Bobby Helms (born Robert Lee Helms in 1933 – died in 1997) was an American country singer, born in Martinsville, Indiana from a musical family. He started his musical career performing with his brother Freddie. Helms forged to become a country singer and so went to Nashville, Tennessee. After his single “Fraulein” went to #1 on the country chart during the 50s music scene, Helms went on to achieve the peak of success with “My Special Angel” and most especially “Jingle Bell Rock” which was a top Christmas hit for the next few years – it’s now an enduring holiday classic. Helms went on to record and perform in the next three decades before retiring and living his last years on the outskirts of his birthplace. He died in 1997, after a bout of lingering illness. He was 63 years old.
Helms’ early life and career
Robert Lee Helms was an American country singer known professionally as Bobby Helms. Helms was born August 5, 1933 in Bloomington, Indiana. His talent was naturally inherited from his musically-inclined family. Helms’ first singing performance was in his father’s Fred’s Monroe County Jamboree where his brother Freddie played guitar; the two brothers eventually formed a duo. They later became a regional attraction as The Helms Brothers but had a short-lived career. He later went to Nashville where he got a job singing background vocals on a recording session led by another country singer-songwriter Ernest Tubb. In 1956 Helms went solo, and later that same year he landed a record deal with Decca Records through Tubb’s recommendation.
Helms at the peak of his career
Helms made his first recordings in 1955 for the Nashville-based Speed label. Two country singles were released during that year. In April 1956, on the advice of Ernest Tubb, he was signed to Decca Records. Bobby’s first recording session yielded the single “Tennessee Rock ‘n Roll,” which featured outstanding guitar work by Gardy Martin and Hank Garland. It was an outlier in what would become a lengthy music career. Helms never felt at ease singing rock ‘n’ roll, and his vocals sound slightly artificial.
In 1957, Helms released his debut single, “Fraulein” which was a flop in January 1957 but became a chart-topper on the country chart the following April. The song also made to the Top 40 in July of 1947. The following year, he released another single “My Special Angel” which also made to the top spot on the country charts and on the Billboard pop music chart, reaching at #7.
Still with Decca, Helm’s next release was the Christmas song “Jingle Bell Rock” which was released two days before Christmas Day in 1957. The single was a big hit; it went up to #6 on the pop chart and stayed for twenty-one weeks. Since it was a popular holiday song, it re-entered the charts four times more (in 1958, 1960, 1961 and 1962). “Jingle Bell Rock” rose to become one of the Christmas favourite staples of all time. It was the second million-seller for Helms which took five years to reach the volume of sales. The song also received a gold disc award.
Helms released two singles in 1958 — “Just a Little Lonesome” and “Jacqueline.” They were a failure in some charts.
Also recorded in 1958 was “Schoolboy Crush,” which Cliff Richard covered for the A-side of his first single in the UK (the original B-side was “Move It”). Helms then recorded “No Other Baby” by Dickie Bishop, enhancing the original version. He remained with Decca until 1962, although after “Lonely River Rhine” (#16 country, 1960), there were no more chart entries, with the exception of “Jingle Bell Rock annual re-entries.
Helms “Jingle Bell Rock”
“Jingle Bell Rock” has been performed by many, but Helms’ first version from 1957 produced by Paul Cohen is the best known. The song’s title and portions of its lyrics are derived from the traditional Christmas tune “Jingle Bells.” It features minor references to other popular 1950s songs, including “Rock Around the Clock,” and mentions attending a “Jingle hop.” Hank Garland’s electric guitar may be heard playing the opening few chords of Jingle Bells chorus. The Anita Kerr Singers were her backup singers.
Helms re-recorded the song on Kapp K-719 in 1965 and Little Darlin’ in 1967 after releasing the first version on Decca 9-30513 in October of 1957. Helms recorded a whole album named Jingle Bell Rock in 1970, releasing the title tune with a picture package. The song was re-recorded for Gusto Records and then released on their “Power Pak” label. Helms released yet another re-recorded version of Ashley. On Black Rose 82713, Helms released his final rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” in 1983.
This rendition was adapted to the Disney shorts Once Upon a Wintertime from Melody Time and On Ice by D-TV.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Helms attempted an elusive comeback, but his days as a major performer were finished. His incessant drinking and pill popping eventually tired him out. He wore a patch over his right eye after losing eyesight in it. He suffered from diabetes, emphysema and gastrointestinal difficulties. In 1993, he appeared at the Harrogate Country and Western Festival in Yorkshire, England, appearing old and feeble.
Helms continued to tour and release numerous singles for the next three decades. He was also recognized by the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame for his substantial contribution for the genre.
On June 19, 1997, Helms passed away due to emphysema and asthma in Martinsville, Indiana where he spent most of his later years. He was 63. He may be gone but his songs will always be remembered especially by oldies music fans.