Song Swarm: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was written by Johnny Marks, to whom we also owe X-Mas staples such as Rockin’ Round The Christmas Tree and A Holly Jolly Christmas, as well as Chuck Berry’s Run, Rudolph Run.
Rudolph was invented in 1939 by Johnny’s brother-in-law Robert L May, a copywriter, as part of a marketing campaign for department store/mail order company Montgomery Ward. Drawing inspiration from the tale of the Ugly Duckling and his own experience of being bullied for being slightly built, he contrived the story of reindeer-turned-hero. He had previously considered the names Reginald and Rollo before settling on Rudolph. By 1946, some six million copies of the story had been distributed.
These were more charitable times than ours. May’s wife had been diagnosed with cancer around the time he wrote Rudolph, and by 1947 he was financially crippled. Montgomery Ward, who held the copyright to the story, having commissioned it, generously ceded it to the writer, who did well from subsequent licensing, including a cartoon short.
Johnny Marks’ lyrics took some liberties with May’s story. For example, in the story, Rudolph was not one of Santa’s reindeer but a resident of the local reindeer village, raised by loving parents but teased by other little reindeers. The final line anticipates the patois of the 2010s as Santa tells Rudolph: “By YOU last night’s journey was actually bossed. Without you, I’m certain we’d all have been lost.”
Marks’ song was first performed on radio in 1949 by Harry Brannon; the same year Hollywood cowboy Gene Autry recorded the first version, apparently reluctantly and at his wife’s insistence. It had been offered to Bing Crosby who turned it down — and recorded it a year later. Autry’s record reached #1 on the US charts, the first chart-topper of the 1950s, and the following week disappeared from the charts altogether. It’s the only time that has ever happened.
Rudolph is a versatile song. Its nature allows the singer to have some fun. So Lena Horne in her 1966 version speculates whether the tone of Rudi’s nose might have been caused by generous grog consumption. Paul McCartney re-imagined our hero as the “reggae reindeer”, and Los Lobos as the manic reindeer. The Supremes and The Temptations in their respective takes take to shouting out Rudolph’s name. And Bing and Judy Garland, and later Bing with Ella in their live recordings from 1950 and 1953 offer all sorts of additional riffs to the story (Rudolph the celeb smoking cigars, jokes about deer-hunting!), which at one point has Judy giggling.
The Temptations’ version is one of the best of this lot, but I also really like The Melodeers’ doo wop take, and The Cadillacs’ R&B recording with the Coasters’ style sax solo. The definitive version, in my view, is Dean Martin’s.
There are two very different instrumental versions: The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s piano-driven interpretation is very good; The Ventures bizzarely sample The Beatles’ I Feel Fine along the way.
And, of course, The Simpsons sang it, shambolically, in the very first full episode of the show, in 1989.
The late Vic Chesnutt mumbles the song in his live performance from 2006, in which he makes no secret of his disdain for the “frat boys”, meaning the other reindeer. His version finds an echo in my incisive analysis of the Rudolph situation from 2008.
So here are 42 takes on Rudolph’s story.
Gene Autry (1949), Bing Crosby (1950), Bing Crosby & Judy Garland (1950), Spike Jones and his City Slickers (1950), Bing Crosby & Ella Fitzgerald (1953), The Four Aces (1955), The Cadillacs (1956), Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra (1957), Dean Martin (1959), Ella Fitzgerald (1960), The Melodeers (1960), The Crystals (1963), Al Martino (1964), Burl Ives (1965), The Ventures (1965), The Supremes (1965), Lena Horne (1966), Ramsey Lewis Trio (1966), Hank Snow (1967), The Temptations (1968), The Jackson 5 (1970), John Denver (1975), Carpenters (as part of medley, 1978), Paul McCartney (as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reggae, 1979), Willie Nelson (1979), Starland Vocal Band (1980), Los Lobos (as Rudolph The Manic Reindeer, 1988), The Simpsons (1989), Dolly Parton (1990), The Smashing Pumpkins (1993), Tiny Tim (1995), Alan Jackson (1996), Aaron Tippin (1997), Ray Charles (1997), The Pointer Sisters (1998), Lynyrd Skynyrd (2000), Jack Johnson (2002), Destiny’s Child (2004), Ballard C Boyd (2005), Merle Haggard (2005), Bootsy Collins (as Boot-Off, 2006), Vic Chesnutt & Elf Power (2006)
MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY