Bing Crosby memorably introduced this last of the popular Christmas songs to have a religious theme to most Americans in 1963, on this live broadcast of “The Hollywood Palace.” It was written in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, by a married songwriting team that wondered at the time if it would be the last thing they ever did.
Noel Regney, who wrote the lyrics, was born in France and had studied music at the Strasbourg Conservatory and at the Conservatoire National de Paris. When France was overwhelmed by Hitler’s troops in 1940, he was conscripted into the German army. As a Nazi soldier, he secretly joined the French underground and served as a spy, passing information along to the resistance. Once he led German soldiers into a trap where they were massacred by French fighters who cut them down in a crossfire. He was shot too, but survived.
After that traumatic encounter, Regney deserted and worked with the French underground until the end of the war.
In 1952, Noel Regney moved to Manhattan. He composed music for many early TV shows as well as commercial jingles. He also translated the 1963 hit “Dominique,” performed by the “The Singing Nun,” into English. [Correction note: the original version of this post gave him the writing credit for the song itself. My mistake; thanks to reader John Montanarifor the correction] Noel Regney married pianist Gloria Shayne, a pianist and composer herself. She also authored some popular songs recorded by well-known singers in the Sixties, including James Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World” and “The Men in My Little Girl’s Life,” a hit for Mike Douglas, and “Almost There,” one of Andy Williams’ bestselling recordings.
When Noel and Gloria collaborated, she wrote the words and Noel wrote the music. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was the lone exception. In October of 1962, as the stand-off between the Soviet Union and the United States had the world fearing nuclear war, Regney was asked by a record producer to write a holiday song that he feared might never have a chance to be recorded. The war veteran was inspired to write what was an urgent prayer for peace, and he asked Gloria to write the music to accompany his words. Gloria said later that they couldn’t sing their new creation because it made them both break down crying.
There have been over close to 200 versions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with more recorded every year. Noel Regney’s personal favorite was a recording by Robert Goulet, who shouted out the line, “Pray for peace, people, everywhere.” But it was Crosby’s version that became the standard, selling over a million copies, and it is my favorite, indeed my favorite recording by Bing.
It was in my Christmas stocking on Christmas morning, 1963.
Merry Christmas, everybody.