The History of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"...Who Knew?

Randy Brooks

"This is me with the Elmo & Patsy recording on Epic. Although it's sold many millions over the course of thirty Christmases, we've never received platinum albums because, I'm told, they don't give platinum records for 'catalog' items. Gold and Platinum discs are awarded based on how many units are sold in the initial release period. Years ago, I figured that with all the various anthology albums and special products on which 'Grandma' had been included, over forty million albums containing 'Grandma' had been sold. I have no idea what it might be today. I do know that in recent years, just toys playing the song have been selling at a rate of a quarter million units a year. And this year [2008], before Christmas even arrived, I got an initial payment for 250,000 units of the new 'Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas.'" —Randy Brooks

Editors Note: Singer-songwriter-humorist Randy Brooks was born in Louisville, Kentucky. He appeared on CBS's "Ted Mack Amateur Hour" at age 15. He is the nephew of famous "Roast" comedian Foster (the Lovable Lush) Brooks. We caught up with Randy in December 2008 when he played the Listening Room Cafe in Nashville.

The inspiration for this song came from Merle Haggard's "Grandma's Homemade Christmas Card." I wrongly guessed that the third verse would reveal that Grandma's card failed to arrive one year, and thus the family would learn of her death. The thought occurred to me that country music could do us all a favor by admitting in the first line when a beloved figure has passed away ...and then if you can still come up with three verses and a chorus, you'd really have something. And so I did.

This was probably 1976. In December of 1978, following a three-week engagement [as the folk group Young Country] at the Hyatt Lake Tahoe, we got into our van to head back to Texas, and discovered that the brakes were frozen.

Checking back into the hotel for the night, we stopped to hear a set from our successors in the Sugar Pine Lounge, the bluegrass comedy act Elmo & Patsy. Learning we were in the audience, they graciously invited us to join them onstage.

An off-duty hotel employee in the audience sent up a request for us to perform "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." As soon as the set ended, Elmo & Patsy asked if I'd record the song on a cassette recorder they had in the dressing room, as they felt it was right up their alley. To my surprise, they recorded the song, and pressed some 45s (remember 45s?) to sell from the stage the following winter. They also placed a few with Tower Records in San Francisco. To their surprise, a fan took a copy of the record to KSFO in San Francisco, where morning man Gene Nelson - a local institution who had MCd the Beatles' swan song at Candlestick Park - put it on the air.

To Gene Nelson's surprise, the phones started ringing off the hook. Tower records sold out of 200 copies in a single day, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a story about listener reaction to "Grandma," and the wire services picked up the story. The rest is hysterectomy. In 1982, having decided that all the attention paid to my song was never going to make me any appreciable money, I quit relying on music as my sole source of income, and took a job with American Airlines.

The very next year, the song topped "White Christmas" on Billboard's holiday chart, and Epic Records picked it up. Sales, airplay, and royalties increased dramatically, and I received a Country Songwriter of the Year award in Nashville from SESAC.

Unfortunately, by then I was hooked on flight benefits, and I have been with American ever since - currently working as a call center supervisor at the airline's headquarters, and voicing recorded announcements for the frequent flier customer service department.

In recent years, Young Country has taken to reuniting annually - but my main gig these days is with The Bad Monkeys, a pool party band playing Buffett, old top 40 tunes, and a number of originals.

I've gotten a number of YouTube hits this election season with my "I'd Rather Be Sailin' (with Governor Palin)". Rite-Aid drugstores are currently carrying a toy poinsettia playing my song, "Percy, the Puny Poinsettia," which was the flip-side of the "Grandma" single. And my song, "Will You Be Ready at the Plate When Jesus Throws the Ball," as recorded by Elmo & Patsy, is for sale, oddly enough, in the gift shop at the Smithsonian's American History Museum.

Over the years, "Grandma" has become something of a cottage industry, featured in toys, greeting cards, sheet music, movies, an eponymous animated feature, and countless compilation CDs of Christmas songs. Who knew?

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