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



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us