Why did Portland, Oregon ban the playing of Elvis Presley’s version of White Christmas?
In what Time magazine would call a crime against Christmas, Elvis Presley released Elvis’ Christmas Album on October 15, 1957. It went to the top ten overnight. It remains the world’s best-selling Christmas album and one of the best-selling albums of all time.
Elvis was the single most significant figure in rock and roll history. He challenged the social and moral values of the time with his music and outrageous dance moves. Ben Gross of the New York Daily News suggested that popular music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.”
Elvis’ music was banned. Effigies of Elvis were burned. The singer and his songs were considered a menace.
“White Christmas” is an Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting, written in 1942. The version sung by Bing Crosby is the world’s best-selling single (in terms of sales of physical media) with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide. Enter Elvis Presley and his sulks and pouts and the comparisons to “Mumbles,” the famous Dick Tracy character, as he gasps for breath every third word.
“I-He-I-He-I Dreamin’ of a White Kriss-Muss.”
Portland, Oregon, radio station KEX banned the playing of Presley’s version of the famous Christmas song. KEX disc jockey Al Priddy, three weeks later played the song anyway and was fired on December 7, 1957. He was told by the management “It is not in the spirit we associate with Christmas.”
The story put Portland on the map. Local newspapers reported the incident and the wire services picked it up, which spread the story around the globe. The story is listed in almanacs, yearbooks, encyclopedias, and rock ‘n’ roll chronicles.
Fast forward many years later, and it seems the entire episode was all a marketing ploy. The banning of the music. The late night rebellion against corporate wishes and the subsequent firing and then rehiring two weeks later of KEX disc jockey Al Priddy. A planned and choreographed publicity stunt that brought several mail trucks a day delivering mountains of mail bags and barrels of letters.
What is true is that Elvis reached out to Irving Berlin as a sort of peace offering, which was rejected. Elvis sent an autographed photo to Berlin– “To Mr. Irving Berlin with respect and admiration, Sincerely Elvis Presley.”