It might have been a story of a Nick Hornby character living off the royalties of his father’s hit Christmas song. But the story my father never told me until I was in my thirties is more like Tim Burton’s film Big Fish, wherein a son confronts the likelihood that not all of his aging father’s wild tales could possibly be true, only to find out in the end that they were.
And though the initial thought of such an act against a promising young artist seems criminal, to my father, whose life has been a series of hard work and unlikely successes, it’s now just another part of a life that turned out just fine in the end.
My father, Ray Dean James, got his first pair of shoes when he was 8 years old. As a barefoot little boy he had worn the same pair of bib overalls as he walked three miles of dirt roads every day to a one-room schoolhouse.
He left the backwoods of Tennessee with his mother Eunice (my Granny) and his older brother Gene in 1942, and they moved into a two-room efficiency apartment at 12th and Main in the heart of Over-the-Rhine. Granny’s sister found her a job as a seamstress, where she became part of a team of hundreds of local women who sewed, by hand, hundreds if not thousands of parachutes for the U.S. Air Force. Dad still walked to school, but now he wore shoes. And socks.
The giant school he attended was only a few blocks away, and in the morning he could hear the school bell ring from his kitchen as he scarfed down that last bite of scrambled eggs and dashed out the door. It is this pivotal moment in his life that I believe marked my father as a Wide-Eyed Eccentric Hillbilly In The City for the remainder of his days.
When he was still in his twenties, Dad already had quite an illustrious musical career. He and a bunch of his friends agreed they would meet at the recruiting office the day after graduation. When none of his buddies showed up, Dad enlisted anyway and was stationed in Korea, where he repaired the two-way radios in Air Force planes. Dad joined an Air Force singing troupe called Tops In Blue and traveled all over the world entertaining his fellow soldiers.
After returning home, Dad joined a Cincinnati Doo Wop group called The Seniors. They released several 45s and even toured the East Coast when one of their tunes climbed to the top of the local charts in Philadelphia (“Evening Shadows Falling”). He also released a number of singles under his own name, did some session work as a background vocalist at the legendary King Records studios and did nightclub performances that included music and stand-up comedy at dozens of clubs in Greater Cincinnati.
All the clubs he worked in Newport were run by the mob in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including night spots that we now know as The Southgate House, York Street Café and the now-defunct Jockey Club. The Jockey was The Flamingo Club in a previous life, and my father once showed me a deck of cards he lifted from a table there after Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis played poker between performances.
In the years before he met my mother, Dad was focused on songwriting and began to make several sojourns a year to Nashville.
He made some connections, and on each trip would try to get some music industry bigwig to listen to his latest songs.
On one of his Nashville trips in the early ’60s, Dad was shopping around a holiday tune he’d written called “Rock Around the Christmas Tree.” Going door to door, he heard one humiliating rejection after another until finally someone said they might be able to do something with the song.
Buddy Killen was one of the most successful music publishers in popular music history. He is still around as far as I know, and his Tree Publishing company has been responsible for hundreds of hit tunes. At the time of his meeting with my father, Killen was just another cigar-chomping music executive looking for the next big hit.
He told my dad he could probably find a major artist to record the song. Even back then, Nashville was decisively divided into two camps: songwriters and performers.
Dad turned down Buddy Killen’s offer, explaining that he was hoping to procure a record deal of his own, and he moved on down Music Row…
Dad’s memory is fuzzy here, unsure of whether or not he left a recording of the song with Killen. In my mind, I see Dad shuffling down Music Row, carrying under his arm a frayed and dented guitar case with a handle broken long ago, wiping the summer sweat off his brow with the back of a brown corduroy jacket-sleeved forearm. The dog-eared and coffee-stained folder of lyric sheets clutched in his left hand flaps in the summer wind, pages escaping and dancing frantically away from him.
With a cigarette with one-inch ash hanging from his pinched lips, eyes narrowed and already focused on the next address he seeks, he raps his knuckles against another office door and inhales deeply as he stubs out the cigarette underfoot and raises a Big Sincere Country Boy Grin on his face as the door reluctantly, slowly opens to reveal the face of yet another cynical, gum-chewing receptionist.
“Well, howdy ma’am!”
Meanwhile (in my little fantasy), there is a tornado of devious activity back in Killen’s office. The moment my father leaves the building Killen buzzes his receptionist on the intercom, demanding that she summon one of his contracted staff writers to his office on the double. Within minutes, Killen is humming the riff and what few words he can remember of Dad’s song to his lackey who sits at a piano tapping out the melody.
Satisfied that his boy has got the gist, Killen pushes him down the hall to another piano-equipped office to flesh it out, insisting he have the song completed by day’s end. Killen returns to his desk and buzzes the receptionist again, asking that she get Brenda Lee’s agent on the phone right away, please.
Lee hasn’t had a Top 10 single in over a year, so Killen has no trouble selling her agent on the idea of a Christmas song that will be a smash hit and a holiday classic for years to come. Before going home for the day, Killen checks in with his writer. The young man has added a syllable, hoping the change to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” will be acceptable.
“Fine, fine. Good work, kid. Take tomorrow off and I’ll see ya Monday.”
And, thusly, the song, songwriting credit and millions of dollars in royalties were stolen from my father.
Those last few paragraphs are completely a product of my imagination. But only the details are fiction.
I believe my father had no reason to lie to me when he told me this story. I was in my thirties when I heard it for the first time and honestly I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. My face red with anger, I asked Dad how such a thing could ever happen.
Across miles of phone lines I heard a Zen-like calm in his chuckle.
“I was young and inexperienced. I didn’t copyright any of my stuff. I probably did leave a copy of the song with Buddy Killen and didn’t think anything of it.”
When I asked him if it ever made him angry when he thought back on it now, he said, “No, Ric, I don’t feel angry about it at all. In fact, if things had gone any different for me, I might never have met your mother and you wouldn’t be here.”
He had me there. I couldn’t argue with that.
As soon as I hung up the phone after hearing that story for the first time, I immediately called my sister. To my great shock, she had known about it for years.
She then said, with a laugh just like Granny’s, “Did you know Brenda Lee is Dad’s sixth cousin?!”
Some weeks later, the story still a blistering ember in my thoughts, I told Dad that I wanted to publish some kind of letter or essay or article about how the song was stolen from him.
All he said was, “Don’t use Buddy Killen’s name in your article cuz he’s still a major big shot and he might sue the shit outta you for defamation of character.”
When Christmas rolled around later that year I heard the song playing over the sound system in a bookstore where I was working. It stopped me in my tracks. It was the first time I’d heard it since Dad told me the story. My father, like most songwriters, has a very distinctive style, one that I’m very familiar with.
I turned my head to one side like a dog hearing a faraway whistle, lifting my ear closer to an overhead speaker, and thought to myself, “I’ll be damned if that doesn’t sound like something Dad could have written.”