Many secular Christmas songs have been written over the years, some successful, but most never made it to the big time. The second most popular song behind Bing Crosby’s White Christmas almost didn’t get recorded. Had it not been for Gene Autry’s wife, Ina, the little song may have languished for lack of attention and faded away into the trash can of history.
In 1939 a little poem was written by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward’s annual holiday booklet giveaway. It was a story of an outcast reindeer whose “differences” ultimately helped him save Santa’s threatened sleigh ride on Christmas Eve. To everyone’s surprise, the poem sold over one hundred thousand copies.
May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, took the poem and composed a melody in 1947 and tried in vain to sell it to several popular singers, including Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Dinah Shore, who all rejected it. By a stroke of luck, Gene Autry’s wife, Ina, heard Mark’s demo record and was enchanted by its “Ugly Duckling” theme. She strongly encouraged Gene to record it as a companion song to his Here Comes Santa Claus record. But her husband hated the song and refused to record it.
It became widely acknowledged that if not for Ina, there would be no “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry. Carl Cotner, Gene’s musical director also tried to talk Gene into recording it. Carl had told Gene he thought it would be a good song for him, and Carl did the arrangement.
At a recording session, Gene said, “How about that little song that you are so crazy about?” They placed it on the music stand and he recorded it in one take. It was later admitted that Ina had talked Gene into doing it. Five weeks later, on August 4th, Gene cut two more Christmas numbers, Santa, Santa, Santa and If It Doesn’t Snow On Christmas which had moderate success.
“Rudolph” became a favorite on The Hit Parade and soared to the top of the Billboard Country and Western, and Pop charts, a first for Gene Autry. During its first year of release, “Rudolph” sold two million copies, selling an estimated twenty-five million more over the next forty years. For decades it remained the best selling single of all time after Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. The song also anticipated a new trend for Gene – recording songs specifically geared to the children’s market. Over the years “Rudolph” would be recorded by more than five hundred artists, but Gene’s version always seemed to be everyone’s favorite.
“RUDOLPH the RED-NOSED REINDEER”
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
Had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows.
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names,
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say,
Rudolph, with your nose so bright
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?
Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
You’ll go down in history. *
Composer: Johnny Marks – 1949
“THE CHRISTMAS SONG THAT ALMOST WASN’T”
BY: NEAL MURPHY
107 HEMLOCK STREET
PO BOX 511
SAN AUGUSTINE, TX 75972