Written for the Broadway star Eartha Kitt, this Christmas classic has been covered by everyone from Madonna to Ariana Grande
By 1953, New Yorker Philip Springer had already solidified his position as a prominent composer. His first Top 10 hit was 1950’s Teasin, recorded by Connie Haines and with lyrics written by Richard Adler and further success followed. Springer started his collaboration with songwriter Joan Javits in the spring of 1953, and by the autumn they had been handed a unique proposition: writing a Christmas song for Broadway’s then biggest star, Eartha Kitt. It took Springer a mere 10 minutes to compose the music for the song, and he and Javits spent the ensuing few weeks perfecting the lyrics – the suggestive nature of which courted controversy and no doubt boosted its popularity.
Now one of the most enduring Christmas songs of all time, Santa Baby was the tune the two created for their one-off commission. After an early October release, the song had sold over 200,000 copies by late November and peaked at No 10 on the US Billboard singles chart. Although Springer’s discography is filled with timeless music, Santa Baby stands as one of his most unforgettable works. The song has been covered by notable artists such as Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Ariana Grande, and Kylie Minogue, and remains well-loved by holiday fanatics worldwide. The magic of Santa Baby is something Springer says he’s still perplexed by and here he tells us how this undeniable Christmas cracker was written…
“The way [Joan Javits and I] got connected was I called her up and said, ‘Would you like to write songs with me?’ She said, ‘I don’t have the time.’ So I said, ‘Have you ever had a hit?’ She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well, as you know, I’ve just had a hit. Are you going to tell me that someone that didn’t have a hit is too busy to write with someone who did have a hit?’ And she said to me, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ So I said, ‘Nothing,’ and she said, ‘What’s your address?’ She came over that night and we fell in love, not physically but emotionally, because we wrote three songs that evening.
“Joan and I didn’t know about [writing Santa Baby] for at least a month after we got together. We got together, I think, in April, and the commission to write Santa Baby was in August, so that’s quite a time. In August two publishers [approached us], one of whom was sort of almost like a boyfriend of Joan. He asked Joan if she could write a Christmas song for Eartha Kitt, and she said, ‘Yes, provided that my new partner, Phil Springer, does the music.’ So they said, ‘Of course.’ So that’s how we got
“Most of the songwriters that wrote hits were not commissioned, like I knew Johnny Marks quite well, and he wrote Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, but he just did it on his own. Nobody told him to write it. The commission of Santa Baby was part of the unique thing, that is, to write a Christmas song for somebody who was the biggest star on Broadway, which Eartha Kitt was in 1953. That was unusual.
“All I knew was that [Eartha Kitt] really didn’t have much of a range of notes. So I had to watch Santa Baby very carefully, so that I didn’t embarrass her by writing notes that she couldn’t really sing. So that was the importance of the commission that I wrote the song for. And that made it so simple. It’s been easy for anybody to record it with or without the music. It’s so simple, Santa Baby.
“We wrote the song at 222 East 61st Street, New York City, just two songwriters in my beautiful East Side apartment. We had the title. That’s all. We sat down with the title and I composed a quick tune to fit the title, and that’s how it got started. The music was written in less than ten minutes. I had a broken down upright piano in my apartment, and that’s where it was written. I sold it for $15 about a year after we wrote Santa Baby. The lyrics were written over a three or four week period, both in New York City and Westport, Connecticut. The lyrics took a lot more sweat than the music. The music almost came to me immediately.
“I really didn’t think much about it [after writing it] because I was not impressed with the whole thing of writing a Christmas song for Eartha Kitt. I only went along with it because Joan talked me into it. So I didn’t feel anything when it was recorded. And the first time I felt anything was when I got a telephone call from Boston in October from my first solo writing partner, [Richard Adler], who was then writing the show Pajama Game in Boston. He said, ‘Phil, do you know that you’ve got a hit?’ And I said, ‘What is it? I have no idea what you’re talking about, Richard.’ And he said, ‘Santa Baby is a hit.’ Then I started feeling pretty good about it.
“Keep in mind that Santa Baby was recorded in 1953 by Eartha Kitt. Nobody else really recorded it until 1987 when Madonna recorded it. Madonna was the first person to cover the song, believe it or not. But when Madonna recorded it, every female artist started recording Santa Baby. That’s when the avalanche of records which we now have on Santa Baby started, because of Madonna.
“I could only tell you what the masters said about [where songwriting comes from]. They all agreed that it comes from God. I don’t feel in my own case that’s the answer. But I will say this. When I write music like Santa Baby or any of my other songs, my pen is being moved by a force outside of myself. I don’t know what the force is, but I don’t pretend that I am that master. I was just given that particular gift to hear music when I hear words and it comes from somewhere above. But I don’t know where.
“I’m still puzzled by why this song has the magic that it seems to have, but I do know that it has a magic. I’ve seen kids of five and six years old who I just happen to meet on train rides and buses singing the song and loving it. And I’ve heard from older people who I always met on Amtrak how much they love that song. So it has to have a magic, but I don’t know what that magic is.”