Who Sang It Best? "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"
Rudolph: Bullied Reindeer Goes down in History
Who doesn't identify on some level with Rudolph, Santa's famous bullied ninth reindeer, a zero turned hero? The reindeer lives with a very noticeable disability—a nose that glows red—yet he struggles even more with a peer group that harasses him through laughing and name calling.
Those "other reindeer" socially ostracize Rudolph while Santa conveniently looks the other way. (Don't tell me Santa didn't know.) But when Rudolph uses his shiny red nose to lead St. Nick and crew through the foggy night, only then does the little dude get the respect he deserved all along.
The poem that this song was based upon was written in 1939 by a low-paid, Jewish copywriter at Montgomery Ward who used his own childhood experiences and the story of The Ugly Duckling as creative inspiration. Montgomery Ward asked their employee Robert May to generate a Christmas poem that the store could print as a booklet to give away to holiday shoppers. May's poem became a phenomenal success for the company.
Sadly, May's wife died of cancer about the time he completed the poem, leaving him with both a young daughter to support and large medical bills to pay, yet May's employer owned the copyright. (May had written the poem for Montgomery Ward as a work product.) In a generous move, however, the company gifted the copyright back to May, and the young father's financial security was cemented forever.
In 1948, May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the song adaptation to May's story poem, and the rest is history. Gene Autry became the first to make the jaunty Christmas song a hit in 1949.
Since then, many artists have released cover versions of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" of various musical style and quality. Do you ever wonder, "Who sang it best?" Here's your chance to step up and compare their efforts.
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some versions off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original rendition of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
Of all the cover versions, which you prefer?
The Classic Song
"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Gene Autry (1949)
Whereas other prominent artists of the era such as Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby initially turned down the opportunity to sing "Rudolph," Gene Autry recorded it at the urging of his wife. Autry was known as America's Favorite Cowboy, and he was a trailblazer in American country music.
On his original version of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," Autry delivers a vocal performance that is clear and prominent. The song's background music supplements rather than interferes with Autry's vocals, as appropriate. Rather than ad libbing, he sticks to his song script and delivers an original song that is wholesome and engaging enough for all ages.
As old as it is, this original Christmas classic is a tough one to beat! Many, however, have attempted to do so in the intervening years.
Which version would you rather listen to -- Gene Autry's original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Burl Ives (1964)
Burl Ives' cover version is a sentimental favorite. It reminds me of sitting in front of the television during the holidays with my siblings over fresh popcorn as we watched animated Christmas specials. Holiday shows were truly special back then because there was no recording them or playing them back. VCRs, the Internet, and other on-demand entertainment options were years away.
Ives furnished the voice-over for narrator Sam the Snowman in the 1964 television special, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." In this role, Ives delivered this holiday song, a perennial favorite of young and old alike. Whether he was singing or speaking, Ives had a warm, story-telling voice that made his version of this song nearly timeless.
Despite the twanginess of the banjo in the instrumentals, I rank Ives' cover version first because of its perkiness and quick tempo. Not all the renditions have these elements. Additionally, I enjoy the "warm-up" section of this song in which backup vocalists paraphrase the classic poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." By comparison, many other covers instead employ a "cold open."
You know Dasher and Dancer,
And Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid,
And Donner and Blitzen,
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?
2. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Dean Martin (1959)
Known as the "King of Cool" back in his heyday, Dean Martin was a singer, actor, and comedian who won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The ole crooner launches this rendition of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" playing it straight and full of his usual charisma. The festive jingling is a tad louder than it should be, but that's easily overlooked.
Martin's confident, magnetic vocal presence takes the spotlight. One must wonder whether his reputation as a heavy drinker—which he fully encouraged because it was his "schtick"—was a factor in how Martin executed this song. He slurs some key words ("Chrizzmuz"), improvises one term ("red-beaked reindeer"), and makes it known that he and Santa's ninth reindeer are on a first name basis ("poor Rudy").
What I found baffling, however, occurs towards the end of the song (at 1:38) where Martin lapses into a fake German accent with an inexplicable mashup of English and German lyrics: "Rudolph mit der nose so bright, won't you guide mein sleigh tonight?"
World War II had ended just 14 years previously and the brutality of it was still very raw. Seriously, nobody noticed this? Maybe this was Martin's attempt to be funny. If the comedian-singer had dropped these shenanigans, his cover could easily have been the best version of all.
3. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by The Crystals (1963)
The Crystals were considered one of the preeminent girl groups of their day, with hit songs ranked on Rolling Stone magazine's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." If you like the the 1960s girl group sound, then you'll love their rendition of "Rudolph." It's so energetic that one could easily imagine there might be a parade for the lead reindeer, and this cover also features percussive clanking noises that just may be reindeer hoof beats on the rooftops.
Although it didn't cause me to like the song any less, there is one curious thing I noticed, however. Anyone remotely familiar with The Crystals' work can't help but notice that this cover's background instrumentals sound suspiciously similar to their hit, "Then He Kissed Me" (1963). It's a bit of artistic deja vu.
4. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Ella Fitzgerald (1960)
Why hasn't Ella Fitzgerald received the attention she deserves for this version of "Rudolph"? Known as The Queen of Jazz, this legendary songbird floats effortlessly through the favorite Christmas song with her buoyant voice. She is fantastic, although I could do without the vocal improv in the song's middle ("Hang your nose down, Rudy ..."). Fitzgerald then effectively takes creative liberty with some of the vocal intonations at the end, a fitting showcase of her talent.
