It’s the time of year when we find ourselves singing along to festive holiday music on the radio, with many of the songs written for children. If you enjoy “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” the folksy voice behind the original versions of those tunes is none other than the legendary Gene Autry.
By the time Autry’s first Christmas hit, “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane),” was recorded in 1947, he was a renowned country music artist and major film star nicknamed “The Singing Cowboy.” The inspiration for the song came during Autry’s participation in the 1946 Hollywood Christmas Parade which at the time was known as the Santa Claus Lane Parade. While Gene, as Grand Marshal, rode his horse in the spectacle, he heard a young boy yell, “Here come Santa Claus!” The song lyrics mix the religious aspect of the holiday with the image of Santa rewarding good children: “Peace on earth will come to all if we just follow the light, So, let’s give thanks to the Lord above, ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight.” The song reached #5 on the country charts and #9 on the pop charts in 1948.
Autry’s biggest holiday hit was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and started as a story published by the Montgomery Ward department store in 1939 to drum up business. The familiar tale has the bullied Rudolph saving Christmas by using his shiny nose to light the way for Santa’s sleigh in foggy conditions. Johnny Marks adapted the story as a song and Autry’s wife convinced him to record it. His original 1949 recording shot to #1 during Christmas of that year and into early January 1950.
After the success of Rudolph, Autry was asked in 1950 to record “Peter Cottontail” by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins who had written the song based on a Thornton W. Burgess children’s novel by the same name. This secular Easter song made it to #3 on the country charts and #5 on the pop charts. Gene Autry had become a crooner king of two holidays.
Later that year, Autry was seeking another seasonal hit. He was offered “Frosty the Snowman” and jumped at the opportunity to record it. Although the song about a snowman coming to life is considered to be a Christmas song, there is no actual mention of the holiday in it. Autry’s original version reached #4 on the country charts and #7 on the pop charts.
In 1953, Gene Autry recorded the most popular version of “Up on the House Top,” a song written in 1864 by Benjamin Hanby, believed to have been inspired by Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Although it was the world’s first song dedicated to Santa Claus, the world’s second secular Christmas song (“Jingle Bells” being the first), and had been around for almost 90 years, it wasn’t until Autry recorded “Up on the House Top” that it became a popular holiday song.
In addition to achieving fame and fortune as a film star and recording artist, Gene Autry was a WWII veteran, successful businessman, and entrepreneur. However, his longest lasting legacy will likely be his delightful children’s holiday recordings.