Martinsville roots of Christmas classic ‘Jingle Bell Rock’

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MARTINSVILLE – “To me the song catches you as soon as that guitar lick comes in. I don’t think anybody doesn’t recognize that.”

The riff Rob Helms refers to was laid down just before Christmas 1957 when his father Bobby Helms and his guitarist went into a recording studio for their producers at Decca Records.

“They said, ‘We gotta get a Christmas song to you,’” Helms said the record company told his father. “But he hated it. He didn’t want to record it so him and Sugarfoot Garland made some changes to it.”

Helms and Garland reworked the song and built an instrumental bridge into the middle of it.

“Jingle Bell Rock” was released two days before Christmas and rose to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. A holiday musical classic was born.

“We got our gold records for Jingle Bell Rock here for over 100,000 copies sold,” said Helms as he stood before a framed collection of 45s on the wall of his studio behind his Martinsville home.

Bobby Helms was a rockabilly star who was born in Bloomington and went to Nashville, Tenn., to become a star.

But he always came home to Martinsville, where he died of complications of emphysema in 1997.

“People would come over and he would sing,” said Helms. “Him and a guitar. That was nothing abnormal.”

Helms played drums behind his father on tours and on a WTTV-TV show later in his career.

“’Jingle Bell Rock’ was in every show,” he said. “It could be 100 degrees outside and we did that. There was never a show I did with Dad that we didn’t do ‘Jingle Bell Rock.’”

1957 was a big year for Helms as he released his other two biggest hits, “Fraulein” and “My Special Angel.”

Helms continued to record and perform for decades.

“Any artist would want to have a song that would last until the end of time and I just believe that Jingle Bell Rock will be here until the end of time,” said Helms. “Just like White Christmas by Bing Crosby.

“’Jingle Bell Rock’ is more known for ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ than Bobby Helms, but Dad is the one who did it. His version is the one that’s the biggest seller and his version is the one that will be here until the end of time.”

Bobby Helms is buried in Hillside Cemetery in Martinsville.

On his headstone it reads: “Here lies a legend–Mr. Jingle Bell Rock.”