"Sleigh Ride" is a popular light orchestral piece composed by Leroy Anderson. The composer had the original idea for the piece during a heat wave in July 1946; he finished the work in February 1948. Though it was originally an instrumental piece, lyrics, about a person who would like to ride in a sleigh on a winter's day with another person, were written by Mitchell Parish in 1950. The orchestral version was first recorded in 1949 by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. The song was a hit record on RCA Victor Red Seal 49-0515 (45 rpm) / 10-1484 (78 rpm), and has become the equivalent of a signature song for the orchestra. The 45 rpm version was originally issued on red vinyl. The Pops has also recorded the song with John Williams, their conductor from 1979 to 1995, and Keith Lockhart, their current conductor. Over the years, the song has become a Christmas standard.
Several versions of the song include the sound of a clopping sound, and a whip, in order to give the feeling of the movement of the sleigh ride.. Some versions also feature the sound of a whinnying horse, heard especially in the Coda of the song. In the Leroy Anderson version, a musical instrument imitating the sound of a horse whinnying, while in the Ronnettes version, the whinnying of the horse is heard in the introduction as well as in the Coda sections of the song.
Although "Sleigh Ride" is often associated with Christmas, and often appears on Christmas compilation albums, the song's lyrics never specifically mention any holiday or religion (apart from certain recordings, such as those by the Carpenters, Walter Schumann and Air Supply, that substitute "Christmas party" for "birthday party" in the song's bridge). In fact, the mention of "pumpkin pie" in the last verse might suggest an association with Thanksgiving rather than Christmas.
According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers [ASCAP] review of Christmas music, "Sleigh Ride" consistently ranks in the top 10 list of most performed songs written by ASCAP members during the Christmas season worldwide.
ASCAP named "Sleigh Ride" the most popular piece of Christmas music in the USA for the four consecutive years 2009 through 2012, based on performance data tracked by airplay monitoring service, Mediaguide, from over 2,500 radio stations nationwide. To this day, Leroy Anderson's recording remains the most popular instrumental version, while Johnny Mathis' recording has become the most popular vocal version.
According to author Steve Metcalf, in his book, Leroy Anderson: A Bio-Bibliography [Praeger 2004], "'Sleigh Ride' ... has been performed and recorded by a wider array of musical artists than any other piece in the history of Western music."
The middle section, or bridge, utilizes an unusual, unprepared modulation to III, then to II, of the tonic key. The difficulty of singing this has caused several recordings to alter the chord changes or omit the section altogether, as in the Ronettes' version.
- 1949 – Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. The original hit recording, this version has never been available on CD. Later, stereo recordings were made by the Boston Pops under conductors Fiedler (1959, 1970, and 1972), John Williams (1991), and Keith Lockhart (1998 and 2003).
- 1950 – Leroy Anderson. The Decca Gold Label Series singles (#16000), both 45 and 78 rpm, referenced above were not issued as individual records. They were part of the four-disc set Leroy Anderson Conducts His Own Compositions. Anderson later re-recorded "Sleigh Ride" in stereo for the 1959 Decca LP Leroy Anderson Conducts Leroy Anderson.
- 1958 – Johnny Mathis – Merry Christmas. The best-known vocal recording.
- 1963 – The Ronettes – A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. Though not initially popular, this recording has become the most popular non-traditional pop recording of the song, charting in the top 10 yearly on the Billboard US Holiday 100.
- 2008 – Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – Jingle All the Way. This rendition was nominated for the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
- Currier & Ives was a popular printing company in the 19th century. The company closed in 1907, 43 years before the song's lyrics were written.
- The whip cracks are made by a percussionist, preferably with a slapstick, occasionally with rimshots.
Classical "Sleigh Ride" pieces
"Die Schlittenfahrt (Sleigh Ride)" is also the popular name given to one of the Three German Dances composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The composition is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Wolfgang's father, Leopold Mozart (whose own Divertimento in F major is popularly known as "Musical Sleigh Ride").
The "Winter Night" segment of Frederick Delius' Three Small Tonepoems is also commonly known as "Sleigh Ride".