Marks, Johnny: Christmas songs
Johnny Marks bio by Jason Ankeny for AllMusic:
Best remembered for seasonal favorites like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” composer Johnny Marks was born in Mt. Vernon, NY on November 10, 1909. After attending Columbia University, he studied music in Paris, returning stateside to work as a radio producer; during World War II, Marks additionally produced entertainment for American troops stationed overseas.
In 1947*, he was asked to write a song based on “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a poem written by his brother-in-law Robert L. May, a copywriter with the Montgomery Ward department store chain. Ward’s had already given away six million illustrated copies of May’s story before Marks even composed a note, but the song itself (popularized by Gene Autry’s 1949 recording) still sold over 30 million copies in the decades to follow, inspiring a beloved television special which premiered in 1964.
Marks also authored several other yuletide classics, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” “When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter,” and “Silver and Gold”; a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he died September 3, 1985.
Christmas songs written by Johnny Marks include:
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1949
- When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter, 1950
- (There’s Nothing Like) An Old Fashioned Christmas, 1952
- I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, 1956 [words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, adapted by Marks]
- A Merry, Merry Christmas To You, 1958
- Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, 1958
- They Shined Up Rudolph’s Nose, 1959
- That’s What I Want for Christmas, 1963
- Silver and Gold, 1964
- A Holly, Jolly Christmas, 1964
- Jingle, Jingle, Jingle, 1964
- The Most Wonderful Day of the Year, 1964
- We Are Santa’s Elves, 1964
- A Caroling We Go, 1966
- Joyous Christmas, 1969
See the Johnny Marks profile and song catalog at the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Marks also co-wrote a number of other Christmas and Holiday Season-themed songs with various songwriters including Gene Autry, Merle Travis, Carmen Lombardo, Tom Hagen, Cleve Moore, Sidney Danoff, and Marvin Brodie. Among those songs are the following:
- 1952 – The Night Before Christmas Song – music by Johnny Marks, lyric adapted by Marks from the well-known Clement Clarke Moore poem, originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823). Marks’ adaptation was recorded as a duet by Rosemary Clooney & Gene Autry in 1952, and by the Ames Brothers in 1955.
- 1958 – Run, Rudolph, Run (w.m. Johnny Marks, and Marvin Brodie) — first recorded by Chuck Berry, 1958**
- 1959 — Nine Little Reindeer (Merle Travis, Gene Autry, Johnny Marks) — recorded by Gene Autry, 1959
- 1961 – I’ll Be a Little Angel (w.m. Johnny Marks & Sid Danoff) — This is a popular children’s song.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a character in a story and song of the same name. The story was created by Robert L. May in 1939 in response to a job assignment while employed as a copywriter with the retail company Montgomery Ward.
Biggreen65.tripod.com, a website evidently managed by the Dartmouth College Class of 1965, provides more details than the Wikipedia article. Here’s a portion of the page entitled More About Rudolph:
In 1939, Montgomery Ward asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story coloring book they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. May, rather sickly, shy and introverted as a child, based the story on his childhood feelings of alienation from children of his own age. As to the name, May considered and rejected Rollo (too cheerful) and Reginald (too British) before deciding on Rudolph.
May’s boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose — an image associated with drinking and drunkards — wasn’t exactly suitable for a Christmas tale. May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward’s art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. Gillen’s illustrations of a red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May’s bosses, and the Rudolph story was approved…
Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939, and although wartime paper shortages curtailed printing for the next several years, a total of 6 million copies had been given by the end of 1946.The post-war demand for licensing the Rudolph character was tremendous, but since May had created the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward, they held the copyright and he received no royalties.
Deeply in debt from the medical bills resulting from his wife’s terminal illness (she died about the time May created Rudolph), May persuaded Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn the copyright over to him in January 1947. With the rights in hand, May’s financial security was assured.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was printed commercially in 1947 and shown in theaters as a nine-minute cartoon the following year [I presume the reference is to the 1948 Fleischer-produced animated short film (see below)]. The Rudolph phenomenon really took off, however, when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song. Marks’ musical version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, sold two million copies that year and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time, second only to “White Christmas.”
First animated film, and the 1964 TV special:
In its profile of the fictional red-nosed reindeer, Wikipedia notes that
Rudolph’s first screen appearance came in 1944, in the form of a cartoon short produced by Max Fleischer for the Jam Handy Corporation, [sic] that was more faithful to May’s original story than Marks’s song (which had not yet been written). It was reissued in 1948 with the song added.
From a review of the Fleischer animated short at IMDb:
Author: Ron Oliver (email@example.com) from Forest Ranch, CA
On a particularly foggy Christmas Eve, RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER turns his humiliating birth defect into a beneficial asset…
Two decades before Rudolph came to the small screen, Robert L. May’s enduring creation was given the Max Fleischer special touch in this nostalgic cartoon. Johnny Marks’ infectious song leads into the well-known story of Santa’s Winter weather troubles & how the bullied little deer saved the day/night. A few of the graphics are reminiscent of Fleischer’s splendid SUPERMAN series.
The cartoon adds some new details to the story – Mama Rudolph in a dress & apron is a rather strange sight – but basically this version, narrated by Paul Wing, laid the groundwork for later adaptations. While rather obscure, if uncovered this would make a fine addition to a family’s Christmas Eve viewing.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948) – animated short short film
- Director: Max Fleischer
- Original Story: Robert L. May
- Screen Adaptation: Joseph Stultz
- Narration: Paul Wing
- Musical Director: Samuel Benavie
- Arrangements: James Higgins
Gene Autry – recorded on 27 June 1949, according to the official Gene Autry biographer, Holly George-Warren; released on 1 September 1949; topped the pop singles chart on 7 January 1950 (1 week)
1964 animated TV Special
Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer is a long-running Christmas television special produced in stop motion animation by Rankin/Bass. It first aired December 6, 1964, on the NBC television network in the USA, and was sponsored by General Electric under the umbrella title of The General Electric Fantasy Hour. The copyright year in Roman numerals was mismarked as MCLXIV instead of MCMLXIV.
