Rudolph, the world’s most famous fictional reindeer, came close to starting out life as Reginald, Rollo, Romeo, or Rodney – four of the names first considered for Santa’s red-nosed helper by Robert Lewis May, the author of the original story. May was puzzling over the right name when he was writing a storybook for Chicago-based department chain Montgomery Ward.
The shopping empire, which had 620 stores in the United States in the 1930s, asked the Illinois copywriter to create a “cheery Christmas story,” based around an animal, to boost seasonal sales. May’s daughter Barbara loved the deer at Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo, and they became the model for Rudolph and for the original 1939 artwork, complete with luminous red nose, created by Denver Gillen. Montgomery Ward gave away 2.4 million copies of May’s Rudolph story and the tale of a misfit reindeer and his friends Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen found a permanent place in the hearts of readers.
May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks jotted down the title in a notebook he kept of possible song ideas. After returning from fighting in the Second World War – where he won a Bronze Star for his bravery – he penned the song, a tune that has since sold more than 100 million copies around the world and been recorded by hundreds of artists.
Marks was so certain that “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” would be successful that he spent $20,000 to create his own company, St. Nicholas Music Inc, which he based on the sixth floor of Manhattan’s Brill Building. The first recorded version was by country singer Gene Autry, who initially rejected the song until his wife persuaded him to sing it. Autry’s version, recorded in June 1949, sold two million copies.
By the time Burl Ives came round to recording “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1964, the song had already been a hit song for scores of musicians, including Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Ella Fitzgerald. Ives, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1958 film The Big Country, had released a Christmas album in 1957. He returned to festive music with his voiceover role as Sam the Snowman in the NBC television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which aired in December 1964.
In the stop-motion animation film, Ives voiced Sam The Snowman, who narrated the tale. The story sees Rudolph teaming up with Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius for a rather fantastical adventure centered around the Abominable Snow Monster, the Island of Misfit Toys, and Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice.
The resulting album, which was released with the unusually long title The Original Sound Track And Music From Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer: A Videocraft TV Musical Spectacular featuring the voice of Burl Ives, was recorded at Brooklyn Studios and pressed by Decca Records at their plant in Gloversville, New York. The cover artwork featured an animated Ives-lookalike snowman patting Rudolph.
The album was produced by Milt Gabler, the respected founder of Commodore Records and the man who recorded Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” Gabler, who also worked with Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan, hired German-born conductor Herbert Rehbein to conduct the Decca Concert Orchestra for the album.
The success of the soundtrack album persuaded Decca and Ives to record the album A Holly Jolly Christmas, which was released in October 1965. For that album, Ives recorded a new, slower version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which was again produced by Gabler. This time, however, the song featured an orchestra directed by Owen Bradley. The liner notes for the album make clear a change of style. “The supporting orchestra and chorus reflect the Nashville touch of director Owen Bradley – something of a ‘country music’ sound that is so distinctive.” The album, released in October 1965, also spawned the hit single “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas,” another song written by Marks.
The popularity of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has continued unwaveringly. The song has been recorded by Ray Charles, John Denver, Willie Nelson, Harry Connick Jr., Destiny’s Child, and Dolly Parton, among many others. In 2017, rapper DMX even released his own version of the enduring Christmas classic, after a video of him rapping to the song went viral in 2012.
The classic 1964 television show Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has also remained popular. It is now the longest-running holiday special, having aired every Christmas for more than half a century. When Ives was asked about the show in 1978, he replied: “I always watch Rudolph every year. It’s always nice, it’s amazing seeing how well it’s held up.”
Marks, who also penned the huge Christmas hit “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” knew what he was doing when he wrote the famous lyrics to the reindeer song, including the prescient lines: “Then how the reindeer loved him/As they shouted out with glee/Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/You’ll go down in history.”