Harry Simeone

Populariser of 'The Little Drummer Boy'

The story of the poor boy who was drawn to Bethlehem and could only play his drum for the baby Jesus is a perennial Christmas favourite and has become a much-loved carol. "The Little Drummer Boy" was first made popular by the Harry Simeone Chorale and there are now over 150 versions with worldwide sales of 25 million.

Harry Moses Simeone, conductor and choral arranger: born Newark, New Jersey 9 May 1911; married Margaret McCravy (died 2001; one son, one daughter); died New York 22 February 2005.

The story of the poor boy who was drawn to Bethlehem and could only play his drum for the baby Jesus is a perennial Christmas favourite and has become a much-loved carol. "The Little Drummer Boy" was first made popular by the Harry Simeone Chorale and there are now over 150 versions with worldwide sales of 25 million.

Harry Simeone was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1911 and as a boy he was drawn to performances at the Metropolitan Opera. He wanted to become a concert pianist and attended the Juilliard School of Music with that in mind. He left after three years to work as an arranger for the broadcasting network CBS and then for the popular bandleader Fred Waring.

Having married one of Waring's vocalists, Simeone moved to Hollywood for Paramount films, where he arranged scores for the noted composer and conductor Victor Young and for several films, notably Here Come the Waves with Bing Crosby (1944) and The Affairs of Susan with Joan Fontaine (1945). He worked on two of the "Road" movies that Crosby made with Bob Hope and the television series Bonnie Lassie. He returned to work for Fred Waring and from 1952 to 1959 was the conductor and chorale arranger for the television series Firestone Hour.

The origins of "The Little Drummer Boy" have not been resolved but the melody appears to be based on both Czech and Spanish compositions. The words were written by Katherine Davis in 1941 but the song was not recorded until 1957. The first recording under the title "Carol of the Drum" was made a cappella for an album, Christmas is a-Comin', for Dot Records by the Jack Halloran Singers, Halloran being a conductor for television and radio shows. The arranger, Harry Onorati, added his name to the songwriting credits and he was incensed when it was not also released as a single.

Onorati told Simeone about the song and Simeone recognised its potential. He decided to record his own version for the 20th Century Fox label the following Christmas and he hired many of the same singers. He added finger cymbals but otherwise the arrangement was identical. The album, Sing We Now of Christmas, was recorded in an old church in Greenwich Village as he felt the ancient timbers would enhance the sound. Simeone was listed as its producer and he took a songwriting credit on "The Little Drummer Boy".

In 1958 the single of "The Little Drummer Boy" was an immediate US hit and for the following four years as well. The arrangement did not include a drum but the vocal percussion of "pa-rum-pa-pa-pum" fell into the language. "The Little Drummer Boy" was a UK hit in 1959 and shared its success with other versions from the Beverley Sisters and Michael Flanders. The following year Simeone had success with "Onward Christian Soldiers" and also had a hit album, Golden Hits, in 1961.

Among the many artists to have recorded "The Little Drummer Boy" are Chet Atkins, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis, Roger Whittaker, the Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and, as a duet for a television special in 1977, Bing Crosby and David Bowie. Crosby also recorded "The Little Drummer Boy" with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanias.

The story became so popular that Simeone wanted a carol with a similar theme and he recorded a song about a young shepherd at the Nativity, "Do You Hear What I Hear", in 1962. A US television special, The Little Drummer Boy, was narrated by Greer Garson in 1968.

Spencer Leigh



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