Famed Child Singing Sensation Gayla Peevey On the Comeback of Her Classic, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas
If you walk into a Hallmark store during Christmastime, chances are you’ll hear a certain hippo song from Christmas past echoing in the aisles. Back by popular demand, Hallmark’s “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” ornament plays this beloved tune along with countless greeting cards and merchandise. Country singers, Gretchen Wilson and LeAnn Rimes, recorded the hippo song, written by John Rox, on their recent Christmas albums. Even the United States Postal Service used the song for their 2016 Christmas ad campaign. But the Christmas hippo craze, which peaked in 1953 when “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” hit No. 24 on the Billboard chart, was dormant for over fifty years. That was until “God provided me with an unexpected blessing,” says singer Gayla Peevey.
When Peevey, a retired grandmother of three, wasn’t writing musical jingles for the boutique advertising agency she owned, she dedicated her personal life to serving in church alongside her husband of fifty-four years, Cliff Henderson, a retired elementary school teacher. Then all of a sudden, after decades of living as a “good follower of Jesus Christ” and doing “absolutely nothing to generate interest” in her record, Peevey started receiving phones calls from around the world to do interviews. And interviews weren’t all Peevey received. The video of 10-year-old Peevey singing her famous hippo stutter on the Ed Sullivan show made a splash on YouTube, raking in over four million hits. She began earning royalty checks upwards of one thousand dollars for iTunes downloads. Plus she discovered she had an account at Sony Music, now the parent company of her Columbia Records contract, which had been holding funds nearing one hundred thousand dollars.
Since Peevey’s holiday harvest “seemed to come out of nowhere,” she gives God all the glory and pays it forward with charity work. After all, Peevey was no stranger to receiving unexpected gifts from God at Christmas. She will never forget the day she actually got a real-live baby hippopotamus, named Matilda, for Christmas. Young Peevey, who sang duets with Hoagy Carmichael on Saturday Night Review and performed with Dick Clark on American Bandstand, was wildly popular in the fifties. Piggybacking her popularity, The Oklahoma City Zoo, near Peevey’s childhood home, raised enough funds to present her with the 700-pound hippo on Christmas Eve 1953. Risen caught up with Peevey to talk further about fame, fortune, faith, and of course, hippopotamuses.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You started singing in church as a preschooler. How did your foundation of faith develop from there?
Gayla Peevey: As far back as I can remember, church was our whole life. Our family was built around church and going to church. I remember in Ponca City Oklahoma, where I lived when I was very little, we went to The Second Baptist Church. My parents were very involved. The pastor was a good friend of my dad. They would just sit and talk about the Bible. At the dinner table, we always discussed scriptures and we’d ask my dad questions. He was quite a Bible teacher. He spent a lot of time studying Scripture. It was just a very, very big part of my growing up. I saw my parents live out a good Christian wholesome life and put God at the center of their family. So that was my childhood. It was natural that I started singing in church. I had been singing since I was a toddler, but I started to sing in my church when I was about five-years-old. Then people in the community started asking me to sing at various events.
RM: You have said your parents were not showbiz people at all, so how did your singing career come about?
GP: Oh, no! [Laughter] They were not. Both of them grew up on farms. They were just good ‘ole country folks. Now, they were musical. My mom played the fiddle. When my mom was a teenager, she would go out and play it with her brothers. They had a family band. My mom and dad could sing. When they were young and dating they used to sing duets at church. My dad sang bass in a quartet at church. They sang mostly at church and gospel-related music. But not show business. They were pretty out of step with that whole world. My career started when my uncle, Jim, who played the fiddle on a radio broadcast from Oklahoma City, arranged a guest spot for me at age eight. That led to a bi-weekly gig on a local NBC show. The Chuck Wagon Gang was one of the shows. The other show was called The Boomer Shindig [laughter]. It was a fun musical show. I started signing all around the state after I had already been a regular on those local television shows.
RM: How did your parents handle you touring all around the state and how did you deal with being away from your family, church, and school? Tell me more about that time in your early career.
GP: Actually, my mother would go with me everywhere. My family had to move from Ponca City to Oklahoma City because that’s where the TV station was. Once I became well-known for being on television, I went on tour all over the state with The Chuck Wagon Gang. Sometimes Uncle Jim would come along and play his fiddle with us. He was a really good fiddler. It was disruptive in that it took me away from being a kid, just playing and going to school. My sister, Glenda, was four years older, so she had her life. But she was very supportive. She was the one who would pick out songs for me to learn. She would be in the stands cheering me on because she did not like to perform. She was musical and was real good at picking out songs. She’d say, “Gayla, you need to learn this song!” She was a part of the whole thing in that way.
