Elton John’s best-known festive song, “Step Into Christmas” arrived at the end of 1973. It capped off one of his most prodigious years.
In the preceding few months, John (born Reginald Dwight), released two of his most successful albums: Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Both soared to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. The boy from Pinner, England, had become a bona fide superstar!
You’d have thought John could be forgiven for putting his feet up and having a break for a few weeks. However, releasing Christmas songs was all the rage that year.
Fellow British acts Slade released “Merry Christmas Everyone” and Wizzard released “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”. Both proved huge hits in their home country.
John, who was obsessed with his chart statistics, perhaps wanted a piece of the action. Or maybe he was prodded to do so by his manager/then-lover John Reid?
Either way, he went into Morgan Studios in Willesden, London, on Sunday, November 11 (just four days after Slade’s song hit stores), and recorded “Step Into Christmas” with producer Gus Dudgeon.
The song was written in the morning and completed by the afternoon.
“Let’s do a Christmas record! we thought” said Elton recalling the song’s creation years later. “In those days we made records all the time. Bernie absolutely loves Christmas songs, so he was all for it.”
“The Christmas single is a real loon about and something we’d like to do a lot more of,” John said in an interview with Melody Maker at the time.
Phil Spector homage
The songwriters and producer all drew inspiration from the distinctive “wall of sound” technique behind enduring holiday hits for the likes of The Ronettes.
“We wanted to make an homage to Phil Spector. Part of what made Phil Spector records were the rooms, the musicians and the ambiance,” recalled John.
Kiki Dee, who signed to John’s Rocket Records, provides uncredited backing vocals.
“Step Into Christmas” was released as a stand-alone single in November 1973. It was backed by another original Christmas song by John and co-songwriter Bernie Taupin: “Ho, Ho, Ho (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas)”. Both were recorded on the same day.
For an artist obsessed with chart figures, “Step Into Christmas” may have proved a disappointing end to the year. It peaked at 24 on the UK charts. However, it went to number one on the Billboard Christmas Singles chart in the US. In his discography, it came between “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Bennie And The Jets” in early 1974.
Although not a huge hit everywhere at the time, it has since become a holiday classic. Its sales have also continued to edge up year after year. It returned to the UK charts in 2007 and has continued to do so since (peaking at number eight in 2019 and 2020). In 2021, Billboard finally awarded the song Platinum status for 500,000 sales.
Other Elton John Christmas songs
Perhaps given the initial lackluster reception to the song, it would be a few years before John again sang about Christmas. He and Taupin penned “Cold As Christmas (In The Middle Of The Year)” for the 1983 album Too Low For Zero. However, that was actually about two lovers drifting apart during a summer Caribbean holiday.
Two years ago, John teamed up with Ed Sheeran to release “Merry Christmas”. That collaboration shot to number one in the UK and number 42 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Two vocal versions of “Step Into Christmas” exist: The original and a version John recorded with his band for The Gilbert O’Sullivan Show on TV. The second performance is notable because it features a rare appearance on set by Bernie Taupin. He stood in for John’s regular percussionist on the day of filming (skip to the 2-minute mark to check it out).
Lastly, should you want to check out the rare B-side, you can listen below. With a chorus of “Ho! Ho! Ho! Guess who’s here? Your fat and jolly friend draws near,” it sounds considerably more dated than its classic A-side, although going by some of the comments on YouTube, it still has its fans.