I hate leaving my peaceful Breakers home to endure my once-a-week stressful, perilous George Town trips, rife with unfamiliar traffic. However, I must say that every six months or so, my mood changes. That is when BMI and other music royalty distribution houses mail out checks.
It’s like Christmas when that check shows up in my post office box. I usually wait till I have a drink in my hand before I tear the envelope open and wow, there it is – the apogee of a songwriter – a royalty check for musical works that you created.
Now, don’t let the word “royalty” fool you, because receiving a royalty check does not mean you’re rich. I once received a notice from a publisher that said something to the effect of “We do not make payments until your account has exceeded $5, so there is no check enclosed this period.”
On the other side of the royalty coin, there is Sir Elton John, the British rock singer, songwriter and composer who has earned $480 million from his works over the years. For him, the checks just keep on rolling in. How do they get all that money in one envelope?
Then, there’s Johnny Marks. Johnny Marks was a Scrooge; he wouldn’t shop for presents, send Christmas cards, or put up a tree. “So what?” you may ask. “Who cares and who is Johnny Marks?” Mr. Marks was the composer of “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and the classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” With all those valuable holiday hits to his credit, you’d think he would have been walking around in a Santa suit 12 months a year.
“Bah, humbug,” grumped Marks before he passed away in 1985. “Rudolph is not my idea of a masterpiece, such as the lyrics in ‘Tea for Two’.” Nevertheless, each December the royalties from “Rudolph” alone assure that his heirs’ bank account swells to the tune of around $800,000 (not to mention the other pieces he’s composed that bring in additional wealth). His song about the beloved reindeer sold 150 million copies in 30 languages and 25 million copies of sheet music of 140 different arrangements. Though appreciative of his success, he felt left out; Marks would rather have been another Irving Berlin, the composer he idolized while growing up in Mount Vernon, New York.
After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English, Marks took off for Paris, where Ernest Hemingway came to hear him play piano at the Café Schubert on the Boulevard Montparnasse. Like most songwriters (I do it myself), he would scribble down ideas in a notebook and later, when feeling inspired, he would scan through the pages in hopes of inducing a hit.
In 1948, Marks found “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” scribbled in his book of song ideas. He subsequently wrote the lyrics and music and cut a demo. He submitted it to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore, among others, but only Gene Autry agreed (reluctantly) to record the song. In that era, Autry was known as a pistol-toting, singing cowboy who starred in Hollywood films; he felt that a song about a cute little reindeer would not fit his image. Maybe so, but at the end of the day, Autry’s version of the song sold 12.5 million copies and topped worldwide radio charts.
Right up to his passing, Johnny Marks continued to write songs, have them recorded and then counted his millions, but in the end he was still known as the guy who wrote a song about a red-nosed deer rather than a concerto masterpiece.
“No matter what I write,” sighed Marks, “they would always say the same thing: ‘It’s just not a Rudolph.’”