Just over 30 years ago, up in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, Calif., two musicians embarked on a journey they had never dreamed of -- creating a one-hit Christmas wonder. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" is a single that has not just received a gold record but platinum, and it is one of the most downloaded ring tones during the holiday season.
Randy Brooks and Dr. Elmo Shropshire met in 1979 while playing with their bands around the holiday season. For most of Brooks' life, songwriting was just a hobby, a creative outlet. He found inspiration from Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.
One Christmas season, he was listening to Merle Haggard's "Grandma's Homemade Christmas" in which family members anxiously await grandma's card because of its beauty, and he found himself getting a little annoyed. He realized more than halfway through the song grandma died.
"I got angry and said, 'Merle, that's so unfair to do to people,'" Brooks said. "If you were half the songwriter you think you are, you would admit in the first line of the song that grandma was dead and then if you could come up with three verses and a chorus you'd really have something. So that was my exercise, a parody of a Merle Haggard song."
He reflected on his own childhood memories to add color to the song.
"My grandmother did like to drink herself happy on occasions, and we did worry about her leaving the house," Brooks said.
Ill-Fated 'Grandma' Becomes a Chart Topper
Not long after the duo sang together on stage, Dr. Elmo, as the former veterinarian likes to be called, laid it to vinyl.
"I thought if I record this song as a gag gift, my friends will think it's funny," Dr. Elmo said. So I made a recording of it, I think, in March of 1979, and then in December of '79 a friend of mine took one of those 45 RPM records to a disc jockey in San Francisco named Gene Nelson."
Nelson, who worked at KSFO 560am, picked up the 45 and just laughed. He liked to find those kooky records in the pile, tunes that were offbeat and satirical.
"It was around the Christmas season and here's this record 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.' So I listened to it and I thought, 'Aw, yeah.' I just thought it was hilarious, so I played it," Nelson said.
Nelson, who's been retired for 15 years, said he'd never seen such an immediate response. The phones rang off the hook, listeners wondered where could they get a copy of the song, and would Nelson play it again?
No Success Without Dissenters
While the song saw chart-topping success, it wasn't without controversy.
"Some people loved it, some people hated it," Dr. Elmo said.
Radio stations were called to pull the song off the airwaves, calling the song ageist, sexist and counter to the Christmas spirit.
Brooks said the song was written with a light heart just for people to get a chuckle.
"I wasn't thinking beyond getting some cheap laughs in a bar," Brooks said. "That's what I was writing songs for, to sing novelty songs as comic relief for my band, and the more punch lines I could put in the happier the audience was. I certainly wasn't thinking of a national audience."
30 Years Later, 'Grandma' Plays On
"Grandma" was a sensation, and a few years later Dr. Elmo made a music video and its popularity took off across the nation. In 1984, "Grandma" had overtaken "White Christmas" in the top spot for the holiday song hit list.
"Grandma" became so popular, toy companies licensed the song to be played in stuffed reindeer, and it appeared in film and television soundtracks. References to the song appeared in comic strips, game shows, greeting cards and even Trivial Pursuit. Eventually, television producers vied for the rights to create an animated Christmas special based on the lyrics.
Brooks and Elmo were never worried about making money off the song or that the song would play for more than one Christmas season. But it's been 30 years and DJs across the country continue to play "Grandma," and Dr. Elmo hits the road to perform.
"There were so many years that I didn't know whether it was going to come back or not," Dr. Elmo said. "So now when I hear it I'm always grateful that it did come back, and people are beginning to say that this song is one of the great classics and I'm happy to know that."