Chart Beat

Elmo on 40 Years of 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,' The 'Cute Gag Gift' That Keeps On Giving

Elmo Shropshire
Pam Wendell

Elmo Shropshire performs at the Count Basie Center for the Performing Arts in Red Bank, NJ.

The song once again tops the Comedy Digital Track Sales chart.

Elmo & Patsy's Christmas classic "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," recounting the infamous sleigh ride mishap (which, thankfully, Grandpa's taking so well), tops Billboard's Comedy Digital Track Sales chart dated Dec. 21, marking its eighth total week at No. 1 since the list launched earlier this decade.

The song made its first Billboard chart appearance on the "1983 Christmas Hits" singles survey, debuting at No. 2 on Dec. 17, 1983, below Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." A week later, it dashed to No. 1, on the chart dated Dec. 24, 1983. Thus, Grandma may not have had the merriest Christmas Eve, but, aptly, that's the day that "Grandma" jingled to No. 1 on a Billboard chart for the first time.

Below, Elmo Shropshire, as active as ever at 83 years young, recounts the story of "Grandma" (as told to Billboard associate director of chart production Alex Vitoulis) and how, 40 years after he recorded it, the carol has become a perennial holiday chart-topper, one to which Grandma, wherever she may be, would surely raise a glass, in celebration, of (too much) egg nog.

In 1979, I recorded a song written by Randy Brooks called "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." I thought it would be a cute gag gift to give to a few of my friends and had 500 vinyl 45s produced, the smallest number that anyone could have pressed at the time.

Unbeknownst to me, a friend took a copy to Gene Nelson, the premier personality on KSFO radio in San Francisco, who I listened to every day on my way to work. One morning as I was listening, Gene said, "We played a song earlier and some people didn't like it, so we would have to get 50 requests to play it again." Within a few minutes, he had the 50 requests and I was stunned when he, again, played my sparse, demo-sounding recording.

That was fun, but it was over after December 25th.

The following year, to my amazement, KSFO started playing it again. Other radio stations started taping it from KSFO. Listeners' word-of-mouth was, "Have you heard that Christmas carol where grandma gets killed at Christmas?!" If they wanted to hear it, they had to request it, since most radio programmers didn't want to offend their audience.

I took some copies to Tower Records in San Francisco and they took 10 on consignment. After an hour-long drive home, there were two messages on my answering machine. The first one: "This is Tower Records, can you bring in 25 more 'Grandma' records?" The second: "This is Tower Records again. Can you bring in 500?"

Each year, the bottom dropped out on December 26th, and it seemed as though that was the end of it.

My brief brushes with fame in December encouraged me, in 1983, to film a $30,000 video for the song, which MTV started playing. That year, Nationwide Sound Distributors in Nashville pressed and sold 250,000 singles and "Grandma" made her first appearance, including at No. 1, on Billboard's Christmas chart.

After that, in 1984, Epic Records took an interest and signed me to a distribution deal for a single, album and video. For the month of December 1984, "Grandma," I was told, was Epic's biggest seller. Michael Jackson's Thriller was their second-biggest-seller.

Four decades later, "Grandma" still has legs, as it is still selling well and even has its own animated movie, which has become a classic after nearly 20 years. It continues to be used in motion pictures, television shows, toys and even Hallmark cards and Keepsake Ornaments. Although it was 15 years before any concert promoter thought of having me perform in December, for the past 25 years I have been invited to perform in holiday concerts in genres ranging from rock to bluegrass, classical, funk and more.

For the 40th anniversary of the song, I am performing at homeless shelters, soup kitchens and schools for people with special needs with Holiday Express, a charitable organization that brings food, gifts and concerts to institutions for the needy each holiday season. Even in these places, everyone knows and loves to hear the song.