Both songs were massive chart hits.
"White Christmas" topped the Billboard pop chart for 11 weeks in 1942 and returned to the top spot in 1945 and 1946. It's the only song ever to reach #1 in three separate chart runs. The song was a chart fixture in nearly every holiday season through 1962. It amassed a total of 77 weeks on the chart, more than any other single ever.
So which single is the sales leader? That's hard to say, for two reasons. No one agency authenticates international sales claims, in the way that the RIAA certifies sales in the U.S. And record-keeping in the 1940s and 1950s wasn't nearly as precise as it is in the modern era. The RIAA didn't start certifying gold records until 1958.
The Guinness Book Of Records for 2007 declared both songs winners. The book calls "White Christmas" "the biggest-selling single of all time" and "Candle In The Wind 1997" "the biggest selling single since records began." The book estimates sales of 50 million for "White Christmas" and 33 million for "Candle In The Wind 1997."
That's my belief, too. There's no way to prove that "White Christmas" has outsold "Candle In The Wind 2007" (or vice-versa, for that matter), but my gut tells me that a record that has never left the public consciousness in 67 years has outsold a record that was a global phenomenon for a year or two.
In researching this column, I was struck by the similarities (and a few key differences) between these two songs (and the two mega-stars who recorded them). And exploring those similarities and differences may ultimately be more rewarding than just crowning one record or the other as the champ.
Both records have a wistful quality. "White Christmas" conveys a strong sense of yearning and nostalgia ("just like the ones I used to know"). The song was released 10 months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, setting the stage for millions of extended separations and emotional homecomings. As poet Carl Sandburg wrote in an article marking the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor: "We have learned to be a little sad and a little lonesome...This feeling is caught in the song of a thousand juke boxes and the tune whistled in streets and homes, 'I'm Dreaming Of A White Christmas.'"Marilyn Monroe, who had died in 1962 of acute barbiturate poisoning at age 36. It appeared on Elton's album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, though it wasn't released as a single at that time.
In addition, people around the world wanted to scoop up a keepsake connected to the late princess. Also, many wanted to support the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which received all artist and composer royalties and record company profits from the sale of the single.Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford both reached the top 10 in the '40s with cover versions of "White Christmas." There have also been memorable versions by the Ravens, the Drifters, Andy Williams, Michael Bolton and Martina McBride, among many others. Whitburn's Christmas In The Charts 1920-2004 reveals that 232 different artists hit one or more of Billboard's album charts between 1945 and 2004 with albums that contained "White Christmas."
By contrast, few artists have covered "Candle In The Wind" or "Candle In The Wind 1997."Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra. Elton was 23 when "Your Song" made the top 10. Both had long runs of hits. Bing's appearances in the top 10 spanned nearly 30 years, from 1927 to 1957. Elton's (at least so far) span 27 years, from 1971 to 1998.
Whitburn's books document that Bing was, by far, the #1 recording artist for the era that pre-dated the arrival of rock'n'roll in 1955. Elton is the #3 pop singles artist for 1955-2008 (behind only Elvis Presley and the Beatles).
The two stars were highly distinct, of course. Bing was a genial crooner. Elton is a flamboyant pop-rocker. But they occasionally stepped onto each other's turfs. Elton released a Christmas song, "Step Into Christmas," in 1973. Elton and Kiki Dee had a chart hit in 1993 with a remake of Cole Porter's "True Love," which Bing and Grace Kelly made famous in 1956.David Bowie for an unlikely but surprisingly effective medley, "Peace On Earth/The Little Drummer Boy." The sequence, which has become legendary, was part of his final TV special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas.
Bing was 39 when "White Christmas" was released. Elton was 50 at the time of the release of "Candle In The Wind 1997." One difference is that many of Bing's biggest hits were still in front of him, including "Swinging On A Star" and "Don't Fence Me In" (with the Andrews Sisters). By 1997, Elton's hit-making days were mostly behind him. Since "Candle In The Wind 1997," his only top 40 hit has been "Written In The Stars" (with LeAnn Rimes). (He has, of course, remained a major force as a concert attraction and as a composer for film and Broadway.)Fred Astaire. The movie premiered in New York on Aug. 4, 1942. The single entered the Billboard chart on Oct. 10 and reached #1 three weeks later. In March 1943, the song brought composer Irving Berlin his only Oscar for Best Original Song.
"White Christmas" is one of those songs that is so organic, so seemingly effortless, that it's hard to imagine that somebody sat down one day and wrote it. It seems like it was just always there. "White Christmas" shares this natural-sounding quality with some of the best songs ever written, including "Cheek To Cheek" (also by Berlin), "The Way You Look Tonight," "Over The Rainbow," "Unforgettable," "Yesterday" and "Your Song" (Elton's first hit, from 1970).
"White Christmas" sounds like a wistful romantic ballad, which represented a major change from past holiday favorites. Before "White Christmas," the most popular Christmas songs were either religious in nature ("Silent Night," "Adeste Fideles (Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful)") or peppy Christmas carols ("Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," "Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells").Judy Garland sang the torch classic "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" in the 1944 movie Meet Me In St. Louis. Nat "King" Cole released the velvety "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)" in 1946.
The trend toward romantic or melancholy ballads at Christmas has since brought us such classics as Ernest Tubb's "Blue Christmas" (famously covered by Elvis Presley), Charles Brown's "Please Come Home For Christmas" (covered by the Eagles) and the Carpenters' "Merry Christmas Darling."
Bing, working with John Scott Trotter's orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers, recorded the song twice-in May 1942 and again in March 1947. The second session was necessary, or so the story goes, because the original master had become damaged due to its frequent use.
"White Christmas" is on the first tier of classic pop recordings. When the Recording Academy inaugurated its Hall of Fame Awards in 1973, "White Christmas" was in the first group of eight recordings to be inducted.
Bing was the king of Christmas songs. His 1935 recording of "Silent Night" is estimated to have sold 7 million copies, according to Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Bing's other notable Christmas songs include "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Silver Bells" (with Carol Richards) and "Do You Hear What I Hear?"Michael Jackson, which is one reason he isn't as famous today. And he didn't have the sociological impact that Elvis Presley and The Beatles did. But Bing was a highly influential artist. He was among the first artists to sing conversationally.
Bing died in October 1977, at age 74. Irving Berlin died in September 1989, at age 101. The recording they came together to create nearly seven decades ago will live on forever.