My mom and I would pray together before shows. My dad was the real prayer warrior.
RM: What was life like when your whole family moved from Oklahoma to Hollywood where you were a regular singer on Saturday Night Review with Hoagy Carmichael? Also, how did you ultimately land a record deal with Columbia Records and record “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” in New York?
GP: NBC moved our family there [Hollywood] when I was about nine. They provided us with a house, a car, everything! That was very disruptive. As a kid, I didn’t realize it at the time. But looking back on it, my dad had to take a leave from work as a tax collector. I don’t know how he did it. While we were there, my sister had an attack of appendicitis. She had to have her appendix removed. That was unexpected. But I know that we enjoyed Hollywood. It was fun, but it took everybody out of their normal environment. At that time, I had a manager and being a regular on Saturday Night Review helped me with getting a record contract. I just remember Columbia came to me with a contract. Then they flew me out to New York to record “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Back in the fifties, everything was live. So I recorded that song with an orchestra and a conductor. It was live! There was none of this piecemeal layering that they do now. They played and you sang [laughter]. I went through it three times before I finally nailed it.
RM: You put your own spin on the song with a stutter on hippopotamuses. What gave you the confidence to sing it that way even though that wasn’t how your producers asked for it to be?
GP: Well, I had been singing since I was little and I kind of just always put my own style into songs. I remember one of the main songs I used to sing on the local radio and all around local television was, Your Cheatin’ Heart [laughter]. I didn’t sing kiddy songs. It wasn’t until I got a record contract that I sang kiddy songs, which I didn’t like at all. I was used to singing songs like Your Cheatin’ Heart and Walkin’ My Baby Back Home. You know the kinds of songs I could really sink my teeth into. I always took the song and gave it my own style. It came naturally to me. I don’t know how to explain it, but when I would be on stage, it came naturally for me to talk to the audience. To speak off the cuff. To kid around. I didn’t have that much freedom in the recording. I had to sing with the arrangement the orchestra provided, but any little bit I could change to make it my own, I did!
RM: Did you get nervous before you went on stage and how did you handle that?
GP: I just had complete trust in the Lord. I didn’t really have a lot of fear. My mom and I would pray together before shows. My dad was the real prayer warrior. I remember my aunt, who was a school teacher, invited me to sing at her school assembly. This was before I was on TV and all that. I was only about five-years-old. Before I went out on stage, Aunt Lucille asked, “Gayla are you scared?” And I said, “Sacred?! There aren’t any bears out there!” [Laughter] Part of it was I felt confident in my singing because it came naturally. If I would have been so focused on training and getting every note, you know, that would scare me more [laughter]. I had such a faith. I just remember being so trusting in God at that young age, because I accepted Christ when I was seven-years-old. I performed for wonderful, friendly, Oklahoma people. They were so accepting. Nobody expected perfection. It was a very welcoming audience.
RM: Did you take any singing lessons or have coaching on your showmanship?
GP: You know what? I had none. I didn’t have any lessons or coaching or voice training. I should have, but I didn’t. I just sang the way I wanted to sing. It was fine because I had a way of interpreting songs that came naturally. Later on, it would have been really helpful to have had the coaching. My parents just never thought that way and never really considered it.
RM: Well, it clearly was a gift you had from God and what you did worked! You sold three hundred thousand copies of that song. Plus you actually got a hippopotamus for Christmas. How did that come about?
GP: I think getting the hippo was the most amazing part of the whole thing. The record was released. It was so popular that people were hearing it all over the radio. The Oklahoma City Zoo needed a hippo and the head of the zoo said, “Let’s tie-in with this song!” So he started this campaign with the newspaper and television stations to “Buy Gayla a hippo for Christmas.” Every day in the paper there would be an ad where you could cut it out, scotch tape coins to it, and send it in. So nickels and dimes started pouring in. It was mostly kids who would send their money in. It ended up that by Christmas they had enough money to buy a live hippopotamus. The hippo was presented to me on Christmas Eve. It was a big media event. They flew Matilda the hippo into the airport. I was there to greet her, and I got to get on top of the crate. I was the first to meet her. She was presented to me, and the newspapers were all there taking pictures. Then they took her to the zoo and I followed. I got to be there when they put her in her little area. They let me feed her some lettuce. Matilda was a really young hippo. She was not much more than a baby. I still remember leaning over the rail to see her. Whenever I was in Oklahoma City I would visit Matilda. Then I moved to the West Coast. Had I known that this song would become a classic Christmas song, I would have visited Matilda more. She had a wedding ceremony with a male hippo named, Norm. From what I understand, they had nine babies. So Matilda’s legacy goes on [laughter].
