Johnny Marks – the king of Christmas songs

By Martin Gleeson

Johnny Marks, born in 1909, came from Mount Vernon, in New York. He had a good university education and later studied in Paris. During World War II he held the rank of captain and earned a bronze star. Even though Johnny was Jewish he specialised in Christmas songs, eventually writing twenty-one of them!

His three most famous songs were ‘Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’ and ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’.


Johnny’s wife Margaret was the sister of Robert L. May. Robert May came from an affluent Jewish family but they lost their wealth during the Great Depression in 1929. Robert May worked as an advertising copywriter for a large department store in Chicago. His boss asked him to write a Christmas story for the colouring books given out by the store to the children that queued to see Santa Claus. Robert May created the story of the reindeer who was shunned by the others but eventually saved the day due to his bright red nose.

“Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee
Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer
You’ll go down in history.”

There was massive demand for this colouring book by the customers. Robert May then asked his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to write a song about Rudolf. Johnny developed the lyrics and melody giving us the song ‘Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer’.

After failing to sell the song to several singers, among them Bing Crosby, Johnny found that the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry, loved every word in it. When he recorded the song in 1949, it became Gene Autry’s biggest hit.

Over the years, many singers recorded ‘Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and eventually it became the second most successful song ever recorded. It sold 150 million copies, second only to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’.


Brenda Lee was a very successful solo singer in the 1960s. Standing 4’ 9” tall, she was known as ‘Little Miss Dynamite’.

In the 1960s she had more hits on the charts than any other woman. Her best-selling song was ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, written by Johnny Marks. It sold 5 million copies and became a Christmas standard.


The folksinger and banjoist Burl Ives was an internationally known artist from the 1930s to the early 1990s.

Incidentally, Burl lived in Kilcornan, Co. Limerick in the 1960s. Among his many friends in Limerick were Richard Harris and Donogh O’Malley. Rowing enthusiasts in Limerick remember that Burl was a member of the Limerick Boat Club.

‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’ was written by Johnny Marks in 1962 and Burl Ives sung it on his 1965 Christmas album. The Brul Ives’ version of the song has been released many times over the years, as recently as Christmas 2019.

So, thanks to Johnny Marks, for over 55 years people have been singing:

“Have a holly jolly Christmas
It’s the best time of the year
I don’t know if there’ll be snow
But have a cup of cheer,”

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