The much-loved Christmas song Sleigh Ride was written during an August heat wave for the Boston Pops Orchestra. It didn’t even have lyrics until after it hit the pop charts.
Sleigh Ride was the work of Leroy Anderson, a Cambridge, Mass.-born composer who wrote many pieces for the Boston Pops Orchestra. Pops conductor John Williams called him “one of the great American masters of light orchestral music.”
The young Harvard graduate had intended to teach at a language school in Pennsylvania. At the last minute he changed his mind and decided to direct the Harvard University Band.
Anderson had hesitated because he didn’t see much potential in a music career. Fiedler, though, saw Anderson’s promise, and he asked to see his original compositions.
Anderson went on to win many accolades during his life, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and election to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Harvard named its new band headquarters after him and Cambridge named the corner near his boyhood home Leroy Anderson Square.
Anderson started writing Sleigh Ride in August 1946 and didn’t finish it until February 1948. He worked hard to create the feeling of traveling in a horse-drawn sleigh through the snow.
Fiedler loved Sleigh Ride. He scheduled a recording session in 1949 as soon as he was sure the final arrangement was complete. It rose to No. 24 on the Billboard Pop Music chart.
The Pops played Sleigh Ride perfectly, with percussionists producing a whip snap and the clop-clop of horses’ hooves. A trumpet played five bars of a half-valve glissando to produce the whinny at the end. As the piece became a staple of the Pops, a joke developed around the sound effects: musicians would receive carrots rather than roses at the end of the performance.
Only after Sleigh Ride was a hit did Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mitchell Parish write lyrics, beginning with the memorable, “Just hear those sleigh bells jingle-ing Ring ting tingle-ing too.”
The piece has endured, consistently ranking in the top 10 most performed songs written by ASCAP members during the Christmas season worldwide. More than 60 years after it was written, Sleigh Ride was named the most popular piece of Christmas music from 2009-2012. According to Anderson’s biography, the piece has been ‘performed by a wider array of musical artists than any other piece in the history of Western music.’
Among those who recorded the song: the Ray Conniff Singers, the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, The Ronettes, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Lawrence Welk, the Partridge Family, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, Garth Brooks, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and REO Speedwagon. Johnny Mathis performed the most popular vocal version.
In 1972, the Boston Pops Orchestra paid tribute to Leroy Anderson in a nationally broadcast concert. He guest conducted one piece during what he called the most important evening of his life.
* * *
The Christmas holiday actually began in ancient Rome — and so did Italian cookies. The New England Historical Society’s new book, 24 Historic Italian Christmas Cookie Recipes, tells you how to make those delicious cookies. It also bring you the history of the Italian immigrants who brought them to New England. Available now on Amazon; just click here.
Image of Leroy Anderson By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36467649. Leroy Anderson House By JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ, M.D. – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50841523. This story was updated in 2022.