It was like a whole new generation discovered the song and it became a hit again. I didn’t quite know how to react at first because to me it was such a thing of the past.
RM: And your legacy goes on as well. How did fame change things for you, especially considering that television was new at that time?
GP: In the early fifties, TV was brand new. That’s why local TV shows were such an important part of that era. There just weren’t enough networks to fill up all the airtime. So local artists created shows and everybody that had a TV was just glued to it. If you were on regularly back then, it was a BIG deal. People recognized us when we would go out. School just went by the wayside after that when I was traveling around performing. Then after my performance of my hippo song on The Ed Sullivan Show, when I went to public school, it created such a stir. It was just impossible. Crowds of kids formed on the playground. My teacher was so afraid that she was going to show me favoritism, that she went the opposite direction. She would never call on me. In Ponca City when I went to Lincoln Elementary, I was a straight-A student. I won citizenship awards. I sang for the assemblies. I loved my teachers. I loved school.
After I got famous and everything changed, I hated school. I was so used to being in the front row, being on top of things, and getting called on. The teachers just ruined school for me. At the time, I thought, “What is wrong with me? Why won’t they call on me?” But now looking back, I can see why they did what they did. Going out in public became a real challenge. Fifth grade was basically a total loss. I tried a private school, but that didn’t work out either. The school was so small that Sister Marilyn had one class for third through twelfth graders. My dad would have to help me at home for the next two years. I had to disguise myself in public. After the record release, when I was in fifth grade, kids were hiding in the trees to get my autograph. I missed out on a lot of normal childhood things truthfully. It’s just like anyone who has fame, it’s disruptive in public. I just remember being alone a lot. I loved my dolls. I played dolls. I played house. I kind of missed out on things like going to the ice skating rink or parties, the things that kids do. But looking back on it, what I had going was wonderful, and I wouldn’t trade it. After all that, my parents said, “Okay. We just have to move some place where nobody knows you, where you could just go to school like a normal person.” They wanted me to grow up in school with friends. There were better ways that things could have been dealt with, but my folks were just overwhelmed. They just had no idea how to deal with it all. So we up and moved. We ended up in San Diego.
RM: Your singing career picked back up at age sixteen with your song, “My Little Marine,” ranking No. 84 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and giving you the opportunity to perform on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand several times. What was it like meeting and working with Dick Clark? How was it similar or different to when you performed on the Ed Sullivan Show or Saturday Night Review?
GP: I was trying to not have much to do with show business and just go to school. I was fourteen when I moved to San Diego and I was still under contract with Columbia Records. They flew me back to make a few records produced by Mitch Miller. At that time, he was putting together a new TV show called Sing Along with Mitch. They were talking to me about being the girl singer for that show. I didn’t get that gig because I was just a little too young. They needed someone who could do power ballads, who was a little more mature. Otherwise, I would have gotten that show. Anyway, things started to die down until I was sixteen. That year I got a guitar for Christmas and started writing songs. I had met a marine at church, and though we had never really dated, I had a crush on him. He was sent to Okinawa. So I wrote a song about him and sent it off to my former manager in New York. Low and behold he was starting a new record label. So they flew me back there to New York. But they had this determination to change my name since I was a teenager now. You know, I was Gayla Peevey as a kid. They said, “You’re a teenager now. Let’s just give you a new name and start over.” I didn’t think this was a good idea. I didn’t like it, but I went along with it. They changed my name to Jamie Horton, and I recorded a few songs for Joy Records. Some of them charted. I think Robot Man charted, as well as, My Little Marine. I didn’t know until just a few years ago, but some of Jamie Horton records were pretty big hits in other countries. I had no way of knowing and the label certainly didn’t tell me. They probably figured they’d have to pay me royalties if I knew [laughter]. Things were different in the fifties let me tell you.
