Child singers were all the rage in 1953. So many new records that year featured adorable kiddies warbling their way through novelty songs that Billboard named the craze the "tot tempest."
It all started at Christmas 1952 when 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" became a major novelty hit.
Unlike some of the kids who would soon contribute to the tot tempest, Boyd was a legitimately talented child performer. He was born in Mississippi but grew up in California, where he began singing and playing guitar on local television shows from an early age. From there he moved to national television programs and then to Columbia Records. He recorded a few singles for Columbia in 1952, all of which were kiddie fare and some of which were released on Columbia's children's series. None was very successful until Boyd released his final single of 1952, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."
This song is still widely known today, and most people probably consider it to be an innocuous bit of Christmas fluff, but in its day, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" was controversial. Kid-oriented Christmas novelty songs weren't new ("My Two Front Teeth (All I Want for Christmas)" had been a #1 hit for Spike Jones and His City Slickers in 1948, with Georgie Rock on childlike lead vocals), but some people believed that Boyd's record inappropriately mixed a sacred holiday with sexy kissing, and the song was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.
Nevertheless—and much to everyone's surprise—the song became a smash hit, eventually reaching #1 on the Billboard and Cash Box charts. Boyd's record was covered by Spike Jones and His City Slickers for RCA Victor, again with Georgie Rock on lead vocals doing his kid voice, and also by teenaged performer Molly Bee for Capitol Records.
Boyd had three more hits in the next several months, all of which were duets that paired him with well-known adult singers. He sang with Frankie Laine on "Tell Me a Story" and "The Little Boy and the Old Man" and with Rosemary Clooney on "Dennis the Menace."
Ever at the ready to cash-in on a possible trend, record labels and ambitious parents alike conscripted tykes into the music biz, seemingly without regard for minor details such as whether or not the kids had any particular musical ability.
The flood of records by child performers in 1953 was unique in that the songs themselves were often juvenile, thematically speaking, but were marketed to the mainstream pop audience rather than just to children. Billboard noted that the records that appeared after Boyd's breakthrough hit "appear to have created an entirely new area of sales activity. These records can not be considered average kiddie items nor average pop items." (Marketing juvenile thematic content to a broad audience would become even more common in the early years of the rock 'n' roll era.)
Easter 1953 provided the next obvious opportunity for new holiday-themed novelty records. Boyd, leading the charge, delivered several: "Jimmy Roll Me Gentle (On Easter Day)," "Little Bonnie Bunny," "My Bunny and My Sister Sue," and "Two Easter Sunday Sweethearts."
Eight-year-old Baby Pamela Rich, AKA Baby Pam, recorded "Easter Bunny Song" (b/w "Goody Goody Gumdrop") for Mercury Records. "Easter Bunny Song" has been played on the Dr. Demento Show several times over the years.
Ten-year-old Gayla Peevey cut "Wish I Wuz a Whisker (On the Easter Bunny's Chin)" b/w "Three Little Bunnies."
In the summer of 1953, Brucie Weil, the recent topic of a Music Weird article, made some noise with "God Bless Us All," a semi-religious novelty record that provoked a cover-version pile-on by everyone you'd expect: Spike Jones (again with Georgie Rock on lead), Jimmy Boyd, Baby Pam, and Molly Bee.
Billboard's review of Baby Pam's version of "God Bless Us All" said it was "about as effective as those [kids that are heard on] other versions." The reviewer described the B-side, "I Wanna Go to School," as "strictly for the kids." Mercury intended to release "I Wanna Go to School" separately as catalog number BR-25 on its children's label, Blue Ribbon, but that release was canceled.
Abbot Records got into the act in 1953 with 15-year-old singer Billie Jo Moore, who recorded Mel Blanc's "I Dess I Dotta Doe" b/w "Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys." In adulthood, Moore would go onto great success as Billie Jo Spears, scoring a #1 country hit with the grown-up song "Blanket on the Ground."
The tot tempest wasn't confined to pop and country acts. Jubilee Records, a label that specialized in R&B, released a single by 12-year-old Andrew Wideman, "Mama's Little Boy Got the Blues" b/w "I'm Not a Child Anymore." He reportedly was signed to a long-term contract with Jubilee, but "Mama's Little Boy" was his only single.
Coral Records debuted a number of child performers in 1953. The label's Jill Whitney covered Bonnie Lou's "Tennessee Wig Walk" in addition to cutting a Christmas novelty, "Little Johnny Jingle Bells." Six-year-old Little Barbara recorded a Hank Williams-themed weeper, "(I Would Like to Have Been) Hank's Little Flower Girl," which Billboard described as "another dirge occasioned by the death of Hank Williams." Jeanie Dell, billed as "8 Year Old Jeanie Dell," waxed "Dixie Danny" b/w "Who in the World Are You? (Hippity-Hoppity Song)." In December of 1953, Coral released a non-holiday novelty by kid performer Ricky Vera, "Dragnet Goes to Kindergarten," which was a recitation in the style of Stan Freberg's 1953 Dragnet parodies "St. George and the Dragonet" and "Little Blue Riding Hood." Dell and Vera appear to have recorded only one record each in their short careers.
When Christmastime rolled around, Columbia tried to repeat the Boyd formula with Gayla Peevey by having her cut "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" for Christmas 1953, but it wasn't nearly as successful. Over 60 years later, though, the song found a new audience when the United States Post Office used it in an advertising campaign.
MGM Records' nine-year-old Little Rita Faye, who had bowed in early 1953 with "I'm a Problem Child," released the Christmas novelty "I Fell Out of a Christmas Tree."
RCA Victor had its new child country star Sunshine Ruby record a double-sided holiday single for Christmas 1953: "I Wanna Do Something for Santa Claus" b/w "Too Fat for the Chimney." Sunshine Ruby had debuted earlier in 1953 with "Too Young to Tango," which had been a good seller.
Record buyers must have finally grown weary of the tot tempest, because many of these performers soon stopped recording altogether or were dropped by their labels after their subsequent singles met with no success. Several new recordings of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" appeared around Christmas 1953, but all were by adult performers such as Perry Como, Teresa Brewer, and Guy Lombardo.
That wasn't the end of the child singer, of course. Brenda Lee, Frankie Lymon, Little Stevie Wonder, Donny Osmond, Michael Jackson, LeAnn Rimes, and many more were yet to come. But perhaps no other period in music ever saw as many record labels try to develop as many child performers in such a short period of time as occurred during the tot tempest of 1953.
|Andrew Wideman signs a contract with Jubilee Records|