December 24, 2011
There’s a radio station in these parts that started the week after Thanksgiving to play nothing but Christmas music. And that has been pretty much restricted to non-religious Christmas music, which sharply limits the available tracks, even with generic winter tunes like “Let it Snow” thrown in.
We usually stick to the public radio classical music station, but once in while, when that station delves into music we find grating, we have switched to the commercial station, but the steady diet of what seems like a dozen songs can be nauseating. Earlier today, within less than 30 minutes, that station played yet again “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee, and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives. It occurred to me as I reached for the remote that all of those songs were the work of Johnny Marks. That’s no small thing when one considers that relatively few pop Christmas songs have become standards.
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was actually a collaboration with Marks’s brother-in-law, Robert May, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth, who worked as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward.
For many years, the retail chain had been giving away Christmas coloring books to children who visited Santa Claus at Montgomery Ward stores, but in the 1930s, turned to creating its own book, which featured the tale of Rudolph, written in verse by Robert May. By 1946, more than six million copies of the book had been distributed. To its credit, Montgomery Ward, which originally owned the copyright to Rudolph because it had been written by an employee as an assignment, turned the rights over to May in 1947. Marks turned May’s poem into lyrics and set it to music. Although other singers turned down the chance, Gene Autry recorded the song for the Christmas season of 1949 and the disc sold more than 2.5 million copies the first year and has sold tens of millions since.
Marks, who attended Colgate and Columbia universities, also wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a musical adaptation of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The song was recorded by several major artists, including Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby, and Kate Smith.
From what I’ve read, although “Rudolph” made Marks a rich man, he wasn’t crazy about being remembered only for that and a few other Christmas songs. As it happens, Marks also collaborated with Carmen Lombardo and D.L. Hill to write one of my favorite songs, “Address Unknown.” It was a big hit for the Ink Spots. You can hear their recording by clicking HERE.
I don’t want to leave Johnny Marks without mentioning that he served with the U.S. Army during World War II — specifically, as a captain in the 26th Special Service Company — and he was awarded the Bronze Star and four battle stars.
December 15, 2009
One of the songs we listen to every year while we’re decorating our Christmas tree is “Mary’s Boy Child,” sung by Harry Belafonte, who first recorded it for an album in 1956. When it was reissued as a single, it reached No. 1 on the charts in Britain the following year. It was the first song to sell a million copies in England. Mahalia Jackson also recorded it in 1956. It has been covered by dozens of other artists ranging from the Maori soprano Kiri Te Kanawa to the disco group Boney M, which took it back to No. 1 in the UK in 1978.
It isn’t widely known, but this song was written by Jester Hairston — an unusually talented and versatile figure in American music and entertainment. Hairston (1901-2000) was a composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor. The grandson of slaves, he was born in North Carolina but lived from an early age outside of Pittsburgh. He graduated with honors from Tufts University and studied music at the Julliard School. His lifelong passion was for choral singing, and he conducted ensembles on Broadway and all over the world. In 1985, when such events were rare, he took the Jester Hairston Chorale, a multi-ethnic group, to sing in China.
Hairston did a lot of musical work for films. His most familiar work is probably the song “Amen” from the 1973 movie “Lilies of the Field” in which Sidney Poitier plays a young handyman who gets bamboozled into doing a lot of heavy labor for an order of German nuns in Arizona. Poitier won an Oscar for that performance, the first best-actor award to a black man. Poitier didn’t do any singing in that film, however. He lip-synched “Amen”; the voice was Jester Hairston’s.
Hairston had a lot of small roles in films — some of them demeaning, some without credit. He also appeared in the radio and television versions of “Amos ‘n Andy” — notably as Henry Van Porter, a high-end member of the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge, which was the epicenter of much the action on the television series in particular. He also played Leroy, the brother-in-law of George “Kingfish” Stevens. More recent television audiences might remember Hairston for his role as Rollie Forbes in the series “Amen” that ran from 1986 to 1991.
You can hear Belafonte’s version of “Mary’s Little Boy” by clicking HERE. You can watch an amusing video HERE of Jester Hairston conducting a large choir in Odense in 1981 as they learn to sing the Christmas song in Danish.