‘Tis the season of the Christmas Cowboy.
For more than 70 years, Gene Autry rides again every year with Christmas standards “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane),” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” which still annually rank among the top 25 holiday songs in an analysis of traditional radio and streaming data.
All were first recorded by Autry between 1947-50, broadening the reach of the entertainer known as the “Singing Cowboy” into the “Christmas Cowboy” and refueling his multimedia career.
“When ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ came out, Gene was still having some hits and making movies,” said Holly George-Warren, author of the biography “Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry.”
“With the popularity of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ it really kept his career going at a time when it was starting to wind down otherwise. Every year he had this huge (Christmas) hit, and he kept trying to do another one.”
Autry was No. 1 in B-western cowboy popularity polls from 1937 until 1942, when he enlisted in the Air Corps to serve in World War II, with training at the newly constructed Luke Field in Arizona.
In 1940, only Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were bigger overall box office stars than Autry.
Resuming his film career in 1946, with Roy Rogers now entrenched as King of the Cowboys, Autry fortuitously discovered a Christmas market that he quickly and shrewdly maximized via big city rodeo appearances and his “Melody Ranch” show on the CBS radio network.
Autry, later the original owner of the Los Angeles Angels Major League Baseball franchise, was known for his business acumen.
‘Here Comes Santa Claus’
Autry was grand marshal of the Hollywood Christmas Parade in 1939 (as well as in 1961 and 1980) and rode his horse Champion in many others along Hollywood Boulevard, which was renamed Santa Claus Lane for the one-mile route on parade day.
When asked to record “An Old-Fashioned Christmas Tree” in summer 1947, Autry is said to have inspired the flip side by telling producer Art Satherly about hearing children shout “Here Comes Santa Claus” during the 1946 parade.
From that suggestion, Oakley Haldeman, who directed Autry’s music division, wrote the lyrics and composed music for a record that charted top five in the U.S. for consecutive holiday seasons in 1948 and 1949.
“I can’t tell you who did which lyrics, but that was the birth of the song,” said Maxine Hansen, executive assistant for Autry from 1981 until his death in 1998. Hansen currently is executive assistant for Autry’s widow, Jackie.
There is another genesis version, though, that Ginia Desmond of Tucson said dates to the day before her fifth birthday in June 1947.
“That’s why I remember the date so clearly,” said Desmond about a conversation between her parents, Oakley and Dixie Haldeman, during a barbecue in their front yard. “I’m the only person alive who was there.”
Haldeman was talking about Autry needing a Christmas song, tossing out the idea of Santa Claus comes once a year, full of good cheer.
“Mom said, ‘Why not just say here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane?’” Desmond said. “My dad wrote the rest of the song. Autry wasn’t a songwriter, but he was very smart and put his name on the music (along with Haldeman).”
George-Warren, with a substantial background in Western Americana, interviewed Autry when he was 89.
“We totally hit it off,” she said. That led to a book project, “How the West Was Worn,” in conjunction the Autry Museum of the American West, and then access to Autry’s extensive archives for his first biography, which she began working on in 2002.
She didn’t hear Desmond’s story about “Here Comes Santa Claus” until after her book was published in 2007 but believes that Haldeman “probably wrote most of that song” no matter who deserves credit for the title.
With more than 270 cover versions of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” royalties are substantial for the Autry and Haldeman heirs through 2065, when the song moves from copyright into the public domain.
“It’s made my life very livable,” says Desmond, who became a screenwriter in her 60s and wrote and produced “Lucky U Ranch,” a coming-of-age film set in 1950s Arizona. The Haldemans owned a trailer park in Scottsdale by that name during the same era.
‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’
The story of how “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became Autry’s follow-up Christmas hit starts with copywriter Robert May writing a poem in 1939 for a Montgomery Ward department store/catalog holiday promotion followed by a children’s book.
Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, turned the poem into a song that he unsuccessfully pitched to such stars such as Perry Como, Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore.
Autry wasn’t interested, either, but his musical director Carl Cottner and Autry’s first wife, Ina, lobbied on Rudolph’s behalf (she is said to have been inspired by the underdog triumphing theme).
“It’s plausible that his wife thought, ‘Oh Gene, you should do it,’” George-Warren said.
“He was in the studio in July (1949) and apparently they had enough time to cut one more track. Someone was like, ‘What about that Rudolph song?’ and they kind of off-handedly did it.”
That single take yielded a 2-million-selling record in the first year of its release and reportedly 12.5 million total, to rank the top five of sales among all Christmas songs. There are more than 750 cover versions, many that came out during Marks’ lifetime.
Marks lived until 1985 and wrote other songs that became Christmas standards.
He stood by Autry’s as the definitive version.
“What I sent you in 1949 were ink dots on a piece of paper,” he told Autry, as related in George-Warren’s book. “You had to translate this into a sound, lyrically and musically, that people would like. How many great songs have been lost because of the wrong rendition?
“Many people have said: ‘Anyone could have made a hit with Rudolph.’ My answer has always been: ‘We’ll never know. I only know that Gene Autry did do it, and that all the others followed.”
‘Frosty the Snowman’ and more
Autry hit the Christmas trifecta in 1950 with “Frosty the Snowman,” written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, the same composers of “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” an Autry hit earlier that year.
“It just really kept his recording career, going doing these holiday songs,” George-Warren says. “First and foremost, Gene loved music. He had a great voice. It’s cool how thanks to these holiday character songs, he was able to keep it going. He would try to jump on any new fad.”
Naturally, not all were successful. There’s not a huge demand each Thanksgiving to hear “Guffy the Goofy Gobbler.” George-Warren appreciates Autry’s trucker songs like “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” but she’s likely in the minority.
Her husband, Robert Warren, as Uncle Rock, recorded a version of Autry’s 1959 “Santa’s Comin’ in a Whirly Bird,” turning Rudolph and his reindeer friends out to graze, replaced by a helicopter.
Like a visit from Santa, children in the 1940s and ‘50s could expect a gift from Autry in “holiday songs that would last a lifetime,” George-Warren wrote in liner notes for “Gene Autry: The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings.”
ASCAP 2020 most-played holiday songs
1. “All I Want for Christmas” (1994)
2. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (1951)
3. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (1962)
4. “Sleigh Ride” (1948)
5. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” (1945)
6. “Jingle Bell Rock” (1958)
7. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958)
8. “Last Christmas” (1984)
9. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963)
10. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944)
11. “Winter Wonderland” (1934)
12. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1934)
13. “White Christmas” (1941)
14. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949)
15. “The Christmas Song” (1946)
16. “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” (1947)
17. “Home for the Holidays” (1954)
18. “Feliz Navidad” (1970)
19. “Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season” (1942)
20. “Santa Baby” (1953)
21. “Frosty the Snowman” (1950)
22. “Jingle Bells” (1958)
23. “Underneath the Tree” (2013)
24. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (1966)
25. “Santa Tell Me ” (2013)
SOURCE: American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers