Listening Example: "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
Johnny Marks was a Jewish American songwriter from Mount Vernon, New York who is best remembered for his Christmas songs and holiday hits, including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree”, "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas", “Run, Rudolph Run," and many others that have been sung by recording artists and people celebrating the holiday spirit.
Did you ever wonder where Rudolph came from? Johnny Marks’ most famous holiday song is “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. The song was based on a poem of the same name written by his brother-in-law, Robert Lewis May, who created Rudolph. In early 1939 May’s boss at Montgomery Ward department store asked him to write a cheery Christmas book for shoppers and suggested that an animal be the star of the book. They had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money and be a nice good-will gesture. Mays decided on making a deer the central character of the book because his then 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, loved the deer in the Chicago zoo. The book was a big success. In 1948 Johnny Marks was inspired to adapt the story in words and music to create the song. It was recorded by a popular movie star of westerns of that time who was also known as the “singing cowboy”, Gene Autry. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was released in 1949 to become a phenomenal success and sell many records. An animated family television film based on the story and song first aired in 1964, with Marks composing the music score which is full of his holiday songs. Last year marked the 50-year anniversary of the first Rudolph film.
Listening Example: "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"
While Marks wrote both the lyrics and music to most of our fun favorites, he looked to words from the past to create a song of comfort and hope. One of America's best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words to a poem called “Christmas Bells” on December 25th, 1864. The words were inspired three years after the tragic death of his wife in an accidental fire and the wounding of his son during battle in the Civil War. Longfellow acknowledged that, while Christmas can be a time of sadness for many, it is also a time of hope. Longfellow wrote that as he bowed his head in deep despair, “the bells pealed more loud and deep, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail; Peace On Earth, Good Will To Men.” In 1956 Johnny Marks adapted these inspiring words to create the beautiful song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”.
Listening Example: "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas"
Johnny Marks was born the same year as Burl Ives, an American actor and singer of folk music, ballads and childrens’ songs. As an actor, Ives's work included comedies, dramas, and voice work in theater, television, and motion pictures. One music critic said that Ives’ voice had a quality that “moved people." Ives' recordings of Johnny Marks songs, "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold" became Christmas standards after they were first featured in the 1964 film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ives’ voice played the part of Sam the Snowman, the banjo-playing "host" and narrator of the story, explaining how Rudolph used his ‘being different’ to save Christmas from being cancelled due to a blizzard. In 1965, Ives re-recorded all three of these Johnny Marks hits which he had sung in the film, but with a more "pop" feeling than in the TV special. Ives’ voice had a quality of warmth that appealed to listeners and helped sell many records.
Listening Example: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"
During World War II Johnny Marks served as a Captain in the 26th Special Service Company where he earned a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars. After the war his career really took off. In addition to his songwriting, he founded St. Nicholas Music Publishers in 1949 and served as director of ASCAP from 1957 to 1961. ASCAP stands for American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It is the leading U.S. Performing Rights Organization representing over 500,000 authors, songwriters, composers and performers by collecting earned royalties and protecting their copyrights. Johnny Marks also had the advantage of writing music during the decade in which rock and roll began to develop—the 1950’s. One of his most famous songs, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, was recorded in 1958 by a young American singer named Brenda Lee, one of the top female vocalists of the 1960’s. Her style of singing included rockabilly, pop and country music. Her recording of this hit song has been a U.S. holiday standard for more than 50 years.
Listening Example: "Run, Run, Rudolph"
Another holiday rock and roll hit by Johnny Marks was performed by one of the first major African-American rock singers, Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry is a guitarist, singer and songwriter, and one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. With songs such as "Maybellene", "Roll Over Beethoven", and "Johnny B. Goode", Chuck Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics focusing on teen life. He used guitar solos and exciting showmanship that would be a major influence on rock musicians. In 1958, the same year Brenda Lee recorded “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, Chuck Berry recorded the holiday hit, “Run, Rudolph Run”.
What does Johnny Marks have in common with Santa Claus? Both men have white beards and ruddy cheeks, and without them Christmas would not be the same. But Johnny Marks never shopped for presents, put up a tree or sent Christmas cards. However, each December the royalties from “Rudolph” provided Marks with most of his $800,000 annual income. While all his songs sold millions of records and continue to be recorded today, none comes close to “Rudolph”, with more than 131 million discs sold in more than 30 languages. In 1981, Marks was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He died in 1985 at the age of 76.