Dreamin’ of a Black Christmas, Pt. 1

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Black from the Past: Chuck Berry and Rudolph’s Run

 

A statue of Chuck Berry stands in his hometown of St Louis, Missouri

Duck-walking with Johnny and Rudolph

I’m not that Christmassy of a person, but sometimes music makes me feel more festive when the songs have a non-traditional approach or an intriguing story behind them. Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolf Run” has become a Christmas classic now, but it didn’t start that way and there’s definitely some intrigue involved.

Chuck Berry rocked “Run Rudolf Run” live for the first time in New York City on Christmas Day, 1958. It was the unmistakable musical offspring of “Johnny B. Goode,” released in March 1958. While “Johnny” duck-walked up to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year, “Rudolf” only reached #69. However, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s Christmas jam gained more popularity over the years.

Going Up in History

“Run Rudolf Run,” also known as “Run Run Rudolf,” has been covered by numerous artists, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to CeeLo Green. It’s also been featured on the soundtracks of several Christmas movies, from Home Alone and Jingle All the Way in the 1990s to The Santa Claus 2 in 2002 and Family Switch in 2023.

“Run Rudolph Run” was certified platinum in November 2020 and flew to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2021. Both feats were boosted by a 2020 animated video of Chuck Berry delivering gifts from a red convertible sleigh, led by the famous reindeer, Rudolf.

The Whizzin’ Mastermind

In Berry’s song, Rudolf is celebrated for more than his bright nose: Out of all the reindeers you know you are the mastermind.

 

Rudolf isn’t a leader just because of physical features or even bravery. The Rudolf in this song goes beyond taking orders from Santa to taking initiative for fulfilling children’s wishes.

Rudolf anticipated the need as Santa asked a “boy child, ‘What have you been longin’ for?’”

After the boy answered, “All I want for Christmas is a rock and roll ‘lectric guitar,” then “away went Rudolph whizzin’ like a shootin’ star!”

After taking care of the boy, Rudolph listened as Santa asked a “girl child, ‘What would please you most to get?’”

Once the girl answered, “A little baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink and wet,” Rudolf took off, “whizzin’ like a Saber jet!”

Johnny B. Bad?!

Even though the song wasn’t an immediate commercial success, another musical legend came along in 1959 to lay claim to the potential earnings. Johnny Marks, the writer of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” had trademarked the character “Rudolf” and copyrighted the storyline of Santa’s favorite reindeer. According to Dr. Daryl Davis, who played piano for Chuck Berry for 30 years, Berry had little choice but to give Marks credit for the song even though Marks had nothing to do with writing it.

It seems “Run Rudolf Run” is another example of Black innovators in the arts and sciences whose accomplishments have been appropriated because of a rigged system. That didn’t keep Chuck Berry from doing his thing. Everyone who heard the song and watched him perform it knew he owned it even if it were true that someone else wrote it.

Gift and it will be gifted back to you

“A person’s gift makes room for him, and leads him before important people” (Proverbs 18:16, NET). Without making any faith claims for Berry, his musical gift enabled him to travel the world and prompted Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to have him play for them. It’s increasingly unlikely that I’ll be invited to perform at the White House, but I do hope to hear a king compliment me on the use of my talents with “Well done” (Matthew 25:20-21).

 

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