SALT LAKE CITY — When Eartha Kitt recorded “Santa Baby” in July of 1953, it was a huge hit for the sultry chanteuse and Broadway star. Although some criticized it for being irreligious, the Christmas song, with its greedy lyrics and catchy melody, actually has a redeeming quality at the end, according to the composer of the song, Philip Springer.
“You remember it says ‘Santa baby, forgot to mention one little thing, a ring’? That was my line,” Springer, 92, said with a laugh. He spoke with the Deseret News by phone from his home in Los Angeles about the song that has become an American classic.
“People didn't realize that made the lyric very moral,” Springer explained. “Nobody caught that. … That line really says 'I want you to marry me.' … I’ve always believed that my line makes it clear that she is saying ‘Santa baby, I also want to marry you if you want to go along with this relationship.'”
Over the course of his long songwriting career, Springer wrote songs for Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland and many other famous performers, but the one that may surprise Utahns the most is his 2007 collaboration with Sen. Orin Hatch. The sense of morality that he brought to "Santa, Baby" proved to be a commonality between the songwriter and senator.
'Forgot to mention one little thing, a ring'
Springer was one of those children who had music inside of him from a young age. When he was just 6 years old, Springer recalled sitting at the piano and playing by ear a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. By the age of 15 he had begun to compose music. He knew he was going to have a career in music, but he wasn’t sure if it would be as a concert pianist or as a composer.
When he was 18, Springer joined the army and served as a truck driver. After WWII, actor Mickey Rooney invited the musically gifted Springer into the “special service” to entertain the troops.
Once home, and fresh out of the army, Springer applied for admission to the Juilliard School, where he auditioned with Chopin’s technically difficult "Fantaisie-Impromptu." After his performance the teacher turned him down for the prestigious music school, telling him, “your fingers get around pretty fast, but that’s not technique.”
For some, this might have been a heartbreaking rejection, but Springer said he was “delighted” to be turned down. That rejection to the prominent performing arts institution set him free to follow his dream to become a composer.
Springer went on to get a degree in music theory and was working on a second degree along with his own compositions when he got the chance to compose “Santa Baby.” He was only 27.
"My partner was a very close friend of the publisher," he said. "Her name was Joan Javits, and they had not only a business but a personal relationship. She's the one who brought me into the picture. She said, 'yes, I could write the lyrics but Philip Springer, my new partner, will have to do the music."
But although Springer loved Christmas carols, he did have some reservations about writing the song when Javits asked him to compose the music in the summer of 1953.
“I felt that because (Kitt) was a sort of highly, very sexual attraction that it would be hard to write a Christmas song,” Springer recalled of the request to write the song for Kitt. “No Christmas song ever written before ‘Santa Baby’ was a sexy song. I was a little skeptical.”
Those doubts would soon be shattered. In October of that year, Springer received a call from a friend in Boston with the news that “Santa Baby” was a hit.
Springer said the song was highly criticized when he wrote it “because Christmas is not supposed to be a sexy holiday.” But through the years "Santa Baby" has become an accepted American Christmas carol.
And the music to that classic song took Springer about 10 minutes to write.
“As far as the music goes, that was the easiest thing in the world for me to do,” Springer said.” “I knew that Eartha Kitt had a limited range of notes and I knew exactly how to write for her.”
Springer and Javits worked on the song and in about three weeks completed the lyrics, including Springer's contribution when Javits got stuck on the last line of the song.
“Even though I’m basically a music writer, I have worked with so many lyric writers that I can write lyrics myself,” Springer said “It’s very lonely to sit there and write a song without a partner.”
The relationship between a lyric writer and a composer is an intimate one, according to Springer.
“When you write a song with somebody, there's absolutely no guard,” Springer said. “You just say whatever you feel. And the two of you develop the ability to create in that way. And that's why it is such a unique relationship."
An unlikely musical duo: 'Santa Baby' and Sen. Hatch
Back in 2007, Springer’s wife saw an article and photo in a newspaper that showed Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch at the piano, writing a song. The piece gave Springer the idea to write a letter to the senator, asking if he would like to collaborate on a song.
“I didn’t have very high hopes,” Springer said. “But I thought I would try it.”
The effort paid off. Hatch replied that he would be honored to work with the songwriter, and later that year, the two met at the senator’s office in Washington, D.C., where Hatch introduced him as “the guy who wrote ‘Santa Baby,’” Springer said.
“I’ve never met a great political figure before, so I was a little bit in awe of him,” Springer said. “But he was extremely gentle and considerate. He treated me immediately like a friend.”
The new friends began their collaboration that year, and in 2009 the two would work on a song that would eventually honor an unlikely friendship in the senate.
The title of that song, “Headed Home,” came from a simple question.
“We were talking on the phone … and I said ‘What are you doing right now?’” Springer said. “(Hatch) said, ‘I’m headed home.’ And I said ‘Senator, that’s the title of our song.’”
Springer slightly changed the lyrics of “Headed Home” when Hatch asked if he could dedicate the song to Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was at that time in poor health. Through their work in the U.S. Senate, an unlikely friendship had formed between the conservative Republican and the liberal Democrat.
The words “follow him” were changed to “honor him,” and when Kennedy died in August of 2009, Hatch dedicated “Headed Home” to his friend.
Almost 10 years after writing “Headed Home,” Springer continues to compose music, and the retiring senator from Utah has kept in contact with Springer since that collaboration. In fact, Springer said Hatch inspired him to write a recent Christmas song.
Although the two come from different religious backgrounds — Springer is Jewish and Hatch is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Springer respects the Utah senator who he calls “a good friend to the state of Israel.”
“(Hatch) was really into writing religious songs, and very often in the songs we wrote, he would throw in a line that reflected his deep religiosity,” Springer said.
Springer’s song, “Turn, Turn to Him,” grew out of his “compassion for all those who are without help, without hope, without faith,” according to Springer's YouTube channel.
This holiday season, Springer's latest song has a special message, but unlike his famous “Santa Baby," it's not one of materialist requests. Rather, this one tells of “compassion, hope and love,” according to his website composerofsantababy.com.
And although “Santa Baby” may not have the spiritual meaning of “Turn, Turn to Him,” his old hit song has inspired countless cover variations.1 comment on this story
From Michael Bublé’s ”buddy” version to Madonna’s playful rendition, to Taylor Swift's country cover (Springer’s favorite) to Lindsey Stirling's recent cover, "Santa Baby" is one of the most covered songs in 21st century American Christmas song history. In 2008, the same year that Kitt died, the Recording Industry Association of America awarded "Santa Baby" certified gold.
But the one person Springer really wants to record his famous tune has so far been absent.
“Everybody from Michael Bublé to Taylor Swift to you name it and they’ve done it. Except for Barbara Streisand,” Springer said. “She never recorded it, unfortunately. I wish she had recorded it very much so. But you can’t have everything.”