‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer’: How a Holiday Gag Became a Christmas Standard
Singer Elmo Shropshire discusses how the 1979 song became an unlikely hit -- and the contractual issues that led him to re-record it.
At first, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” made three people laugh.
One was Randy Brooks, nephew of the late comedian Foster Brooks, who wrote the song but couldn’t convince his own group to play it. The others were Elmo Shropshire, a veterinarian, and his wife, Patsy Trigg, a bluegrass duo that performed at casinos in the Southwest under the name Elmo & Patsy. Brooks met them outside a Lake Tahoe hotel in 1979 and wound up playing them the song. Elmo & Patsy performed it as part of their act, then booked studio time and recorded it as a single.
Then it took off — first on KSFO in San Francisco, which played it as a lark, then at more and more radio stations around the country. Trigg’s parents published “Grandma” through their Tennessee gospel-music company, Kris Publishing, which meant Brooks made money every time it sold. But Shropshire, who owned the master-recording rights, turned out to be an aggressive DIY record man, recording a full-on album containing “Grandma” and lining up distribution through big drug-store chains. In 1983, it hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Christmas Songs chart, then graduated to toys, films and TV shows. Today, it’s a holiday standard.
“It was an amazing rush,” says Trigg of the early “Grandma” days, before she and Shropshire divorced in 1985. “It was probably one of the most exciting times I’ve ever experienced.”
Billboard estimates the song’s publishing has generated $800,000, but the original Elmo & Patsy master-recording version of the single has brought in $2.5 million through U.S. record sales and streaming over the years. Much of that goes to Sony’s Epic Records, to which Shropshire signed a distribution deal in the early ’80s, which meant the veterinarian lost control of the master recordings — and a lot of potential income. So Shropshire pulled a Taylor Swift-before-there-was-a-Taylor Swift and re-recorded the track under the name Dr. Elmo. The Elmo & Patsy and Dr. Elmo albums that contain the two different versions of the song have generated an additional $7.12 million-plus. And that’s not even counting TV, film and toy licensing.
So the track has a happy ending — for everybody but Grandma.
“We did it all ourselves,” says Shropshire, 86, of Novato, Calif., in a phone interview between gigs performing the song at New Jersey soup kitchens and psychiatric hospitals. “We were working constantly. But it was fun. There’s something [that’s] great fun about being an entrepreneur.”
How did you come to be the performer on the song but not the songwriter?
Randy brought the song to me in Lake Tahoe. I thought it was provocative and funny. I thought the joke would be over after one or two times. At that point, I wasn’t professional enough to think about any recording business. I was still working at my veterinary hospital. I made a recording of it to give to some friends for a gag Christmas gift. One took it to a radio station in San Francisco and they started playing it. I had no idea. I was driving to work and [KSFO broadcaster] Gene Nelson said, “Well, we just played this song a little while ago, and a whole bunch of people called in and said they hated it. If we get 50 requests for it, we’ll play it again.”
How did it go from that to holiday hit?
In 1979, maybe 1980, when we first came out with the record, it was played a couple times. Right after Christmas, the bottom would drop out. At that time, there were probably 80 [record] companies. I’d send them a copy. I just had a little vinyl 45. They were interested in selling albums. I’d send a letter saying, “This is played on the radio, and I think it’s going to be good.” Almost every one would take the letter I wrote, and they had big Magic Marker on it, saying, “Stop sending me this shit!” In 1983, everybody started taping it from KSFO in San Francisco.
How did you capitalize on the radio exposure?
There were a lot of independent record distributors, but they’d [buy] 100 CDs — and at the end of a season, they’d send back, like, 98. Then we’d have to pay them back, or no money would exchange hands. My wife Pam Wendell — she was a salesperson — had the idea of making CDs and little displays and packaging them in a box and selling them to drugstore chains. We went to Longs Drugs in California. They had about 250 stores. It was different from getting them into record stores, when you usually didn’t get paid — then you’re competing with Elton John and the Eagles and your stuff goes down into the basement. Longs Drugs didn’t sell music, but at Christmas, they would put our displays out. Thirty days later, they would send us a check.
Then what happened?
We went from Longs to Eckerds, in the East. They had 3,000 stores. And we went to Costco and Sav-on — they had about 3,000 stores. Ultimately, we got into Dollar General, and they had 8,000 stores. I would try to do radio interviews. And they liked it. There was always a good angle: “Why did you sing a song where Grandma gets killed at Christmas?” I wasn’t that great of an interview, but it was fun for them and provocative. I would do interviews starting at 3 in the morning so I could be on the 6 a.m. morning shows in the East. I did probably 175 interviews every December. We lined them up every 15 minutes. That was from about 1994 until 2014.
At some point, Sony comes into the story, right? What was the story there?
In 1983, I spent a lot of money making a video. There was a man and wife in Nashville who had a little record company called Nationwide Sound Distributors. They got wind of it and said, “If you’ll sign a deal with us for a year, we’ll press 250,000.” Well, they sold all 250,000 copies, because people were hearing it for about three years, and there was no place to buy it. So the market was there. Billboard had it No. 1, in front of [Bing Crosby‘s] “White Christmas.” That’s when Epic [Records, part of CBS, later purchased by Sony] got involved and said they wanted to distribute it. It was a pretty onerous contract. I made an album of Christmas songs, so they could have an album. It probably cost $10,000 to $15,000. They gave me a $20,000 advance, but they owned everything. They sold a lot of records, and they just did nothing for promotion.
If Epic owned those recordings, you couldn’t sell the album yourself at drugstores, right? Is that why you recorded a different version?
That’s right. I re-recorded my own version of “Grandma.” We used all the same personnel. Even I can’t tell the difference.
You must be aware that’s exactly what Taylor Swift is doing. Have you followed that story?
No, I have not. No kidding! I’m so excited to hear about it.
Her record label was sold, including her original catalog. She didn’t like the people who bought the label and wanted to buy back the catalog but couldn’t. So she re-recorded all the songs and told everybody to buy and stream the new ones instead of the old ones.
I’ll tell you another thing about re-recording. Let’s say somebody wants to use the song in a movie. It’s a one-time payoff. They usually pay, I’m thinking, $25,000 for the publishing part of it to use the composition and another $25,000 for the master sound recording. So anytime somebody wants to put it on TV or a movie, [or] toys, more money comes from that than from record sales. If they use the Sony version, Sony just gives me a pittance. But if they use my version, I get the whole $25,000. This is the same with Taylor Swift.
Ah! I wasn’t even thinking about synchs.
Oh, you would not believe the times somebody would call up and say, “We want to pay X amount of dollars” — usually many thousands — “to use the composition in Jarhead.” And they’d say, “We’ve already contacted Sony and they say we can use their recording.” And I’d immediately call up the person and say, “Don’t use the Sony recording! Use ours!” That’s $25,000 out the window!
So you have to be proactive and make sure music supervisors know to use your version.
We have been on so high alert with that. Sometimes we’d have to talk ’em out of it. They’d say, “Who’s Dr. Elmo?” We’d get them to listen to it and they couldn’t tell the difference and we’d say, “We can give you a better deal.”
Did you ever recoup the $30,000 you spent on the video, and the $10,000 or $15,000 you spent in the studio for that Epic version?
Yeah, we made it up that year. That and more!
Well, I assume you have another 150 interviews to do today, so I should let you go.
No! We’re not afraid all those CDs will come back to us after the first of the year anymore. Those streams won’t come back to us. We’re not worried about that.