Johnny Marks was born in New York and attended Manhattan's McBurney School (future pupils would include actors Henry Winkler and Richard Thomas plus Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys) before attending both Colgate and Columbia Universities. After further study in Paris he joined the US Army and served as a Captain in the 26th Special Service Company during World War II. His distinguished service saw him awarded with a Bronze Star and four Battle Stars. Prior to the war he had been working as a radio producer and even produced shows for US Forces stationed overseas. Marks began writing songs (including 'Happy New Year Darling' in 1946) but the inspiration for what would become his most famous composition came via a family connection. His brother in law, Robert L. May was a staff copywriter for the retail and mail order company Montgomery Ward and he was tasked with creating a concept for one of their Christmas campaigns in the late 30s. Influenced by the story of the Ugly Duckling and the perennially popular story of the underdog triumphing over adversity he created the character of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer that he introduced in a poem. The rhyming story and the attendant illustrations became highly popular through promotional material and although May was a staff writer, the current company President agreed to let the character's copyright revert to him in 1947. May approached Marks and the latter created what would become one of the most famous Christmas songs ever (only eclipsed by 'White Christmas') and when recorded by cowboy country singer Gene Autry in 1949 it topped the charts with more than two million copies sold.
Founding the publishing company St. Nicholas Music he continued to write Christmas songs, including 'When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter', 'The Night Before Christmas Song', 'An Old-Fashioned Christmas' and 'Everyone's A Child At Christmas'. He also set American poet Longfellow's 1863 poem 'I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day' to music that was later covered by a number of musicians including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, The Carpenters and Sarah McLachlan. Several of his seasonal songs became hits during the rock 'n' roll era, most notably 'Run Rudolph Run' (co-written with Marvin Brodie) which although initially popularised by Chuck Berry in 1958 has since been covered by dozens of bands and singers including Bryan Adams, Keith Richards, Billy Idol, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kelly Clarkson, Dwight Yoakam, the Grateful Dead and Billy Ray Cyrus. Brenda Lee's original version of 'Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree' was released a few times but enjoyed its highest chart placing in 1960 when it peaked at No 14 in the USA and then again in 1963 when it reached No 6 in the UK. Like many of his seasonal songs the track has been covered numerous times and was taken back into the UK charts by singer Kim Wilde and the late comedian Mel Smith in 1987 when their charity version (on behalf of Comic Relief) reached No 3. Subsequent songs 'A Merry, Merry Christmas To You', 'The Santa Claus Parade', 'A Caroling We Go' and 'Joyous Christmas' were followed in 1964 by the NBC TV animated special of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer'. Written by Romeo Muller based on Robert L. May's original story the one hour special was narrated by Burl Ives and apart from the title song also featured 'A Holly Jolly Christmas', 'Jingle, Jingle, Jingle', 'The Most Wonderful Day Of The Year', 'Silver And Gold', 'We Are Santa's Elves', 'There's Always Tomorrow', 'The Island Of Misfit Toys' and 'We're A Couple Of Misfits'. In 1975 Marks contributed the music to a second animation, DePatie Freleng's TV special The Tiny Tree featuring narration by Buddy Ebsen and including the songs 'I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day', 'Tell It To A Turtle', 'Minuet For Clarinet', 'A Caroling We Go', 'A Merry, Merry Christmas To You', 'Joyous Christmas', 'To Love And Be Loved' and 'When Autumn Comes', the latter two sung by Roberta Flack.
Marks did compose non-seasonal tracks, including 'Address Unknown', 'Chicken Today And Feathers Tomorrow', 'Don't Cross Your Fingers, Cross Your Heart', 'Free', 'How Long Is Forever"', 'I Guess There's An End To Everything', 'Neglected', 'She'll Always Remember', 'Summer Holiday', 'There's Always Tomorrow', 'We Speak Of You Often', 'What've You Got To Lose But Your Heart' and 'Who Calls"' but they were largely unsuccessful. Although it's often remarked upon that Marks' specialism of writing Christmas songs was as odd choice for a Jew and conflicted with his religious beliefs, but while he certainly was prolific in that field he wasn't alone as Mel Tormé, writer of 'The Christmas Song' (chestnuts roasting on an open fire etc.) and Irving Berlin who composed the most popular festive tune of all 'White Christmas' were also Jewish. Johnny Marks died aged seventy-five in 1985.
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