Back then when you were promoting a record they would take you all around to the main radio stations in key cities. You make the rounds and visit all the DJs. Then you would hit all the sock hop shows. Dick Clark was the king of the sock hop shows. I was on American Bandstand several times. That was fun, and Dick Clark was very friendly. His show was a whole different venue than The Ed Sullivan Show which was a big stage production. On Saturday Night Review, I sang duets with Hoagy Carmichael. I met Dean Martin and Jimmy Durante. Every week the show booked a new big orchestra, so I got to sing with Les Brown, Jerry Fielding, and David Rose. On American Bandstand, we would be down there dancing near the crowd. Dick Clark would come up and talk to us. At some point, Dick Clark had a big evening show with rock artists like Ricky Avalon. I got to know Dick Clark better during that because backstage we’d be standing there talking. I remember one evening I had on a costume they had made for me and he said, “You have the tiniest waist!” I haven’t heard that in a long time [laughter]. Offstage he was just like he was on stage. He was just smiling all the time and very friendly to everyone. He was a very nice person.
RM: What made you decide to give up show business after high school?
GP: If things would have been going gangbusters in my singing my career I wouldn’t have. You know, I had some success with the new records, but nothing huge. So I decided to hang it up. I was still singing in church and that’s where I decided to use my talent for the next jillion years. I really did feel like that was what I needed to do. I’m sure that was God leading me. I think otherwise I would have felt frustrated, but I really felt at peace with it. I knew this was the next phase for me. I had only gone to college for one semester before I married my husband, Cliff. After I got married, I finished college. Cliff put me through college. Before we got married he had never heard of my song I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas [laughter]. I really didn’t talk about my childhood and those years of being in the limelight after I moved to San Diego. I made new friends and built a life with people who knew me for years and years and never knew I was the one who sang the hippopotamus song. My friends just knew me as someone who was active in church and sang solos. It was great. I never really brought it up. One reason is that it made me feel like a has-been. You know, like you were something when you were a kid, but what happened? That was the feeling I had. It was something in my childhood that was great. Now, moving on.
I found out that Hallmark was making ornaments and cards with me singing in them- my contract was held by Sony. and all of a sudden I got this big check for almost one hundred grand delivered from them. It blew me away!
RM: But after decades of nobody hearing about your hippopotamus song, it resurfaced with huge popularity. In 2016, it was the theme song for The United States Post Office Christmas Campaign and you received a surprise paycheck from Sony Records. Can you tell me about how that happened and how you feel God was behind it?
GP: About fifteen years ago, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, literally got rediscovered. I don’t know if it was because of satellite radio or what. I don’t know what happened, but it had a resurgence of popularity. And It just seems to get more popular every year. I knew something had changed because I started getting phone calls every Christmas from radio stations all around the world. I mean, everywhere from Ireland to Australia. It was like a whole new generation discovered the song and it became a hit again. I didn’t quite know how to react at first because to me it was such a thing of the past. So I started doing interviews. Last year, The Associated Press came out and did a big article. The New York Times did a big half page article. I have been on a couple of TV shows. It has been really interesting. I was kind of resistant at first, because I thought, “Well, what have you done lately? This is a thing of the past.” I finally decided to just go with it. Here’s what I really felt like. At this stage in my life, I felt like whatever big that could happen in my life probably already happened [laughter]. In fact, I was feeling a little bit depressed. But I believe in the deepest part of my heart that God just brought that hippo song back to sort of be like one of my favorite Bible verses; Galatians 6:9. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
For all these years, all I have done is church work. I have been faithful in singing in the choir and helping with the music program. One of the things that is actually noteworthy is I brought about the idea of the singing story tree at the organ pavilion in Balboa Park [San Diego]. I got the idea from my cousin who had done that in Oklahoma. For twenty years I sang Silent Night at the top of that singing tree every Christmas [laughter]. My daughter would also sing every year on the tree. Anyway, I really had devoted my adult life to going to church, singing at church, trying to focus on volunteer work, my family, and being the best follower of Christ I could be. In my recent years, I saw all my friends retiring and having retirement parties with all these adulations. I thought, “What have I done?”
That’s when I got all these calls and a paycheck from Sony who had bought Columbia. I said, “My Goodness this is unbelievable!” I really feel like God heard my prayers when I felt sad. He brought this back to make me feel like I had accomplished something in my life and I could be rewarded for it. I hadn’t really received any compensation from the hippo song or really any of my songs. Back then, they would take your royalties and use them to pay for the expenses to promote the record. Then through my daughter, I found out that Hallmark was making ornaments and cards with me singing in them. There was all this merchandise with me singing in it. With a little research, she found out that my contract was held by Sony. She checked with them and all of a sudden I got this big check for almost one hundred grand delivered from them. It blew me away! I can’t see it being anything except that God was saying, “You have been a faithful servant, this is the harvest you are finally going to reap.”