The special is based on the song by Johnny Marks, which was in turn taken from the 1939 poem of the same title written by Marks’ brother-in-law, Robert L. May. Since 1972, the special has aired over CBS, which unveiled a high-definition, digitally remastered version in 2005. As with A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph no longer airs just once annually, but several times during the Christmas and holiday season. It has been telecast every year since 1964, making it the longest running Christmas TV special, and one of only four 1960s Christmas specials still being telecast (the others being A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman).
Some recordings and performances of selected Christmas songs by Johnny Marks:
When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter – 1950
Gene Autry – 1950
4 year old Christopher – 1991
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day – 1956
Source forgotten (oops!):
Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day 1863 in the midst of the American Civil War and the news of his son Charles Appleton Longfellow having suffered wounds as a soldier in the Battle of New Hope Church, VA during the Mine Run Campaign. He had suffered the great loss of his wife two years prior to an accident with fire. His despair in the following years was recorded in his journal.
The poem has been set to several tunes. The first tune was set in the 1870s by an English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, to his composition “Waltham”. Elvis Presley, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Jimmie Rodgers have recorded this version. Less commonly, the poem has also been set to the 1845 composition “Mainzer” by Joseph Mainzer. Johnny Marks, known for his song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, set Longfellow’s poem to music in the 1950s. Marks’ version has been recorded by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Ed Ames, Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Sarah McLachlan, Pedro the Lion, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, The Carpenters, MercyMe, Bing Crosby, and Bette Midler. Marks’ composition is now generally accepted as the de facto version and is generally what is used for modern recordings of the song, though Calkin’s version is still heard as well. In 1990, John Gorka recorded his arrangement entitled “Christmas Bells”, which uses stanzas 1, 2, 6, and 7 of the poem.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Although Decca released [Brenda Lee's recording of Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree] in both 1958 and again in 1959, it did not sell well until Lee became a popular star in 1960; that Christmas season, it hit #14 on the Billboard pop chart and turned into a perennial holiday favorite. It continued to sell well during the holiday season, hitting #5 on the Christmas chart as late as 1984. Brenda Lee’s recording still receives a great deal of airplay. Despite the song’s title, its instrumentation also fits the Country genre which Brenda Lee more fully embraced as her career evolved. Despite her mature-sounding voice, she recorded this song when she was only 14 years old. The recording featured Hank Garland’s ringing guitar. For decades, Brenda Lee’s recording was the only notable version of the song. Radio stations ranging from Top 40 to Adult Contemporary to Country Music to Oldies to even Adult Standards played this version.
Brenda Lee – 1958
From the 1964 animated TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:
Silver and Gold
Burl Ives (Sam the Snowman)
The Tiny Tree (1975)
The Tiny Tree is a 1975 animated TV Christmas special, produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. The special features eight Johnny Marks songs (not all having Christmas or holidays themes) including two sung by Roberta Flack who also co-produced and co-arranged To Love and Be Loved and When Autumn Comes with Leon Pendarvis. Buddy Ebsen is the narrator and voice of Squire Badger.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Tell It to a Turtle
To Love and Be Loved
Minuet For Clarinet
When Autumn Comes
A Caroling We Go
A Merry, Merry Christmas To You
When Autumn Comes — words and music by Johnny Marks
When Autumn comes and summer is gone
Then will our love keep lingering on
Then will it fade like flowers that burst out in the Spring
Will your sweet words be gone as birds take wing
A Summer love can be like a rose
Beware the thorn where such beauty grows
Before the leaves start falling
Please say you’ll still love me dear
When Autumn comes, when Autumn comes each year
When Autumn comes each year
* (revised, 7 December 2013) Many sites note that the poem “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” written by Marks’ brother-in-law Robert L. May was commercially published in 1947. The same year is given by Jason Ankeny, in his Johnny Marks bio, as the year Marks was “asked to write a song based on” the poem. Nearly every account of the song’s creation that I’ve read merely indicates that Marks adapted the poem into a song in 1949. Perfessorbill.com gives 1949 as the copyright date. It was first recorded by Gene Autry on 27 June 1949.
However, I recently came across a quote by Johnny Marks which lends support to Ankeny’s early date. In a page on the song at GeneAutry.com, an excerpt from the book “Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry”, by the official Gene Autry biographer Holly George-Warren, includes the following quote which indicates that Marks wrote two very different melodies for the song, at stages separated by about a year:
“I thought about it for a while and sat down to write a song about it,” Marks related. “That song was easily one of the worst songs ever written. Then about a year later I was walking down the street when a new melody came to me. It’s the only time that ever happened, and I have to admit, it’s a great melody.”
** Run, Rudolph, Run (w.m. Johnny Marks and Marvin Brodie) was originally recorded by Chuck Berry in 1958 and later covered by many. Berry’s single charted #69 on the Billboard Hot 100. On the single label (Chess 1714), the songwriting was incorrectly credited to “C. Berry Music & M. Brodie.” Wikipedia appears to suggest that Marks’s publishing company, St. Nicholas Music, either executed or allowed this deception intentionally in order to conceal the name of the well-known Christmas song composer from “hip R&B DJs and buyers.” The scenario is unlikely — Why not use a pseudonym in that case? — and I don’t expect to be able to confirm this claim.