|1||White Christmas||Bing Crosby||150 million +/-||1942
|2||Candle in The Wind||Elton John||35 million||1997
|3||Silent Night||Bing Crosby||30 million +||1935
|4||Rock Around The Clock||Bill Haley and His Comets||25 million +/-||1954
|5||I Will Always Love You||Whitney Huston||20 million||1992
One of the problems with compiling a list of best-selling music such as the Top 5 Best Selling Albums of All Time or songs or "singles" as they are known in the industry, is that some of these songs, like "White Christmas" came along when there was very little sales tracking going on. Today it's easy to track and measure music sales with companies like Nielsen compiling the sales data but, getting exact, reliable sales data from back in the 1930s and 40s? That's very, very difficult. I guess we're saying that despite our best efforts and research, the reader should take these numbers as "best estimates", hence the +/- symbols in the list above. What we do know is that before the movie "White Christmas" was made Cosby's and Irving Berlin's the song "White Christmas" had already sold 100 million copies and if you include versions of other singers it reached, by some estimates, up to 400 million copies sold. An astounding feat by any measure.
Back in the day, way before Spotify or Youtube or iTunes, music was actually first recorded on round cylinders made of wax. Then along came the flat "single" which was recorded on a vinyl disc. If you're struggling to picture these recording mediums, David Wallace shows the evolution of them nicely in this infographic.
So, when we say The Top 5 Best Selling "Songs" of All Time, we really mean The Top 5 Best Selling "Singles" of All Time, which is the more technical term for the purposes of this list.
The song 'White Christmas' was first recorded by the 39-year-old Bing Crosby in a studio either at Decca records or Paramount Pictures (nobody knows exactly where) in May of 1942. It was recorded on a vinyl 78 RPM (the speed at which the disc turns) and released as a package of discs for the Paramount Pictures film "Holiday Inn". The "A" side of the release contained a song that we now know, quietly and over decades, became the most successful song of all time. Although it didn't exactly start that way as the song from the movie "Be Careful, It's My Heart" was the focus for the hit for the film and overshadowed "White Christmas" initially. Even though the song seemed to be the underdog of the film, it quickly gained ground. Billboard Magazine reported in November of 1942 "If Decca Records can meet the demand, "White Christmas" will become 1942's best selling record."
In case you're wondering the "B" side of the original 1942 single was "Let's Start the New Year Right". Incidentally, the original master disc of the 1942 recording was used so much to press singles that it wore out and became unusable. Bing and the exact same band got together in 1947 and recorded another version of "White Christmas" trying as hard as they could to keep it as close to the 1942 version as possible.
The combination of the writer Irving Berlin's lyrics, Bing's warm, nostalgic way of singing the song along with The Ken Darby Singers and John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra who accompanied Bing on the release, plus the fact that The United States had joined World War 2 just a year before, made for a recipe of holiday music magic that would slowly but surely propel the song to sell into the many tens of millions of copies over time.
Bing Crosby is one of the all-time best selling artists in music history. He is considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time and the first true media mega-star of the 20th century who conquered radio, films, music and television during the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s.
If the above statement sounds a bit far-fetched or if you are asking yourself who Bing Crosby is, consider this: Bing Crosby had an astonishing 96 hit records during his musical career which is more than The Beatles and Elvis combined. He had 386 songs on the Billboard charts between 1927 and 1962 with 43 number 1 hits which is almost an unparalleled feat. Bing's other Christmas song "Silent Night" sold over 30 million copies and is number 3 of the best selling singles of all time on our list. It's also worth mentioning the strange, but surprisingly delightful paring of Bing and David Bowie on the song Little Drummer Boy . It is safe to say that at the time, neither of these men knew that each of them was standing next to a music legend at the time.
Out of all the songs on Bing's 96 hit records, the song that has left the biggest mark on music history is undoubtedly "White Christmas". When Crosby first sang the song for the first time live on Christmas Day in 1941 for a Kraft Music Hall radio special, just days after Pearl Harbour was attacked, little did he or anyone else realize that "White Christmas" would go on to be the best selling single of all time, by far eclipsing all other singles by any other recording artist in history.
