This time of year, I think of Johnny Marks. I was in high school and working my first real job inside of a long, thin, shoebox-shaped store in the West Village selling everything from the Paris Review and Italian Vogue to Hoyo de Monterrey cigars. It was the cigars that regularly brought Johnny Marks into the store, and although he’s been dead for 30 years he will be forever remembered for a day in 1947 when the then-aspiring songwriter sat down at a piano and banged out seven notes to accompany the words “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Marks was born in 1909 in Mount Vernon, N.Y., went to college at Columbia University and took off for Paris to study music. His brother-in-law, Robert May, lived in Chicago and worked as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. Asked to create a Christmas character for a holiday brochure, May came up with the story of a reindeer whose bright nose made him a hero. The reindeer was born in time for the holiday shopping season of 1939.
When Marks returned home after a sting in the Army during World War II, his brother-in-law introduced him to the fictional reindeer. In 1947, Marks reworked May’s original lyrics and set them to music. Gene Autry recorded the tune. Fifteen years later, NBC first broadcast a TV version based on the song, including some additional Marks compositions like "A Holly Jolly Christmas," and "The Most Wonderful Day of the Year."
Marks was in his early 70s when I first met him, and we’d talk a few minutes a day, a couple of days a week, over a handful of years. He made easy conversation and sported a neatly trimmed white beard. He was fond of turtleneck sweaters and was the kind of guy that put a smile on your face just by being around him. Everything else just melted away. A gentleman, and a reminder that whether you’re a piano player, a tinker or tailor, anything is possible.
Ronnie Spector & Darlene Love singing Johnny Marks' "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree"