For nearly a century, “Winter Wonderland” has taken listeners on a delightful, enchanted journey through glistening winter landscapes. However, its picturesque words came from a place of real pain and a young man facing his own mortality – a poem written by Richard B. Smith, also known as Dick Smith, while being treated for tuberculosis in the West Mountain Sanitarium in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1934.
Smith had worked as a lyricist for years but had yet to score a hit. After writing his poem, he sent it to his friend Felix Barnard, a professional pianist and composer. Somehow, the song found its way to Richard Himber, a violinist-bandleader known more for his well-documented reputation as a practical joker than his musical prowess, who once stated: “To be a good practical joker, you need patience and plenty of it, because there’s a time and a place for everything, and you have to wait for the right moment and remember that vanity rules the world.”
Himber recorded the very first version of “Winter Wonderland.” It was RCA that suggested he arrange a version of the song and assembled a group of New York musicians to play it with. The lineup featured, among others, a young clarinetist named Artie Shaw, who would soon set the nation on fire with his own band. Himber wasn’t very well-known but his record would be heard by the man who immediately fell in love with it and rushed to record his own cut of the song with his Royal Canadians just in time for Christmas and turn it into a hit. That man was Guy Lombardo.
Lombardo never got any love from the jazz community – aside from Louis Armstrong, who regularly named his band his favorite orchestra. However, in 1934, he was hugely popular and a regular mainstay on the music charts. Ace Collins writes: “As Lombardo had already earned more than seventy chart singles, including many number 1 hits, radio stations and stores naturally picked his recording over that by the unproven Himber. Lombardo’s version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ raced up the charts, falling one spot short of becoming the groups’ twelfth number 1 record.”
Though Christmas is never mentioned, “Winter Wonderland” is regarded a holiday classic and is still hugely popular to this day. It has been recorded by hundreds of musicians and such diverse artists as Perry Como (whose 1946 cut is perhaps the best known of all), Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Eurythmics and Radiohead. Sadly, it would be its lyricist’s only hit; Smith would succumb to his disease on September 29, 1935 – the day of his 34th birthday – a year after writing the joyful depiction of a carefree winter day for which he would forever be remembered.
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