Chicago, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” from What’s It Gonna Be, Santa? (2003): Saturdays in the Park

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“Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is one of five new tracks added to 2003’s What’s It Gonna Be, Santa?, an update of the 1998 release Chicago XXV. As the story goes, the band was considering doing an entirely new album in 2003, but budget constraints necessitated the recording of just five tunes, and they were mixed in for the re-release.

“Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is actually an old song – a very old song – with its origins dating back to a Emily Huntington Miller poem written in the 1800s. Guitarist Keith Howland sung his first lead vocal on this song, which stays very close to the original lyrics, at least until the ending. Early versions of the song included the lines: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susy wants a dolly. Nellie wants a story book, she thinks dolls are folly. As for me, my little brain isn’t very bright. Choose for me, dear Santa Claus what you think is right.” The lines, “what’s it gonna be, Santa; underneath the tree, Santa” are also an addition to the initial lyrics often credited to Benjamin Hanby.

The song starts off with a cold vocal, supported by a driving rhythm guitar. After a full pass through the lyrics (and a bit more), we get a nice horn break, with Chicago band member name-checks worked in: “Jason wants a Fender bass; Walt, a saxophone. Lee, he needs a flugelhorn; Jimmy, a trombone. Robert wants a baby grand; Bill, a new B-3. Tris, he wants a dolly but what’re you gonna bring for me, Santa?” (He wants a shiny electric gee-tar; imagine that.)

Interestingly, there’s also a demo out there of this track – and in my opinion, it’s superior to Chicago’s end product. “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” starts out the same but the initial vocal is more heavily processed, filtered, EQ’d – whatever. As the song proceeds, you’ll hear quite a few additional fills from keyboards and the horns. (Example: when Howland sings “Jimmy, a trombone,” in the demo you hear a smattering of Pankow trombone. The horn break is also noticeably different.)

I had read somewhere that when Howland was working on the song, he asked Tris Imboden about the dolly part, and he said “Leave it like that!” I asked Tris about that line and he said, “Yeah, that is a true story. I thought that line was funny because it could interpreted as ‘dolly BUTT.’ Cheap joke. Thanks for the demo. I haven’t heard it in a long time.”


‘Saturdays in the Park’ is a multi-writer, song-by-song examination of the music of Chicago. Find it here on Something Else! each Saturday.

Brinke Guthrie

Brinke Guthrie

Brinke has worked in Cincinnati and San Francisco radio. He also writes for TennisIdentity.com, DigitalTrends.com, UniWatch.com and Simplemost.com. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Brinke Guthrie
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