When all the Bing Crosby versions of "White Christmas" are taken into account (meaning sung by Bing himself), the sales of the song are estimated to have reached a staggering 100 to 150 million copies sold and possibly more. If you count other artist's versions, like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Dean Martin or modern-day singers like Michael Bublé to name just a few, "White Christmas" very likely reaches over 150 million in sales. That's not hard to believe when you consider that Crosby frequently had up to 50 million radio listeners during his heyday of the late 30s and throughout the 1940s.
When Irving Berlin sat down to write "White Christmas" sometime between 1937 and 1939, no one is sure exactly when or where; it was originally for a holiday musical. For some reason that didn't pan out and it ended up being considered for the upcoming movie, "Holiday Inn" but Irving had one condition before he would release the song to Paramount Pictures; his friend Bing Crosby had to sing it. Bing said "yes" and the rest is music and film history. The song went on to win the Oscar for "Best Song" at the 15th annual Academy Awards. Ironically, or perhaps strangely, Irving Berlin actually presented the award for Best Song at the March 4th, 1943 Oscars and ended up winning the very Academy Award that he was presenting.
It is not hard to see why Berlin's song, and in particular, the way Bing Crosby sang it, has had so much success. The song is secular, as Irving Berlin was Jewish and didn't even celebrate Christmas, yet the emotive lyrics that Irving penned conjure up the sadness and melancholy of missing and longing for an idyllic and perhaps unachievable Christmas, "Just like the ones we used to know." The way Bing delivers the song in his uniquely smooth, crooning voice, struck a particularly emotional chord with American soldiers far from home in Europe at the beginning of World War 2. In fact, Bing was reluctant to sing the song to soldiers during his many visits to the troops overseas because he thought it might make them feel too sad. It is safe to say that the combination of Bings' voice and Berlin's lyrics together with the song's arrangement was pure music magic and thus continues to resonate with people today.
So how did one of the most important singers and media stars of the twentieth century, who influenced generations of singers and musicians who followed in his footsteps (whether they actually know it or not), feel about being labeled "The Voice of Christmas"? Did he ever tire of singing "White Christmas" like so many singers do when singing their most popular songs? It seems not. When asked by Barbara Walters in a 1977 interview if he was: "sick of White Christmas" Bing replied:
"No, I could never be sick of it, I just fear that people will be sick of it. - Bing Crosby"It seems Bing Crosby was perfectly comfortable in his later role as the "The Voice of Christmas" and it's obvious that people accepted him in that role and still do, despite the fact that Bing had led less than a perfect life. In any case, he needn't have feared people becoming sick of "White Christmas", at least if record sales have anything to say about the matter. When all is said and done it's the power of Bing's voice and Irving Berlin's lyrics that reach out through time to comfort us, to cheer us up or to make us feel sad and nostalgic during a certain time of year.
When Bing was asked by interviewer Michael Parkinson what his favourite song was Bing said the following:
"Well, the easy answer is White Christmas because it did so much for me and I'm eternally grateful to Irving Berlin for writing it and for making it a song in a picture we did called, um, Holiday Inn. Yeah. Because now the song is identified with me and every Christmas I do a Christmas show and (smiles) there's no way to avoid singing it at the end. That's the song that has had the most influence on anything I've ever accomplished. - Bing Crosby."
In the end, neither Berlin nor Crosby nor anyone else had any idea that their partnership would result in the massive success that "White Christmas" was and still is. The fact a simple Christmas carol could become the number one best selling song of all time and one of the most recorded songs in music history was completely unexpected, but it did, and it is safe to say it will remain the number one best selling song for many, many Christmases to come.
Here now is the song, sung in all it's glory by a young Bing and a lovely Marjorie Reynolds, from the 1942 Universal Studios film "Holiday Inn".
So if you're wandering around a mall or shopping centre this Christmas, remember that when you hear Bing Crosby crooning that he's dreaming about a "White Christmas" it's not just holiday "elevator music". It is far more than that. It represents the hopes, dreams and fears of a nation and a world at war that echoed in society for many decades after it was over. The song represents something lost, something searched for and longed for and maybe something we really never had in the first place. At least we can dream about it though, as the song says. Maybe that's enough.