Johnny Marks, one of the greatest writers of Christmas songs in the twentieth century, already had several holiday hits under his belt by the time he was approached to write the music for the 1964 Rankin/Bass television special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer“. Since he was responsible for the 1949 song on which the special was based, it was only natural that he be asked to provide other music.  Among the original songs Marks would write for the show were “Silver and Gold”, “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year”, and “We are Santa’s Elves”.

There was one song used in the soundtrack, however, that was not written specifically for the special, and it wasn’t the title song.  It had been written by Marks two years earlier, in 1962, and had already been recorded by the time Burl Ives was signed on late in the production to star as Sam the Snowman (the original story line did not even include Sam, the character’s songs had already been done by Larry D. Mann in the character of Yukon Cornelius).

The song?  “Holly Jolly Christmas”.  The artists to record it before Burl Ives?  The Quinto Sisters.

Could it be that some of you are not acquainted with the story of The Quinto Sisters?  Well, pull up an ice block and lend an ear.

The Quinto SistersThe singing career of the Quinto Sisters (Quinto is their stage name, a shortened version of Giaquinto) began quite by accident, and might not have happened at all if not for the gifted ear of Mom Giaquinto.  After she’d heard her eldest daughter, Lee, singing along to the radio, she had the idea of gathering her other daughters, Bonnie, Chris, Elaine, Renée and Cindy, and having all six of them sing together.  Mom gave each of them part of a song to perform, had them practice until they got it right, and then did the same with more songs.  It wouldn’t be long before Mom had them ready to perform in public.

From the humble beginnings of the Quinto Sisters’ singing career, where they sang for free at a nursing home and at Muscular Distropy fundraising dinners, they moved on to paying gigs (they would earn $25) at organizations such as the Elks Club, Moose Club, and Knights of Columbus.  Mom Giaquinto would act as the girls’ manager, arranger, and publicist (in these early days, whe was also responsible for creating the girls’ matching outfits, and even cut their hair).  As Chris Quinto explains, “Mom did all our arrangements. She was a natural at creating harmonies. She taught us everything and she also was a force of one when it came to getting us gigs and promoting us.”  It wasn’t long before Mom was able to persuade producers of television shows to audition the girls for appearances.

The Quinto Sisters sang on shows such as the long-running children’s variety show “Wonderama” and the amateur talent contest show “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour” (when they appeared on June 10, 1962, they were aged 4 to 12).  Having made a name for themselves on television and in local newspapers, the Quinto Sisters would soon find themselves in the recording studio, thanks to professional photographer and financial backer Jack Diamond.  Another supporter was Roger Genger, who, says Chris Quinto, “dabbled in up and coming recording artists and his wife gave us free tap dancing lessons in their dance studio in Journal Square.”  Diamond’s Diamond Glow Records would release the girls’ first single, Genger’s “Tex the Cowboy Santa Claus” (with Jimmie Dale’s “Skinny Little Christmas Tree” on the flip side), which they recorded in a small studio with local musicians.

Milton Berle and the Quinto SistersIn January and February 1964, the Quinto Sisters appeared six times on “Sing Along with Mitch“, hosted by bandleader and Columbia Records producer Mitch Miller.  One of their numbers, “When Frances Dances with Me“, was with funny man Milton Berle.  As Chris Quinto tells it, “We had actually already been performing in public for several years before we went on ‘Sing Along with Mitch’.  So we felt confident with our singing ability if not our acting skills.”  During this time, the girls would meet some of the most famous and influential people in show business, including George Burns, Shirley Temple, Sebastian Cabot, and The Four Seasons (who were interested in handling the Quinto Sisters and even wrote a song for them, which was never recorded).

In early 1964, Columbia Records took notice of the singing act and signed the Quintos on to record several more singles and their first and only album, “Holly Jolly Christmas“.

