RUDOLPH AND OTHER STORIES OF CHRISTMAS SONGS

Some of the stories behind our favorite Christmas songs, by Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog

I did not know Dasher, Dancer and the gang until I learned the song. Of course, I learned it rather young, so perhaps no one had a chance to tell me. Besides, why would I want to get to know them since “they never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games?” But then one foggy something eve, I guess it was, I learned more about him.

rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer-the-movie-1998b

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was a celebrity in this part of the country long before he became an international hit. Chicago-based department stores and mail order giant Montgomery Ward had been giving out their own coloring books at Christmas time for years. Robert L. May, an advertising copywriter, was assigned to come up with a Christmas story in 1939 — and Rudolph was the result.

When his wife passed away, the retailer offered to take May off the project, but he went on to complete it. The resulting book was distributed, but World War II stopped its publication due to restrictions on paper use. Rudolph made a grand reappearance in 1946.

Rudolph might have faded into a mere footnote of Christmas lore had it not been for May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks. He turned the story into a song, which made Rudolph famous throughout the country.

The song led to sequels by May, eventually to television and movie specials.  Rudolph really did “go down in history.”

2014 was the 50th anniversary of the animated Christmas special children and adults still watch today.

The song was recorded by cowboy star Gene Autry. Legend has it, he was not fond of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but his wife, liked the song. Autry’s 1949 recording became number 1 on the charts. It was the first number 1 song of the 1950s and became the second biggest-selling song of all time, until the 1980s.  Another Christmas classic was already number one.

The Christmas Song is commonly called “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire” and also has a Chicago connection.

Musician, singer, actor, composer Mel Tormé, a Chicago native and performer about town before hitting the big time, wrote the classic in 40 minutes one sweltering July day in California in 1944.

Mel spotted a few of the opening lines in a notebook by Bob Wells, a frequent collaborator, and went on to finish them and add music. Wells had just been writing down a few cold weather ideas to help him deal with the sweltering summer weather.

The song was subsequently recorded by Nat “King” Cole and his trio in June 1946, but Cole convinced the record label to re-record the song with strings. It is the second version, recorded in August 1946, that became a hit. Cole went on to record it again in 1953 and 1961. The 1961 version is the one you hear continuously throughout the season. The vocal performance of the last version is considered the best of Cole’s recordings.

Tormé recorded the song too. Years later he added a verse and a “coda,” which came from “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” In 1992, the composer of one of the best know Christmas songs of all time finally recorded an album of Christmas songs. Legend has it that The Christmas Song was not one of Tormé’s favorites, but he was grateful for the royalties.

The all time best-selling song was written for a movie, but not for the movie of the same name. White Christmas was one of twelve songs written by Irving Berlin that were included in his 1942 movie Holiday Inn.

The romantic comedy musical starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in a boy-wins-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl story. Crosby leaves a musical act to run an Inn that is only open on holidays. Astaire comes to the Inn after his dance partner leaves him, giving us the opportunity to hear a variety of holiday songs by legendary song writer, Irving Berlin.

In the movie, White Christmas is a duet when we first hear it, and when it reappears late in the story, the female character Lila, played by Marjorie Reynolds, sings it.  The song picked up the Oscar for best song of 1942.  The recording by Bing Crosby the same year has gone on to sell over 50 million copies and holds the top spot by far. It too is part of our non stop Christmas soundtrack.

It is the overwhelming popularity of the song that led to a movie entitled White Christmas. Of course, Bing Crosby is back in another role, this time teamed up with Danny Kaye. Fred Astaire turned down the project.

White Christmas, like Holiday Inn, achieved great success, but its soundtrack never got a remix into stereo for release as an album. The master recordings were destroyed in a fire.

19 thoughts on “RUDOLPH AND OTHER STORIES OF CHRISTMAS SONGS

  1. Doobster418 December 7, 2014 / 12:16 am

    Wait. Wasn’t Dale Evans Roy Rogers’ wife?

    Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was the first song I remember learning as a kid. Somehow, I don’t remember how, my parents recorded me singing it. They had it on an old 78 rpm record and when it was played back everyone would get a big chuckle out of the way I sang “You’ll go down in history.” You see, I was too little to know the word “history,” so I sang the song as if the lyrics were “You’ll go down in his story.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rich Paschall December 7, 2014 / 10:47 am

      The lyric works for me either way. Thanks for sharing.
      Yes, Dale Evans was married to another singing cowboy.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Garry Armstrong December 7, 2014 / 11:58 am

        Yo, I was initially confused by Doob’s comment until Marilyn clarified. Doob will do that. Anyway, GREAT post Rich. Love the background stories! BTW: I’ve taped the PBS doc on Bing Crosby but haven’t watched yet. Have you??

        Like

    • Marilyn Armstrong December 7, 2014 / 11:25 am

      You are right. I got lost in old cowboy lore and named the wrong wife! (aren’t they really all alike?) Bet Rich already corrected it!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Marilyn Armstrong December 7, 2014 / 11:28 am

        Jacqueline Autry was Gene’s second wife. They were married for 19 years, most of his working life.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Rich Paschall December 7, 2014 / 11:37 am

          It was first wife Ina May Spivey who liked Rudolph. How else could he afford to buy a baseball team?

          Like

            • Rich Paschall December 7, 2014 / 3:32 pm

              It did in the 1940’s and 50’s. Now he would have to go on tour with special effects and video screens.

              Like

            • Garry Armstrong December 8, 2014 / 11:38 am

              TV news reporters..or at least those who in my day…could sling leather better than those singing cowboys. We knew all those towns. All the Corrupt sheriffs, the ladies who talked purty for money, the town drunks, the bad guys who were back shooters and the land barons who had lots of cattle you could hear but never see.

              Liked by 1 person

        • Garry Armstrong December 7, 2014 / 12:00 pm

          Getting kinky here. “Roy, Jacki, Gene and Dale”. A Bob Altman film.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Rick December 7, 2014 / 8:53 am

    I want to know how Bing Crosby convinced David Bowie to appear on his Christmas special. It was the height to Bowie’s weirdness. Anyway, their collaboration on Little Drummer Boy is a classic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rich Paschall December 7, 2014 / 10:48 am

      It was a great collaboration from late in Bing’s life. I think it took a while for this one to get out in the public and become the Christmas classic it now is.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Raewyn's Photos December 7, 2014 / 2:35 pm

    Those movies were always part of my childhood. I do miss the kitsch of them. Great post. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rich Paschall December 7, 2014 / 3:01 pm

      Thanks. There are three movies with Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. The two mentioned above and another movie with Fred Astaire, Blue Skies.

      Liked by 1 person

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