Songs like . . .
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Holly Jolly Christmas
Silver and Gold
(and all the other songs from the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer)
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Those are just his well-know Christmas songs. He wrote dozens more. Marks even wrote a song titled “It’s a Small World,” but it’s not the one you hear at Disneyland.
How did Johnny Marks come to write the second most popular Christmas song ever?
It started in the late 1940s. (Deep breath) Marks, who as a child was educated in an Ethical Culture Society school and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in English from Colgate University, studied music at Columbia and in Paris, then entered the Army and was decorated for capturing prisoners in Europe during World War 2, (exhale) married a lady named Margaret May.
Margaret had a brother, Robert, who’d written a children’s book while employed as a copywriter at Montgomery Wards, before the War. I won’t go too deeply into the story here, because it happened during the Depression, far before the Boomer years. If you want the detailed story, this article provides a good start.
In a nutshell, Robert wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for MW to give away as a promotional item. While he wrote it, Robert’s wife was dying and the book became a bonding exercise for Robert and his 4-year-old daughter.
Montgomery Wards handed out several million copies of the booklet, and in 1946 or 47 they let May have all the rights to his story. And in 1947, Robert May’s sister married a songwriter named Johnny Marks.
Marks once said he’d jotted down the Rudolph story–along with 200 other song ideas–as far back as 1939, when the book was first published. But it wasn’t until ’47 that the newlywed started working on the song seriously, and in ’48 he had a complete song. He felt it was better than good, that it would be a commercial hit, and he spent $25,000 to create his own music publishing company so that he would own complete rights to the song.
But how to get a big name to sing it? Marks sent demo copies of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to four big stars: Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Bing Crosby, and Gene Autry. And maybe Frank Sinatra. And who know who else.
Autry was the only one to respond. He’d had a huge hit the year before with “Here Comes Santa Claus” and was looking for a follow-up Christmas tune. Actually, he thought he’d found the follow-up in “If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas” and was looking for a lesser tune for the B side of the record. No remembers “If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas,” do they?
Autry’s version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sold 2 million copies in that first year alone–and 25 million since. In 1950, Bing Crosby recorded it and had a hit, and so did Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Over the next ten years, Dean Martin, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Paul Anka and dozens more released records. The 1960s introduced the Rankin & Bass animated TV special with Burl Ives singing it, and in subsequent decades you had the Supremes, the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Paul McCartney, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, Jewel, Chicago, Destiny’s Child and many others all taking a turn.
So . . . Marks always credited Gene Autry for the song’s great success–Autry sang it on his radio show–backed up by The Pinafores, an all-girl group –and did everything possible to promote it, and I doubt that Johnny Marks ever got ignored by the likes of Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, or Perry Como again.
When the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special was planned, Johnny Marks did all the music. Burl Ives was a late addition to the Rudolph family–originally, Yukon Cornelius was going to be the narrator.
Marks went on to write hundreds of songs, including the ones listed above. They weren’t all about Christmas, but many were–and that lends itself to irony. Johnny Marks–along with songwriters Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”) and Mel Torme (who wrote “The Christmas Song”), and Robert May, Rudolph’s inventor–were all Jewish.
Marks never put up a Christmas tree, but he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in royalties from those songs.
Thirty years ago, Marks told People Magazine that his idea of a masterpiece was “is the lyric for Tea for Two.” Which could make for an interesting discussion on the nature of a masterpiece.