Bobby Helms Holiday Hit Still Jingles

        By Ronald Hawkins, - Saturday December 16, 2006

        When Bobby Helms first saw the sheet music for "Jingle Bell Rock," he didn't like what he saw. Work was needed on the song. Session guitarist Hank "Sugar Foot" Garland and Helms decided to make a few changes in the song written by Joe Beal and Jim Boothe.
        After those changes were incorporated, Helms' 1957 recording of "Jingle Bell Rock" went on to become what is still, 49 years later, a part of many family holiday celebrations along with eggnog, mistletoe, stockings and glowing Christmas trees. And that's in addition to it becoming a nearly instant hit.
        Martinsville residents Rob Helms and Angel McCartney, two of the singers' children, say the song has sold more than 100 million copies since it was released.
        On the walls of the Martinsville room where Rob Helms and the rest of the band Bigg Country rehearse are gold records symbolizing the success of that song. A picture of Bobby Helms taken during one of his appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" is part of the memorabilia in the room that bears homage to Helms' career.
        Helms lived in Bloomington when he recorded the song, but moved to Martinsville in the late 1950s. He lived most of his adult life in Martinsville until his death from emphysema in 1997, his children said.
        Helms isn't in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame nor the Country Music Hall of Fame, but his children say a good case can be made for his election to one of the halls. Helms is in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and a Web page at its site features him.
        "Anyone who sold 100 million records of one song deserves to be in the country or rock 'n' roll hall of fame," Rob Helms said.
        An article by John Bush at the Web site states, "Though his name is unfamiliar to most, Bobby Helms rules the airwaves every year around December 25th."
        After "Jingle Bell Rock" became a hit in 1957, it reappeared on the charts four of the following five years. Bush writes that the song is "an all-time Christmas classic."
        In addition to the "Ed Sullivan" appearances, Bobby Helms appeared on "American Bandstand" about a dozen times, his children said. During his career, he performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., and in other venues ranging from Market Square Arena in Indianapolis to halls in Germany. His break came after country legend Ernest Tubb saw him on "Hayloft Frolic," a program on Bloomington's Channel 4.
        "Jingle Bell Rock" makes the record sales charts nearly every year, but 1957 was the biggest year for the singer, his children said. The holiday song was one of three hits for Helms in 1957. "Fraulein" and "My Special Angel" soared on the country and popular music charts that year.
        "Fraulein" was his debut single in 1957. The song didn't sell well at first, but in April soared to Number One on the country charts.
        In October 1957, Helms' "My Special Angel" was released. It was Number One on the country charts for four weeks.
        Helms also found success on the pop music charts with "Fraulein" breaking into the Top 40 and "My Special Angel" reaching Number Seven.
        In an edition of Billboard's Hottest 100 Hits, "My Special Angel" was in the top 500 of a listing of the 3,000 biggest singles in the rock era from 1955 through the early 1990s.
        "Jingle Bell Rock" was released only two days before Christmas 1957, but it reached Number Six on the pop chart.
        At first, however, Helms hated the song and didn't want to record it, Rob Helms said. Garland, a top Nashville, Tenn., session guitarist, worked on the bridge with Helms, creating a perky guitar twang that meshed with Helms' voice and the background chorus.
        After the success of the record, Helms grew to love the song and sometimes honored requests to play it several times a night during live shows.
        After 1957, Helms followed his producer when he left Decca Records. Although several other songs reached the charts from 1959 to 1962, he never matched the success he had in 1957.
        Helms was being pulled between country, rockabilly and pop music, Rob Helms said.
        "He couldn't get the right direction," Rob Helms said. "On his albums, there were songs with strings and then there was hard core country. It did not work."
        Rob Helms, 41, and Angel McCartney, 38, children of his second marriage, were born after the glory years. Bobby Helms suspended touring at times during the 1970s to help care for their mother, who was hospitalized while battling mental illness, they said.
        At one point, the Helms family was forced to move out of its house and into an apartment, the children said.
        "When dad's career was going good, there were briefcases full of money," Robby Helms said. "Other times, the church had to bring us food. But he never quit."
        Bobby Helms held no resentment to artists who continued to have big hits and to the British invasion music of 1964, his children said.
        "If you're talking about The Beatles, he thought they were geniuses," Robby Helms said. "He said 'Yesterday' was the greatest song ever written."
        A slender 5-foot 8-inches tall, Helms was special in his children's lives, and he made permanent impressions, they said.
        "I'm proud of my dad," Angel McCartney said. "He was a sweetheart down deep inside."
        At 4-years-old, Robby Helms started playing drums and eventually accompanied his father at concerts. Angel McCartney was named after "My Special Angel."
        Helms died in 1997 in a Martinsville house on Morgan Street.
        Former Mayor Phil Deckard gave Bobby Helms a key to the city while he was still alive, but Rob Helms and McCartney would like to see the city make note of his contributions both to the community and to music. Helms performed in Martinsville including the Christmas tree lighting at Martinsville's Jimmy Nash Park. Visitors have come from as far away as Australia to see where Helms is buried,
        "There's no sign up anywhere saying this was the home of Bobby Helms and there is no street named after him," McCartney said. "A lot don't think about it, until this time of year."

Estate in dispute
        Nine years after the death of Bobby Helms, his estate is still the subject of a legal dispute between children of his first wife and his second wife.
        Bobby Helms had four children with his first wife in Bloomington. He had two children with his Martinsville wife.
        Dale Coffey, the Martinsville attorney who represents Rob Helms and Angel McCartney, said the case is slated to come to trial next spring, 10 years after the performer's death.
        While the suit lingers, royalties that are part of the estate are being placed in trust, Coffey said.

Helms' gold records: During his career, Bobby Helms' received gold records for:
  • "Frauline"
  • "My Special Angel"
  • "Jingle Bell Rock"
  • "New River Train"
  • "Just A Little Lonesome"
  • "Jacquelin"

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