I didn’t start this column with the songwriter’s name because it would somewhat spoil the story
I had accompanied Anne Murray to Nashville where she performed at a Nashville Song Writers Association function. After about an hour at the reception following her show, Anne slipped out and went up to her room. We had agreed earlier that I would stay at the party in order to explain her absence should anybody ask.
Not long before the reception was scheduled to end, I was approached by a greying, balding, goateed gentleman who appeared to be in his 70s.
“I saw you earlier with Anne Murray,” he said “I was hoping to get a chance to speak to her but she seems to have left.”
I explained that Anne had a very early flight and had called it a night. He asked what my association with her was and whether I would be seeing her again soon. I told him I was her business manager and although I probably wouldn’t be seeing her for a while because she was on tour, I would be talking to her on the phone the next day.
He then said, “Please tell her I’m sorry I missed her, and that I think she’s the finest female singer around today.”
Although most people at the party had been wearing name tags, he didn’t have one on.
I asked, “Who shall I say paid the compliment?” He told me his name, which, to my embarrassment, I didn’t immediately recognize, so I asked him what his connection to the business was. He replied that he “had written some songs.”
“What have you written?” I naively asked, not realizing that my embarrassment was about to escalate to abject shame.
“Well,” he smiled, “I wrote Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
Of course it was the legendary Johnny Marks; and as soon as I made the connection to Rudolph my brain finally kicked in and I remembered that he had also written A Holly Jolly Christmas and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, as well as a number of non-Christmas songs that had been recorded by many popular singers and used on movie soundtracks.
“You certainly did write some songs!” I offered as a complimentary attempt at an apology, and commented that Rudolph must have been pretty good to him.
He replied, “Yes, it surely has, but it damn nearly didn’t get recorded.”
“Do tell,” I urged.
“Want the whole story?” he asked.
I assured him I did.
We moved to a table along the wall where we each had another couple of glasses of wine while he told me the story of Rudolph, I answered his questions about Anne Murray, and he answered my questions about song writers in general and Johnny Marks in particular.
As I recall the Rudolph tale, his brother-in-law had written a poem for the Chicago department store Montgomery Ward to use in their Christmas advertising. The poem was based on Santa Claus needing a ninth reindeer, which turned out to be Rudolph.
A few years later Johnny used the poem as the basis for his song. In 1947 he sent a demo of the song to Gene Autry, who had had a big hit with Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Autry hated Rudolph and refused to record it. But Gene’s wife, Ina Mae, heard the demo, thought it was wonderful, and insisted that Gene record it, which he did in 1948. Rudolph soared to No. 1 during Christmas 1949 and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Johnny Marks was a very interesting man. For example, although he’s best known as the writer of Christmas songs, he was Jewish. He was a graduate of both Colgate and Columbia universities, where he studied business and economics. He also saw a lot of action during World War II as a much-decorated captain in the US army.
I’m happy to be able to report that, in addition to being a thoroughly interesting person, Johnny Marks was a thoroughly nice man.