With their stint at Columbia, they’d hit the big time.  Their singing on “Holly Jolly Christmas” would be backed by noted guitarist Al Caiola and the orchestrations would be arranged and conducted by exotica greats Frank Hunter and Marty Manning.  As Chris Quinto remembers the June 1964 recording session, “the Christmas album was recorded using a full orchestra with strings, French Horns and tympani drums. The famous guitarist Al Ciaola was there, too, playing for us, and it was an honor to be associated with him.  He is famous for the ‘Mod Squad’ and the ‘Untouchables’ theme songs. He did some very beautiful guitar work on our album in ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ ‘Sixty-Seven Santas,’ ‘A Skinny Little Christmas Tree’ and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’…  We went to the studio and met and sang for Frank Hunter and Marty Manning before we made the album. They recorded us singing acapella in harmony and worked from those tapes to create the instrumental arrangements around us for most of the songs.”

Holly Jolly Christmas by The Quinto SistersBy this time, the Quinto Sisters had a few years of experience singing together, and their collective harmonies and individual voices are a perfect match for the songs chosen for the album and the arrangements by Mom Giaquinto.  Most songs feature the girls singing as one, but the solo efforts (Lee sings lead on “Mrs. Santa Claus”, Elaine sings the tongue-in-cheek “Baby Brother”, and then-six-year-old Cindy performed “Skinny Little Christmas Tree”) demonstrate the talented voices that their mother heard from the beginning.

“Mom ordered several hundred copies [of ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’] as soon as they came off the press, so to speak,” says Chris.  “We sold them door to door and autographed them for three dollars apiece.”

The Quinto Sisters would appear on Jimmy Dean’s variety show on December 24, 1964, along with Jerry Vale, country singer Porter Wagoner, and Dean’s wife and children.  They were joined by Jimmy Dean in singing “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

It is important to note that the Quinto Sisters, not Burl Ives, were the first to record Johnny Marks’ “Holly Jolly Christmas”.  The song was given to them for their album, along with “We Are Santas Elves,” “Sixty-Seven Santas” and “The Island of Misfit Toys/The Most Wonderful Day of The Year”, by Columbia.  The studio would later give “Holly Jolly Christmas” to Ives to re-record for his 1965 release, and, for or many, it would become his signature song.  The Quinto Sisters were unaware that the song had been given to Ives, who perhaps likewise did not even know about the Quintos.  “They didn’t have to tell us.  We were their employees,” explains Chris.  “I learned to love Burl Ives and his ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ TV special over the years, but watching it on television after we recorded those songs and had been peddling them door to door for six months was very disappointing.”

Mitch Miller and The Quinto SistersThe significance of the song “Holly Jolly Christmas” can not be understated.  “At this point,” says Chris Quinto, “so many people have adopted and adapted the words ‘Holly Jolly Christmas,’ that if you Google those three words, you will get about 50,000 results for items, websites and recordings by other artists. ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ is more than a song.  It has become a phrase used by everyone during the holiday season.”  Indeed, “Holly Jolly” is now used to describe everything from store holiday sales to dog toys and coats to trolley rides to annual “Holly Jolly runs“.  The song itself has appeared in numerous film soundracks, and the song’s title was used as the title for a 1996 episode of “Grace Under Fire”.  Jim Carrey’s character was even heard to mutter, “Are you having a holly, jolly Christmas?” in the 2000 film, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”.  It is now a part of the holiday vocabulary.

“Holly Jolly Christmas” remains a very special song to Chris Quinto.  “Whichever artist you prefer, Burl Ives’ comfy, homespun version our ours, I am happy to know that so many people are still enjoying that beautiful song. I still get a thrill whenever I play it.  I must mention that the nice man who created and maintains our website was about two years old when I knocked on his door and sold the autographed album to his dad. His older brother still has the original copy.”

The recordings of Lee, Bonnie, Chris, Elaine, Renee and Cindy Quinto continue to delight fans old and new.

Many thanks to Chris Quinto for her support and help with this article.  “Please enjoy our music and wish all your readers a ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ from the Quinto Sisters,” says Chris.

Please visit the official Quinto Sisters web site, where you can listen to all of the Quinto Sisters’ recordings and see photos and videos.

Steve Hamilton