The story of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was written in 1939 by Robert L. May, a copywriter for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department stores, as a promotional gift for the store's customers. The stores had bought and distributed coloring books every Christmas and saw writing their own story as a way to save money. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph booklet in 1939. A total of 6 million copies had been given out by the end of 1946, even though wartime paper shortages restricted printing.
The story reflects May's own childhood difficulties as the smallest boy in his class. He was taunted for being a frail, scrawny misfit.
The reindeer was almost named Rollo or Reginald. May considered both these named before settling on Rudolph.
Rudolph's story was made into a song when May's brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for it. Marks' musical version was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, selling 2 million copies that year.
Autry didn't want anything to do with this song. It was his wife who talked him into recording it, and it went on to become the second biggest-selling Christmas song of all time, next to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas
." Crosby also recorded "Rudolph" and landed at #14 on the pop chart in 1950.
Autry was known as "The Singing Cowboy." He teamed up with Roy Rogers in the 1930s and '40s to make movies in a new genre called "Musical Westerns." Autry had his own TV show in the 1950s and was the owner of the California Angels baseball team, which later became the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Autry, who died in 1998, is the only person with five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which he earned for motion pictures, radio, music recording, television, and live theater.
This song was the basis for a children's TV Special made in 1964. It was narrated by Burl Ives, and became a Christmas classic.
The Chipmunks did a version that was a hit in Christmastime, 1960, reaching #21 US. The same year, a version by The Melodeers went to #71 and Paul Anka's rendition made #104.
Johnny Marks had the idea for the song jotted down in his songbook for 10 years before developing it. He spoke about the tune's legacy with interviewer Ian Whitcomb: "I thought it was going to be a hit, but a regular hit. I didn't think it was just going to go on forever."
Marks also penned the Christmas classics "Holly Jolly Christmas
" and "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
Because Autry's reputation was that of a Western star, he didn't feel suited to sing a Christmas song. Marks, however, was determined to change Autry's mind (even though he'd never met him). He enlisted an unknown singer named Al Cernik to record a demo in the style of Autry and shipped it to the star in California. After a long wait - and some prodding from his wife - Autry agreed to record the tune. As for Al Cernik, he became Guy Mitchell, who had a #1 hit in 1956 with "Singing the Blues."
The song earned Marks millions in royalties but by 1980, he was tired of being chained to Santa's sleigh. "This is not exactly what I hoped to be remembered for," he told People magazine of the enduring classic. "No matter what I write, they always say the same thing: 'It's just not 'Rudolph.'"
The Temptations included this on their 1970 holiday album, The Temptations Christmas Card. The R&B-flavored cover landed on Billboard's Christmas Singles chart twice, at #16 in 1970 and #3 in 1971.