Johnny Marks

Johnny Marks

(1909-1985)

DJ Name: DJ Marksy Marks and the Funky Bunch

‘Tis the season to crank up those Christmas tunes, so why not feature the man who wrote hits such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and who was actually more likely to light the candles on the menorah rather than drape tinsel around the tree. That man’s name is Johnny Marks, who was Jewish and whose Christmas songs and other works are forever immortalized in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

This is our last Historic Shuffle of 2020 as we take time to relax for the holidays, so to get you, dear reader, in the spirit to celebrate, let’s dive right into the holiday spirit by taking a look at what went into creating these Christmas bangerz. But first, shuffle up Johnny’s own playlist of his favorite jams, which may or may not include festive funky beats such as Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song.” 

Johnny Marks was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, on November 10, 1909. Though he predates him a bit — which is a shame because they surely would have been best pals — P Diddy also grew up in Mt. Vernon, which is just north of the Bronx in Westchester County. Johnny started dabbling in songwriting when he was 13, and by the time he graduated from McBurney School, he knew he wanted to pursue that passion. Johnny went off to Colgate University, where he involved himself in all the music shenanigans he could find: he was accompanist for the Glee Club, manager of the music club and he composed four songs for the Colgate Soundbook (these hits include “You Da Bait, Colgate” and “We’re Not the Toothpaste Company, Stop Emailing Me, American Dental Association.” Or something like that.). Upon graduating in 1931, Johnny continued on his jammin’ journey by enrolling at Columbia University and then moving to Paris to become a full-time Professional Rapper Songwriter in 1935. During his time in the City of Light, “Johnny in Paris” (pronunciation should rhyme because #justfrenchthings) allegedly once played for Ernest Hemingway, who was so blown away by this hopeless romantic Jewish dude’s skills that he modeled the character of Robert Cohn in “The Sun Also Rises” off him. Allegedly. We’re #facts #only here at Historic Shuffle. 

Johnny didn’t stay in Paris for long, and he moved back to the U.S. to work as a radio producer, and he provided entertainment for American troops overseas during World War II. He put his boots on the ground, too, for four years under the command of General Patton in Normandy. For his Army service, Johnny earned a Bronze Star and four battle stars. But no Hollywood star 😦

After his service, Johnny returned to his OG love of composing songs. In 1939, Johnny came upon a children’s Christmas story that was featured in a Montgomery Ward advertising brochure and was inspired to write a li’l ditty called “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” His brother-in-law, Robert May, was a copywriter at the mail-order and department store retailer, and he’d written the poem as part of promotional material. It then all came together oh so smoothly over the course of a decade: He wrote down the title of the story, composed the melody 10 years later and then started his own company in 1949, St. Nicholas Music, Inc., to publish the song himself. Johnny sought out Gene Autry to record the song, but Gene wasn’t too sure how the song would vibe with his crooning cowboy persona. However, Gene’s wife was super into the Christmas cowboy vibe, and she encouraged him to Just Do ItTM. It was a wise decision, because Rudolph is rad and the millions and millions of people who bought the record agree with that fact. It’s also one of the “most monetarily valuable songs in the world.” So there’s also that. 

Red-nosed Rudolph’s success didn’t stop there. The composition of the jolly hit by DJ Marksy Marks and the Funky Bunch resulted in the heartwarming television special which aired in 1964 titled — you guessed it! — “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on NBC in which a young, unique reindeer with a shiny, red nose is considered a misfit and becomes best pals with Hermey the Elf AKA a fellow outlier. The two buddies journey through the candy cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gumdrops, and then straight through the Lincoln Tunnel where they proceed to march straight on up to the top of the Empire State Building. There, Rudolph shone his bright red nose to light up the Manhattan skyline so Santa could deliver gifts to all the good girls and boys in their homes. Or, something like that. Or maybe it was that Rudolph and Hermey ventured to the land of misfit toys and returned home after eating gum off the stair railings of NYC subway stations to realize that Rudolph’s parents missed him and that Christmas was about to be cancelled until Santa saw that glowing nose and asked, “Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” And history was made, Christmas was saved, and oh how the reindeer loved him. 

Marks wrote the words and music for the whole special, and for several years afterward continued to compose music featured during commercial breaks so that the viewers were kept within their fantastical holiday spirit and not interrupted by advertisements for honey-baked ham. He also wrote many a holiday tune for “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” and “Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July” (hmmm..a snowman in July...interesting), and “The Grinch.” JK. That was Tyler, the Creator. Johnny Marks walked so Tyler, the Creator could run. Marks, or “Mr. Christmas of the Music World” as he was popularly known, published about 175 songs throughout his lifetime, and over 750 songs of his went unpublished. His songbook also features hits outside of the holiday season such as “Who Calls” and “She’ll Always Remember” sung by big-time names such as Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller. Though Marks never put up a tree or shopped for presents and was more likely to cut the babka, spin the dreidel and light the menorah during the eight-day celebration of the Festival of Lights, he’s gone down in history as a man more valuable to the Christmas season than Santa himself. 

Very involved in the world of music throughout his life, Marks served on the Board of Directors of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) from 1957 through 1961. And, in 1973, Marks won an award (a golden Santa hat maybe?) from the International Society of Santa Claus for his important contributions to the seasonal Christmas spirit because Santa’s sleigh couldn’t fly if he didn’t sleigh all day over his sheet music. A few years later, in 1981, Marks was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He passed away on September 3, 1985, and lives on as a man who is the reason people can spread Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear. And with that, have a holly jolly holiday szn and a happy new year from us here at Historic Shuffle (AKA Emmy and Camille.) We’ll be back and better than ever in 2021. 

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