need to make sure June doesn’t have any babies.” Hahahaha. “We.” But Gladys always said, when asked, “He’s a good boy.”). So Elvis’ sexuality was not in direct contrast to his good-boy home life. It was all a part of the culture of his world (and something most East Coast-ers looking on totally missed, or misunderstood, etc.) My point is: what was really fascinating about Elvis is that when he sang raunchy rhythm & blues, which he did practically from the beginning, he was tapping into the influences that inspired him – songwriters who had all LIVED the lyrics of those tunes (listen to the lyrics of “Lawdy Miss Claudy,” “Money Honey,” “That’s All Right” – None of it describes Elvis’ life experiences but he performed those songs with a ferocity that suggested he understood EVERYTHING). Elvis had a huge sex drive, as most teenagers do, and he expressed it in a way that was unafraid and unashamed about its existence. The Southerners “got it.” The teenagers “got it.” Of COURSE Elvis was both a good mama’s boy and a sex hound-dog. Made perfect sense to those who “got it.” He wasn’t a hypocrite, but that’s how a lot of reporters – not from the South – interpreted this duality in Elvis.
But let’s go back to “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” It was the first track on Elvis’ Christmas Album, released in 1957. It is still the greatest-selling Christmas album of all time in the United States.
The album is filled to the gills with beautiful and traditional renderings of Christmas classics like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”, a couple of gospel favorites like “There Will Be Peace in the Valley”, and the now-classic “Blue Christmas”, with the soprano looping up and down the scales in the background (great interview with said soprano Millie Kirkham here).
You can’t get more traditional than this.
Interestingly enough, “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” was not the most controversial number on the album. Elvis covered “White Christmas,” and it’s witty and light, he’s not making fun of it, but he is having fun with it, putting his own spin on it. Irving Berlin, who wrote the song, flipped out. He called it a “profane parody.” It’s not a particularly sexual track, but Berlin felt it was so risqué that he made calls to radio stations across the land demanding that they cease playing it. Berlin was ignored, but the controversy was focused on “White Christmas” which is hilarious when you consider “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” which even to modern ears is so over-the-top that it still conceivably could be seen as shocking.
The “White Christmas” firestorm is a great window into the tenor of the times, and how threatening it was when Elvis moved into the mainstream, appropriating white culture by covering classics like “White Christmas,” coming into the homes of America via television. There was no escape. Why didn’t he go back to the Swamp-Land from which he sprung? (There was a LOT of regional prejudice in this attitude.)
But the whole album leads off with “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”, a gambit that I love for its daring. Elvis got so much bad publicity in 1956 (although it had started to neutralize in 1957, with the Ed Sullivan performances, and the movie appearances) that it was a blitzkrieg of controversy. (Jukebox owners declared they would not stock their jukeboxes with any “N***** music”, DJs smashed his records publicly, PTA prudes and Christian pastors denounced him as dangerous, the Mayor of Jersey City gave a press conference where he said Elvis would not be welcome in Jersey City, and Jersey City would never host an Elvis performance, etc.) Elvis proclaimed his innocence, he was just doing what the music made him feel, what the music made the audience feel. And “nobody’s getting hurt,” my favorite of his comments on the matter.
But here, in a Christmas album, almost taunting the critics, Elvis leads off with a song so sheerly sexual it borders on public indecency. And then for the rest of the album, he buttons it up, and shares his love for Christmas carols, and his adoration of God and Jesus. BOTH expressions were sincere. (Many saw his Christianity as a cynical marketing ploy. Again, they misunderstood Elvis, misunderstood Southern culture, misunderstood his religion.)
If you want to hear why Elvis Presley was controversial, don’t listen to “I Got a Woman” (although listen to that, too). Listen to “Santa Claus is Back in Town” and listen, in particular, to what he does with his voice on “You be a real good little girl …” It is outrageous.
Tom Petty says it better in his Rolling Stone “Top Elvis tracks” piece (unfortunately, the link no longer works!), so I’ll let him take over:
“Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight” sounds absolutely filthy when Elvis sings it. It might be his best blues vocal ever, with those beautiful stops that nobody could do but him.
The fact that the song starts with The Jordannaires gentle traditional quartet, singing “Christmaaaaaas….” in a churchy way makes what happens afterwards even more nuts. That opening is a feint, a trick, it makes you think the song will be one thing, and the second Elvis comes in, it turns into something else entirely.
Compare his vocals on that track with images like this one (Elvis loved Christmas), and you can see how destabilizing he really was.
Elvis asked you to reconcile the boy who loves Jesus with the boy who cackles with demonic sex drive during the bridge of that song. Neither was an act, both are true. Can the culture embrace such emotional diversity, such inclusion? Shouldn’t ONE side be truer than the other?
Elvis says, Both are true.
Can you handle it?
We still can’t.