Born Robert Lee Helms, 15 August 1933, Bloomington, Indiana
Bobby Helms was a country singer who enjoyed his peak success in 1957 with three million sellers that crossed over to the pop charts. But he is not forgotten : each December he returns to the US airwaves with the all-time Christmas classic “Jingle Bell Rock”.
Helms grew up with country music. His father hosted the Monroe County Jamboree in Bloomington, Indiana, Bobby’s birthplace. It was on this show that Helms started his musical career, at the age of 13, singing while his brother Freddie played guitar. The Helms Brothers became a regional attraction and were given a daily 15 minute radio show on WTTS in Bloomington. By the time he was 18, Bobby had regular appearances on the popular local TV program Hayloft Frolic.
Helms made his first recordings in 1955 for the Speed label of Nashville. Two singles were released during that year, pure hillbilly. At the recommendation of Ernest Tubb, he was signed to Decca Records in April 1956. Bobby's first session resulted in the single “Tennessee Rock n Roll”, with great guitar work by Gardy Martin and Hank Garland. It stands as an unusual entry in what became a lengthy recording career. Helms never felt comfortable singing rock n roll and his vocals sound somewhat contrived. The next session, in November 1956, yielded four country numbers. “Fraulein” was selected as the A-side of the second Decca single. After a slow start, the song reached the # 1 slot on Billboard's country charts in September 1957, stayed there for four weeks and spent a total of 52 weeks (!) on the charts. On the pop charts it peaked at # 36. The next single, “My Special Angel”, was an even bigger hit : # 1 country (also for 4 weeks) and # 7 pop. Bobby finished 1957 with “Jingle Bell Rock”, the first pop hit to tie a Christmas theme with rock music. Like “My Special Angel”, it was more pop than country. “Jingle Bell Rock" reached # 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 (# 13 country) and hit the charts again in December of 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1996 (following the song’s inclusion in the movie “Jingle All the Way”). By 1962 it was a million seller.
Success continued in 1958 with Top 10 positions (country) for “Just A Little Lonesome” and “Jacqueline”, as well as three minor pop hits. One of my personal Helms favourites, “A Hundred Hearts” (released in October 1958), was the first non-charting Decca single since “Tennessee Rock n Roll”. Also recorded in 1958 was “Schoolboy Crush”, which was covered by Cliff Richard in the UK, as the A-side of his first single (with “Move It” as the original B-side). Helms in his turn covered a UK song, Dickie Bishop’s “No Other Baby”, improving on the original. He would stay with Decca until 1962, but after “Lonely River Rhine” (# 16 country, 1960) there were no more chart entries, apart from the annual re-entries of “Jingle Bell Rock”.
Come 1962, matters were bad for Helms. His mentor at Decca, Paul Cohen, had left the company, his manager Lee Emerson parted from Helms leaving him broke and in June Decca did not pick up the option to renew his recording contract. A one-year tenure with Columbia resulted in two singles and one album release with no success. Despite his personal problems, especially those with the bottle, Helms continued to tour throughout the sixties. He rejoined Paul Cohen, this time at Kapp Records (1965-1967). Two albums and five singles were issued, followed by yet another label switch, to Aubrey Mayhew’s Little Darlin’ label. Four minor country hits (none of them Top 30) were the result. Bobby's last chart entry came in 1970 with “Mary Goes Round” on Certron.
Though Helms kept trying for that elusive comeback in the 1970s and 1980s, his days as a major star were over. Eventually, excessive drinking and pill-popping wore him out. He lost vision in his right eye and took to wearing a patch over it. He suffered from diabetes, emphysema and stomach problems. In 1993 he appeared at the Harrogate C&W Festival in Yorkshire (UK), looking old and frail. Bobby Helms died of complications associated with asthma and emphysema on June 19, 1997. He was 63. His fame is forever based on his three 1957 hits, especially “Jingle Bell Rock”.
More info : http://www.waybackattack.com/helmsbobby.html
Biography : Lisa E. Ward & David Ward Davis, Jingle Bell Rock. North Fort Myers, Florida : Aalida Press, 1998. 387 pages. Out of print, but published as an e-book in 2011.
Discography / sessionography :
CD recommendation :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Bill Millar, Shaun Mather.
Dik, July 2015
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