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Who Wrote 'Rudolph?' Meet Johnny Marks, A 'Holly Jolly' Jewish Composer

Music | December 2, 2019

Left: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, from the hugely popular Rankin-Bass TV special. Right: Johnny Marks in 1977. Sources: IMDB; William N. Jacobellis / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images.

The next time you hear "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," or "Holly Jolly Christmas," thank Johnny Marks, the Jewish songwriter who gave us many Christmas classics. The Christmas holiday has long been an inspiration to artists of all backgrounds, and contributions from the Jewish people to the groovy pop culture surrounding it can’t be quantified. Many of the most popular Christmas tunes were penned by Jewish songwriters, and Marks was the most prolific.

(It should be mentioned that the all-time biggest Christmas hit, "White Christmas," was also written by a Jewish composer -- Irving Berlin.)

While it may seem strange that someone who doesn’t regularly celebrate Christmas would throw themselves into it so openly, Marks was a songwriter who wanted to reach the widest possible audience with his work, and Christmas is the one holiday above all others that calls for positive songs that can bring the whole family together. Without this unsung Jewish hero of the Christmas season we wouldn’t be rocking around the Christmas tree, and the Rankin-Bass TV specials wouldn’t quite sound the same. 

Marks Traveled The World Before Settling Down To Write Christmas Songs

source: LA Times

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, Marks underwent a stellar education at the McBurney School before studying at Columbia University before traveling to Paris to continue working on his music. Songwriting was in his blood; he reportedly started composing music at the age of 13, but it wasn’t until 1935 that he became a full-time professional song writer. That was interrupted at the onset of World War II, and while he didn’t have the time to compose holiday music, he did get some performing done overseas and finished the war as a Captain in the 26th Special Service Company with a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars.

'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' Isn't His Favorite Christmas Song

source: pinterest

It’s impossible to talk about Johnny Marks and his contribution to Christmas music without discussing his contentious relationship with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Based on a poem written by his brother-in-law Robert L. May (also Jewish), the song was written in 1947 as something to accompany the written and illustrated work which had already been distributed to the tune of six million free copies. Marks felt that the song was juvenile and one of the lower tier songs that he’d written, but he was a good brother-in-law and helped push the song. He had no idea just how popular this song would be. 

No One Wanted To Play Rudolph's Reindeer Games

source: CBS

It wasn’t just that Marks thought “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a bad song, everyone he brought it to thought it was hot garbage. Marks sent the song to Gene Autry, America’s singing cowboy, but Autry wasn’t inclined to put his neck on the chopping block for “one of the worst [songs] ever written” and said no thanks. It wasn’t until Autry’s wife took a look at the song and found it “enchanting” that the country singer took it into the recording studio to use it as a b-side that the song found its legs. Released on September 15, 1949, the song was on the top of the charts by October 1, and it went onto sell 135 million copies and inspire a film based on the song in 1964 that featured even more music by Marks. 

Rudolph Spawned A Lot Of Christmas Hits

source: pinterest

After Rudolph took off to the top of the charts and cemented a new piece of Christmas lore for children everywhere Marks decided to lean into the whole Christmas music thing. In 1949 he established St. Nicholas Music, his own publishing company where he was able to write Christmas music and make sure that he had control who performed it and where it played. Aside from Rudolph Marks penned modern Christmas classics like “Run Rudolph Run,” “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree,” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” He essentially had a hand in every Christmas song that you heard in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Where writers like Irving Berlin refused to go with Christmas, Marks ventured, which is why many of his Christmas songs all have a rock ’n roll back beat. At the end of the day Marks just wanted to make as many people happy as he could, and we think he accomplished his goal. 

Marks Received An Award For His Contributions To Christmas

source: findery

In 1973 two Jewish songwriters received an award from the International Society of Santa Claus, something that must have tickled them beyond all measure. Johnny Marks and Irving Berlin were given the award over Charles Dickens as an honor for making some of the most important contributions to Christmas in recent memory. Obviously Charles Dickens couldn’t be there for the upset, but this award was still a stunning upset. And here’s the thing: it’s an absolutely warranted award. With his Christmas tunes Johnny Marks has managed to bring people together, and make them feel the warmth of Christmas in less than four minutes and that’s a feat that should get anyone on Santa’s Nice List. 

Tags: Christmas | Christmas Songs | Johnny Marks | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer | What Did He Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.