Prolific Songwriter Johnny Marks Dies

Times Staff Writer

Johnny Marks, who wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a song he described 135 million records later as “one of the worst ever written,” died Tuesday in a New York City hospital.

He was 75 and at his death had written either the words or music to about 900 other songs, including three additional holiday classics.

Marks was already a successful composer when he took an idea from a children’s book and penned “Rudolph” in 1949.


He sent a copy to Gene Autry, when Autry was still the nation’s Singing Cowboy and not yet the owner of a far-flung empire that includes the California Angels baseball team.

Wife Influenced Him

Autry agreed with Marks and rejected the song, but his wife found it “enchanting” and talked her husband into using it on the other side of an already scheduled record.

“Rudolph” was released Sept. 15, 1949, and by Oct. 1 had climbed to the top of the nation’s record charts.

Over the years it had dozens of other incarnations, by artists ranging from Paul McCartney’s Wings (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae”) to mambo, jazz and choral groups.

Autry’s treatment, which has sold 13 million records, remained Marks’ favorite, however.

Bing Crosby Song

Marks followed the success of that song with “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1956; “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” sung by Brenda Lee in 1960, and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” performed by Burl Ives on the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” television special in 1963.

That program is believed the longest running TV special still being aired.

In addition to the four Christmas songs, Marks was a well-known composer of scores for television shows, including “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year,” “Rudolph and Frosty,” “The Tiny Tree” and “The Ballad of Smokey the Bear.”

But most of his compositions ranged far afield from his Christmas songs, including “Everything I’ve Always Wanted,” which reached the country charts when recorded by Porter Wagoner.

Music for Television

In all he published more than 150 songs, wrote 750 still-unpublished pieces and composed music for television commercials.

Marks became an active songwriter in 1935 and was a member of the board of directors of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, most recently serving on its advisory board.

In 1973 he and Irving Berlin, composer of “White Christmas,” edged out a 19th-Century British author for an award conceived by the International Society of Santa Claus.

The award was to honor the single most important contribution to Christmas over the years. The author that the two composers bested was Charles Dickens, for his story “A Christmas Carol.”