Singer’s persistence turns reindeer song into bestseller

19 Dec
Elmo in rocking chair with corn cobb pipe

Dr. Elmo. Photo by Pam Wendell.

Dr. Elmo. Photo by Pam Wendell.

Dr. Elmo. Photo by Pam Wendell.

Some like it. And some don’t. But I doubt there are very many people who haven’t heard — and hummed — the catchy song, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

That tune, made famous by former veterinarian Dr. Elmo Shropshire, has sold more than 11 million copies since it was first broadcast in 1979.

But it took several years – not to mention persistence, risk-taking and dollars on Dr. Elmo’s part — for the song that’s been the most requested holiday song of the past three decades to achieve national exposure.

Dr. Elmo, 77, shared his story with me in a recent phone interview. A Kentucky native, he was 31 when he moved to the San Francisco area in 1967. He opened an animal hospital and became a competitive runner. Four years later he began playing the banjo and formed a bluegrass band that played throughout northern California, Nevada and on ship cruises.

“I really love playing music,” he says.

Dr. Elmo says he was writing and singing some funny songs in 1979 when his band had an engagement at Lake Tahoe.

At the conclusion of the performance, “a very clever guy” named Randy Brooks came forward and said he had a song, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” that he thought would be perfect for Dr. Elmo.

Dr. Elmo invited him to come onstage with the band and sing the song. There wasn’t a lot of response to it from the audience, but Dr. Elmo says he was impressed.

“From the moment he sang it, I thought, ‘You know something, this is the most original idea I’ve heard for a Christmas song yet.’ The other thing about it was, it had all the trappings of ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ except for the fact that grandma got throttled by the reindeer — that really threw a curve in it.”

Dr. Elmo released the song and KSFO in San Francisco played a tape of it in December 1979. It immediately became a regional phenomenon.

“Some people called in and requested it,” he says. “A lot of other people called in and requested that they never play it again.”

The following year Dr. Elmo thought the song’s success was over. Stations, however, distributed a tape of it among themselves, and it was still getting airplay.

So Dr. Elmo began a quest to get the song distributed nationally. But by 1983, he says, he had contacted every record company, “and they all acted like I was crazy.”

There continued to be a lot of buzz about the song on the radio and some controversy, too, says Dr. Elmo. Some people complained about grandma getting killed at Christmas, “but others suggested they lighten up.”

Despite his inexperience, Dr. Elmo decided that year to self-produce a music video of the song. It was a huge risk. He sold his veterinary hospital, where he’d made a decent living, to finance the project.

Rather than making a video of himself singing the song, he produced a video of the story itself. Dr. Elmo played the parts of both grandpa and grandma.

The video cost him about $30,000, he says, “which was a huge amount of money to me then. It was a big chunk of what I got from selling my veterinary hospital.”

He also spent $10,000 to $12,000 to produce his original album.

But Dr. Elmo was about to get two big breaks:

1) A Nashville company pressed 250,000 “Grandma” records, and sold them all within a couple of weeks.

2) MTV started regularly playing the video Dr. Elmo had sent to the cable channel.

“On December 18th of 1983, ‘Grandma’ was No. 2 behind Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ on the Billboard Christmas chart,” Dr. Elmo proudly proclaims. “By December 24th, it was No. 1. And it stayed there for a few years while Billboard had a Christmas chart.”

The icing on the cake came a year later when Epic Records stepped up. By December of that year, Epic had “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” albums and singles in every store in America.

Dr. Elmo says “Grandma” was Epic’s big seller for that month, and its competition included Epic’s Michael Jackson album, “Thriller,” released in late 1982.

The “Grandma” song also got some unexpected national publicity in December 1986, courtesy of a Davenport deejay. According to news accounts, the WLLR disc jockey, whose on-air name was Jack Daniels, was suspended for playing “Grandma” 27 times in a row. He said he had been attempting to play the song for his entire four-hour shift because he was depressed.

Dr. Elmo and “Grandma” remain popular to this day. His wife, Pam Wendell, reports that a “Grandma” application for tablets is among the most-used apps for the holidays.

But Dr. Elmo has another other claim to fame. In October 2012, he competed in the U.S. National 5K Cross Country Championship in San Diego.

“I won a gold medal in my age division to my total amazement,” he says.

Then, in October of this year, Dr. Elmo won another gold medal in the World Master’s Games as part of the USA 4 X 400 USA relay team in Brazil.

“It’s the Olympics for people over 35 years old,” he says. “It was a high time of my life. The stands were full. It was just like the Olympics.”

But like it or not, nothing Dr. Elmo Shropshire achieves will likely bring him the fame that “Grandma” has brought him.

He sums it up this way: “Some people have described that song as being a career-stopping hit. No matter what I do after that, it’s never going to measure up.”

Copyright 2013 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece appeared as a column in the North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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