Gayla Peevey Of 'I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas' Fame Was Only 10 Years Old
“I want a hippopotamus for Christmas, only a hippopotamus will do,” those strange lyrics sung by a cute 10-year-old girl have been stuck in our heads since 1953 when Gayla Peevey implored her parents for an offbeat Christmas wish. Even though the track was a clear novelty song destined for the back half of a thousand Christmas compilations it managed to be a hit in 1953, and it’s so memorable that it’s continued to grow in popularity in spite of the fact that it’s one of the most maddening songs of the holiday season. This Christmas-wrapped earworm may have been a one-off, but it brought far more than the fleeting fame of a one hit wonder to Gayle Peevey.
Peevey was a seasoned vet at the age of 10
Even though her fresh face and flaxen curls make her seem like a pop song neophyte, Peevey started working as a professional singer when she was only eight-years-old. Throughout the early ‘50s she sang at local fairs and festivals before scoring a regular gig on Hoagy Carmichael’s Saturday night Revue.
Her performances caught the ear of Columbia Records executive Mitch Miller who thought she’d be perfect for, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” written by songwriter John Rox. Peevey traveled from her home in Oklahoma to New York City where she cut the track in three takes with Miller on the oboe while leading her backing band.
Her performance on “Toast of the Town” was a last minute switcheroo
Keep in mind that Peevey was only 10-years-old during her rise to Christmas fame so she simply a cog in the wheel of the Columbia records machine. After the song’s release she was signed to an exclusive contract with NBC, something that made sure she stayed on televisions long after the Christmas season. Or it would have if her manager hadn’t canceled the contract at the last minute so she could perform the song on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. She later told the New York Times:
I didn’t get another NBC contract after that. I don’t know if the manager made the best decision, but everybody watched Ed Sullivan. The record took off and was a big hit.
The Oklahoma City Zoo got into the spirit of the song
In 1953 “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” was such a massive hit that it influenced Peevey’s local zoo in Oklahoma City to host a fundraising campaign so they could “buy a hippo for Gayla.” They ended up making $3,000, which was about $28,000 in 2018, and they were able to pick up a baby hippo that was named Matilda. The Oklahoma City Zoo presented Matilda to Gayla, and she promptly donated it back to the zoo. Matilda lived for another 50 years, and when she passed away Peevey was on hand to present the zoo with their newest addition in 2017, a rare pygmy hippopotamus.
Peevey still cashes checks from the song
How much play can a Christmas novelty song really get? Quite a bit. So much so that when Peevey’s daughter looked into the former singer’s account with Sony Music, who now owns Columbia, she discovered a pretty big stocking stuffer. Peevey told the New York Times:
They were holding funds of just under a hundred grand that had been adding up since 2008. I couldn’t believe it. It’s pretty fun… I thought my life as a 73-year-old was going to be all about playing with my grandchildren. But for people to have all this interest in me has opened things up for me — I’ve retired, but my song hasn’t.
People still love this maddening Christmas novelty
Maybe you’re not a hippo person, maybe you’re not even all that into Christmas, or the winter holidays in general. As a Scrooge it may come as a shock to you that there’s a large portion of the population who loves this song. People are buying it on iTunes, popular artists like Kacey Musgraves and Gretchen Wilson cover it regularly around the holiday, and kids can’t get enough of it. Dana Caro, the director of a second-grade Christmas music program at a suburban Southern California school told the Chicago Tribune:
Over 15 years now we've done it, and I don't think we're stopping. Even in class today, we weren't in rehearsal yet when one kid started singing it, and then they were all singing it.
The song inspired an ornament
As if the everlasting weirdness of this song wasn’t enough, the idea of a Christmas hippo has inspired Hallmark to create their very own hippopotamus shaped Christmas ornament that plays the famous novelty song in 2008. Of course people loved the ornament so Hallmark routinely releases versions of the ornament - they put out four of them between 2008 and 2016. If you were unsure of the overwhelming power of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” then look no further than this piece of festive Americana. The ornaments makes sure that people who don’t even know the name Gayla Peevey will be enjoying her song long after she’s gone.
Tags: Christmas Songs | Novelty Music
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