Music on Mondays — Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
For our first Music on Mondays of the new year (that’s 2013 for those of you who have not been paying attention), I thought we’d dig into music history.
On this date in 1947, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry was the #1 song on the pop charts:
The story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins in 1939 at Montgomery Ward. Seeking a cheaper holiday giveaway than the children’s coloring books they had purchased and distributed in years past, Montgomery Ward asked its own marketing department to create a new and original Christmas storybook from scratch. The task fell to May, a family man with a four-year-old daughter. The story that May wrote was given away to more than 2 million Montgomery Ward customers in 1939. It was not until May’s brother-in-law adapted the story into song almost 10 years later, however, that “Rudolph” truly entered the national consciousness.
May’s brother-in-law was a professional songwriter named Johnny Marks, best known for works like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958) and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (1962) in addition to “Rudolph.” In 1949, Marks’ song found its way to radio legend Gene Autry, the original Singing Cowboy, whose recording of “Rudolph” sold more than 2 million units in its first year alone on its way to becoming the second-most successful Christmas record in history (after “White Christmas”).
It is at this point in the story of “Rudolph” when those with a nose for legal issues begin to wonder who owned the rights to the beloved Christmas story and money-making juggernaut. In fact, as a paid employee of Montgomery Ward, author Robert L. May had no legal claim whatsoever to an ownership stake in “Rudolph.” Furthermore, May was a widowed single father by 1947, facing enormous debts as a result of his wife’s terminal illness. Yet in a twist that will boggle the minds and warm the hearts of those hardened to the ways of modern American capitalism, the president of Montgomery Ward, one Sewell Avery, signed over to Robert L. May 100 percent of the “Rudolph” copyright in January 1947. May lived comfortably on the royalties from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” until his death in 1976.
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