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The tale of a Hoosier legend with a hit Christmas song

Rob Helms fills his home office with tributes to his dad, the legendary country singer, Bobby Helms
Posted at 7:30 AM, Dec 02, 2022

MARTINSVILLE — There's something about a tune that can connect people young and old. Some songs transcend musical trends and remain popular on the charts and in our hearts for decades.

Jingle Bell Rock is one of those songs.

"It's the beat. It's that guitar thing in the middle," said Martinsville's Rob Helms, who is a drummer and concert promoter. "And the thing that sticks out to me is the snare drum. It's just such a great sounding snare drum for that era."

Rob knows music, but he really knows that popular Christmas tune and the man behind the music.

"Very, very fortunate, my father is Bobby Helms," said Rob. "He is the actual original singer of the hit Christmas classic of Jingle Bell Rock."

Bloomington's own Bobby Helms was born and raised in Monroe County and got his musical start early in life.

"When he was a young kid, I think at the age of nine, he was performing on a radio show in Bloomington, Indiana," said Rob. "Then he moved on to what they called the Hayloft Frolic TV show."

The Hayloft Frolic TV show was a top country music program in the state of Indiana in its time and it led Bobby to be recognized by a big name in music.

Ernest Tubb asked Bobby if he always sang that way, and Bobby replied yes.

Tubb, nicknamed the Texas Troubadour, was a singer, songwriter and is considered a pioneer of country music.

Rob says Tubb helped his dad get on with Decca Records, which was one of the biggest record labels at the time for country music.

"I mean, you had Patsy Cline. And, you know, Ernest, and all these different artists," said Rob. "His biggest first release was a song called Fraulein. It stayed in the top 10 for 52 consecutive weeks. And then they released a song called My Special Angel, which went into the Top 10 in the charts, crossed over to the pop field."

After a few country hits in the 1950s, Bobby was brought down to Nashville to listen to a song called Jingle Bell Rock.

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Bobby Helms in 1994

WRTV's Ben Morrison interviewed Bobby back in 1994, long after the song became a hit. He tells Morrison how he wasn't a fan at first.

"I come to Nashville and they played it for me, and right then I didn't like the song," said Bobby. "It was done with an electric organ and the guy couldn't sing."

So Morrison reported that Helms rewrote the song and 15 minutes later, a classic was born.

"So then I told them 'let's cut it,'" said Bobby.

That hit would sell more than 100 million records.

"Well it's paid a lot of bills, you know, and it's a thing I hope just keeps going," said Bobby. "My grandchildren enjoy the money from it."

But for Rob and the family, it isn't about the money. This is his dad's legacy and he is working to preserve it, after Bobby passed at the age of 63 back in 1997.

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Rob Helms, Bobby's son, is a drummer and concert promoter in Martinsville and started a tribute band to his late father. Rob toured with his dad as his road manager and drummer out of high school.

"Last year Dad's version I think went to number 3 on the Billboard Charts, and you are talking about since 1957," said Rob.

Around Rob's Martinsville home office, you find pictures, records, awards, tapes, his dad's guitar and more. It's like a museum to the late singer and those memories are ones Rob is proud to share.

Rob is also proud that after high school, he got to tour with his dad.

"I didn't go to college and maybe sometimes I look back and think, 'I probably should've done that,'" said Helms. "I had the opportunity to play drums for him, and I wouldn't trade that for anything."

Now, Rob has a 10-piece band called the Bobby Helms Jingle Bell Rockin Tribute Band, with his nephew, Bobby's grandson, on lead vocals.

"He sounds just like my dad. It's incredible," says Rob. "I mean, when I listened, I was like, 'oh my gosh, it's Dad.'"

The band plays a variety of performances, but one coming up in particular is extra special to Rob.

The tribute band will play Sunday, December 4 at the Martinsville Tree Lighting, which pays homage to Bobby's home.

"What we've decided to do now is pay a little homage to Dad and the Christmas song Jingle Bell Rock," said Rob. "I mean, Dad was born and raised in Bloomington and then when he met my mother, they got married and had us, me and my sister, here in Martinsville, Indiana. So this is where he's from. It's from Indiana. And the song itself, I mean, it's based out of Indiana. I mean, Dad recorded in Tennessee, but this is where Dad did his thing."

At the Christmas Tree Lighting, Martinsville will dedicate their new stage and host entertainment from 3 to 7 p.m. before the tree lighting. It is a free, family-friendly event filled with Christmas traditions for the kids.