Johnny Marks Has Made Millions Off 'Rudolph,' but the Songwriter Still Says Humbug
Both men have white beards and ruddy cheeks, and without them Christmas would not be the same. But there the similarity ends between Santa Claus and Johnny Marks, creator of the song ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. “This is not exactly what I hoped to be remembered for,” grumps Marks, 71, who never shops for presents, puts up a tree or sends Christmas cards. “My idea of a real masterpiece,” adds the former Colgate University Phi Beta Kappa, “is the lyric for ‘Tea for Two’.”
Nevertheless, each December the royalties from Rudolph sluice into the coffers of St. Nicholas Music Inc., his company. The song provides Marks with more than 75 percent of his $800,000 annual income. He also cashes in handsomely on his other holiday songs, including ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ (seven million records sold, Marks boasts), ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ (a gold single for Brenda Lee) and Burl Ives’ eight-million seller, ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’. None comes close to Rudolph: 131 million discs sold in more than 30 languages since Gene Autry first recorded it in 1949, not to mention seven million copies of the sheet music and 25 million copies of 140 arrangements for orchestra, band and choir. (Only the sales of ‘White Christmas’, recorded seven years earlier, exceed these figures.)
Autry’s ‘Rudolph’ has sold more than 12 million records and is Marks’ favorite. That opinion hasn’t discouraged some 500 other artists from trying. Paul McCartney gave Rudolph a reggae beat, John Denver breathed a little Rocky Mountain high into it, and last year Willie Nelson’s countrified version was reminiscent of the original. This season 10 more performers—among them Cheech and Chong—have recorded it.
The song has also spawned a number of top-rated television specials for which Marks wrote the words and music. Early this month on CBS, his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (with Burl Ives as narrator) aired for the 17th season, making it the longest-running special in history. Last Sunday Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, voice-over by Red Skelton, was on ABC; that network also has an option on a third Marks special, Rudolph and Frosty.
Red noses aside, Marks would rather have been another Irving Berlin, the composer he idolized while growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. After receiving a B.A. in English, Marks took off for Paris, where Ernest Hemingway came to hear him play piano at the Café Schubert on the Boulevard Montparnasse.
By the mid-1930s Marks was back in Manhattan, playing piano at nightclubs and composing during the day. In 1939 he wrote his first hit, Address Unknown, with Carmen Lombardo. He joined the Army in 1942 and was assigned as a second lieutenant to entertain front-line troops. He did much more: Serving under Patton in Normandy, he won the Bronze Star for leading 20 men in an attack on a castle and capturing the 100 Germans inside.
In 1948 Marks found “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” scribbled in his book of song ideas. It was the title of a story given away to kids as a Montgomery Ward holiday promotion in 1939. Marks wrote the lyrics and music and cut a demo. He submitted it to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore, among others, but only Autry agreed to record the song, albeit reluctantly. “He didn’t feel it fit his image,” Marks explains.
Rudolph’s millions allow widower Marks to share a comfortable Greenwich Village townhouse with his eldest son, Michael, 31, a lawyer. His 29-year-old daughter, Laura, is mildly retarded and lives in a women’s residence, while another son, David, 26, is studying for his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard. One of Marks’ favorite pastimes is checkers, which he often plays with the down-and-out characters who inhabit nearby Washington Square Park.
Marks still jots ideas in his notebook and lyrics on envelopes. Last year, for example, Porter Waggoner made the country charts with Marks’ Everything I Always Wanted. “But no matter what I write,” sighs Marks, “they always say the same thing: ‘It’s just not Rudolph: ”