During the holiday season, which now stretches from Autumnal Equinox to New Year’s Day, it’s nearly impossible to turn on the radio or walk through a shopping mall without hearing the rich, mellifluous voice of Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives. Few people can place his name, but in the coming weeks millions will sing along or tap their toes to the improbable holiday hit he recorded in November 1964.
Ives, who died in 1995, compiled a remarkably diverse showbiz resume. Yet, while memories of his noteworthy accomplishments have faded, his sappy little tune remains as popular as ever. Last Christmas, more than half a century following its release, the song ranked among Billboard’s top 10. Coming 109 years after his birth, the achievement made Ives the oldest artist, living or deceased, to have a top 40 hit.
Burl Ives began performing at age four in rural southern Illinois and by his teens he sang professionally in venues described by one obituary writer as: saloons, parks, churches, hobo jungles, lumber camps, prize fights, steel mills, cattle ranches and fishing wharfs. He twice enrolled in college and twice dropped out, preferring the life of a rail-riding, singing vagabond.
Rotund and bearded, Ives looked to be a jolly sort of fellow, yet on stage he rarely cracked a smile. Although known primarily as a folk singer, he won an Academy Award in 1959 for his performance in the film “The Big Country,” one of 32 movies in which he appeared. He won wide praise for his stage performance as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” one of his 13 Broadway roles. He had his own TV series, “The Wayfarin’ Stranger,” on CBS, and he released more than 100 record albums.
In the midst of this acclaimed career as an actor and balladeer, Ives was hired as the narrator for NBC’s 1964 animated special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Music for the special was composed by Johnny Marks, who 15 years earlier had written the classic Christmas tune of the same name, an enduring hit for singing cowboy Gene Autry. Marks, a Jew who made a fortune writing Christmas songs, would compose “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for Brenda Lee, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” for Bing Crosby, and “Run Rudolph Run,” recorded by Chuck Berry.
For the NBC program, Marks picked a schmaltzy and forgotten tune he had written a few years earlier for a group known as The Quinto Sisters. Ives, cast as narrator Sam the Snowman, was not supposed to sing in the show, but the network decided he should be given Marks’ little ditty, running all of two minutes and 15 seconds.
No Christmas songs made Billboard’s Hot 100 list for 1964, dominated as it was by nine hits featuring The Beatles. In fact, the Marks-Ives record did not officially make the chart until digital downloads were tabulated, after which it placed No. 46 in 2016, No. 38 in 2017, and No.10 in 2019.
Inexplicably, the song has grown in popularity. It’s message, certainly appropriate in these tense times: “Say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.”
And, of course, “Have a holly, jolly Christmas.”