recess radio program

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

Christmas music, as we know it, would not be the same were it not for songwriter, Johnny Marks. His Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and other Christmas hits have become the audio equivalent to Christmas stockings and candy canes.

Born in New York in 1909, Johnny Marks was writing songs by age thirteen. He later graduated from Colgate and studied music in Paris. Marks then became a professional songwriter, a singing coach and a radio producer. He wrote She'll Always Remember for Glenn Miller and Address Unknown for the Ink Spots.

During World War II Marks was made Captain of the 26th Special Service Company and performed entertaining the troops in Europe. He was awarded a Bronze Star and Four Battle Stars for his services to country.

The storybook, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, was written by Marks' brother-in-law, Robert May, in 1939. May was an ad-man for Montgomery Ward and he wrote the story about Santa's ninth reindeer with the help of his four year old daughter. May asked his musical in-law if he could turn the piece into a song. Marks gave it a whirl, changing the words and inventing a simple melody.

The song was then presented to Cowboy singing star Gene Autry. At first, Autry wasn't interested. But at the insistence of his wife, he recorded it. Autry's version soared to number one in December of 1949.

Johnny Marks kept turning out the hits. He wrote I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, based on a poem by Longfellow - and it became a million-seller for Bing Crosby in 1956. And in 1958 Brenda Lee recorded another Johnny Marks hit, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, a song which has ever since been the quintessential anthem to merry Christmas parties everywhere.

But Marks crowning achievement may have been his involvement with the 1963 production of the Rankin Bass television special based on Rudolph. Aside from scoring the delightful background music, Marks turned out a pile of new hits including Holly Jolly Christmas, Silver and Gold and There's Always Tomorrow.

The program went on to become the most repeated television special in history, and by the time Marks passed away in 1985 Rudolph had sold more than 150 million copies. Sociologists have said that Rudolph is "the only original addition to Santa Clause folklore in the 20th Century." What more can be said of Johnny Marks except that - as he once wrote - "He went down in his-tor-y."

Brief Sound Clip

Jingle Jingle Jingle, You will hear my sleighbells ring
I am old Kris Kringle, I'm the King of Jing-a-ling - Ho! Ho!

May, Robert, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Applewood Books, 1994.

Holden, Stephen, "Johhny Marks Dies; Composed Hit Song, 'Rudolph' in 1949," The New York Times, September 4, 1985, Page D26

Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits

Copyright 2003 Kevin Shortsleeve

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."