“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is a Christmas song written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. The earliest known recorded version of the song was by banjoist Harry Reser and his band on October 24, 1934. It was then sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. This version became an instant hit with orders for 500,000 copies of sheet music and more than 30,000 records sold within 24 hours. The version for Bluebird Records by George Hall and His Orchestra (vocal by Sonny Schuyler) was very popular in 1934 and reached the various charts of the day. The song has been recorded by over 200 artists, including Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters, The Crystals, Mariah Carey, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Bill Evans, Chris Isaak, The Temptations, Michael Bublé, and The Jackson 5.
Haven Gillespie’s lyrics begin “You better watch out, better not cry / You better not cry, I’m telling you why / Santa Claus is coming to town”.
Cantor’s original performance, broadcast at the height of the Great Depression, included verses not in the standard version of the song, encouraging listeners to be charitable and help the less fortunate at Christmas.
The earliest known recorded version of the song was by banjoist Harry Reser and his band on October 24, 1934 (Decca 264A) featuring Tom Stacks on vocal, the version shown in the Variety charts of December 1934. The song was a sheet music hit, reaching number 1. The song was also recorded for Victor Records (catalog No. 25145A) on September 26, 1935, by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra with vocals by Cliff Weston and Edythe Wright.
The song is a traditional Christmas standard and has been covered by numerous recording artists. Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters reached the Billboard charts briefly in 1947.
In 1962, the Four Seasons version charted at number 23 on Billboard. In 1963, producer Phil Spector included a version of the song on his rock album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector performed by The Crystals. In 1965, The Supremes’ version charted at number 4 in Singapore.
1970s to 1990s
In 1970, Rankin-Bass produced Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, an hour-long animated TV film based on the song, with Fred Astaire narrating the origin of Santa Claus. The same year, The Jackson 5 included the song on their best-selling album Jackson 5 Christmas Album. The Jackson 5 version would chart 50 years later on Billboard 100 at #46. In 1971, The Partridge Family included the song on A Partridge Family Christmas Card. An eccentric 1972 live recording by Joseph Spence has been described as “a performance for the ages” by music critic Peter Margasak.The Carpenters released the song as a single in 1974.
A rock version by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band was recorded on December 12, 1975, at C. W. Post College in Brookville, New York, by Record Plant engineers Jimmy Iovine and Thom Panunzio.This version borrows the chorus refrain from the 1963 recording by The Crystals. It was released first in 1982 as part of the Sesame Street compilation album In Harmony 2, and again in 1985 as a B-side to “My Hometown”, a single from the Born in the U.S.A. album. Springsteen’s rendition of the song has received radio airplay perennially at Christmastime for years; it appeared on Billboard magazine’s Hot Singles Recurrents chart each year from 2002 to 2009 due to seasonal air play. Live performances of the song often saw the band encouraging the audience to sing some of the lyrics with—or in place of—the band’s vocalists (usually the line “you’d better be good for goodness sake”, and occasionally the key line “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” as well). Sometimes, concert crowds would sing along with the entire song, and the band, who were known to encourage this behavior for the song, would do nothing to dissuade those audiences from doing so, instead welcoming the crowds’ enthusiasm. This version remains a Springsteen concert favorite during the months of November and December (often concluding the show), and the band is among the few that keep it in their roster of songs during the holidays. In The Kidsongs 1992 video We Wish You A Merry Christmas where Santa Claus and The Kidsonga Kids went for a sleigh ride, some of the lyrics had to be replaced by a repeat of the first section to make it very kid friendly.
Other well-known versions of this song include Mariah Carey from the album Merry Christmas (1994) and the Pointer Sisters version off the album A Very Special Christmas, also borrowing from the Crystal’s arrangement. Andy Williams performed the song on his album I Still Believe in Santa Claus, which was released on October 1, 1990.
2000 and after
Luis Miguel recorded the song in Spanish as “Santa Claus Llegó a La Ciudad” for his Christmas album Navidades (2006). His version of the song peaked at number 26 on the Billboard Latin Pop Songs chart.
The song has also been recorded in A capella versions. First by Straight No Chaser on their 2008 album Holiday Spirits, and later by Pentatonix on their 2014 album That’s Christmas to Me.
In October 2015, EMI Music Publishing lost the rights to J. Fred Coot’s stake in the song. EMI had earned the rights to the song via Leo Feist’s publishing company in the 1980s.
In December 2016, DNCE covered it with many pop artists who were popular at the time.
In September 2017, the family of Haven Gillespie sued Memory Lane Music Group for $700,000, asking for an 85% stake in “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”.
Canadian singer Michael Bublé’s version was released on October 24, 2011, as the second track on his Christmas album. His version has gained a lot of success, being the most-streamed cover of the song on Spotify, with over 104 million streams, as of January 23, 2019.