Ella Fitzerald was admired for both her voice and her civil rights activism. In addition to her many Grammy Awards, she received The National Medal of Arts from Congress, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
5. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by The Temptations (1970)
Warning: this unusual cover of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" is addictive. Don't say I never told you!
At first, you may be uncertain about where this one is taking you musically. But you'll soon be won over by the cover version's prominent beat, the classic Temptations vocals, and the narrators' mimicry of Santa shouting out at the once socially rejected reindeer:
Come on, come on, come on, come on and guide my sleigh tonight.
From the way Rudolph is being begged, it's obvious that he has has come full circle from underdog to leader of the pack.
The Temptations have been named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of "The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time." They are among the most successful groups in popular music history and in 1989 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
6. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by John Denver (1975)
Kids will have fun with this call-and-response cover of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," but here's a word of warning to parents: the cute factor gets old real fast. John Denver's cover modifies the lyrics by having background vocalists echo or elaborate on key phrases:
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (reindeer)
Had a very shiny nose (like a lightbulb)
And if you ever saw it (saw it)
You would even say it glows (like a glow worm)
All of the other reindeer (reindeer)
Used to laugh and call him names (like Pinocchio)
They never let poor Rudolph (Rudolph)
Join in any reindeer games (like Monopoly).
John Denver was one of America's best-selling folk, soft rock, and country musicians throughout the 1970s and beyond. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and was honored with Grammys, Emmys, and a variety of other impressive awards in entertainment.
7. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Destiny's Child (2001)
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
Rudolph we love you, boy
Rudolph the red nose reindeer
Spreading the Christmas joy.
Those catchy alternative lyrics and Beyoncé's vocals are my favorite parts of the Destiny's Child version. The vocals on the "You know Dasher and Dancer" introduction are overdone, but the group's harmonies throughout the rest of the song are solid.
If you're looking for a cover with a fast pace and a prominent beat then check this one out by Destiny's Child. Queen Bey and her squad log in an admirable effort. The Grammy Award-winning group is one of the best female pop vocal groups in history.
8. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Bing Crosby (1950)
I know it's practically blasphemous to admit you're not a fan of Bing Crosby's cover of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." So does that mean Santa will be skipping me this year?
The big band instrumentals and quality of Crosby's voice are not the issue. Instead, I found the high pitched female vocal accompaniment is terribly irritating. She sounded like she had sipped laughing gas. Additionally, Crosby's ad libbing was awkward (e.g., "On Donner, On Somethin'"). If you want a better executed Christmas song by Crosby, then try "White Christmas" (1964).
9. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Jack Johnson (2002)
Jack Johnson is a singer-songwriter, former professional surfer, and environmental activist, so you'd be right to expect a different vibe from his delivery of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." Johnson offers up a low-key, folksy cover of the Christmas classic, and he modifies the lyrics to be about bullying and trying to change:
Well, Rudolph he didn't go for that
He said, "I see through your silly games"
How could you look me in the face
When only yesterday you called me names?
Well all of the other reindeer, man
Well they sure did feel ashamed
"Rudolph you know we're sorry
We're truly gonna try to change."
Johnson's cover provides an interesting change-up from what we're accustomed to hearing. Although it won't satisfy traditionalists, it encourages us all to be better people.
10. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Dolly Parton
The fiddles early in the song are a strong signal that we should expect a this to be a traditional, down home country cover of "Rudolph." If that's your thing, then Dolly totally nails it.
The country legend unfortunately talks—rather than sings—her way through the poetic introduction ("You know Dasher ..."), and she seems to squeal from over excitement in one part ("that's right") when addressing the children who vocally accompany her.
Then, in this secular song, Dolly turns heads as she turns the rendition's interlude into a proselytizing opportunity before encouraging her young background singers to sing along. (Christmas is a religious-based holiday, after all.):
Now did you kids know that God sees us the way that Santa saw Rudolph?
He sees the true beauty and knows the great potential in each and every one of us
And that's how we should look at each other, through the eyes of love
After all, that's what Christmas is all about, love
Come on, sign along with me.
Dolly Parton was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001, and Grammy Hall of Fame. The songstress has achieved crossover success in pop music and has also won achieved acclaim as an actress.
11. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Babyface (1998)
Well, this is a most unusual treatment of a classic childhood Christmas song. Hmm. It never should have happened.
Babyface is an uber-talented Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter and music producer, and he has a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. However, there are some occasions when turning the "sexy" on is just a bad move. It's wrong.
Sorry, Babyface, but you're going to have to guide your own sleigh. Rudolph has work to do, man.
12. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by DMX (2017)
In 2012, when rapper DMX was visiting a radio station, he was asked to sing "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." He complied, adding a strong beat and a few extra lyrics ("come on, come on"). A video of the rapper's impromptu performance went viral, and in 2017 he released this recorded version. See how everyone loves Rudolph?
13. "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" by I Declare War (2007)
These dudes got their hooves on some wicked eggnog, and this sick song is the result. (Extreme metal fans see that as a compliment, not an insult.)
"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" is a highly unusual song choice for a screamo/metal band and surely one to shock the ho-ho-ho right out of you. But that's the point, right?
You have to give it to these guys for creativity. The song starts off sounding like a bunch of inebriated fraternity guys singing "Rudolph" against electric guitars. Then it descends into madness and growling as the narrators morph into a raging monster and it barks the rest of the lyrics. The frat guys return at the very end of the song for a duet.
I'm sure you assumed from the bloody cover art of the album that this was going to be a unique depiction of the song. I Declare War channels the rage that Rudolph feels after years of being bullied. Let him join in the freaking reindeer games already!
14. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" by Jewel (1999)
I'm sorry, but was Jewel kicked in the head by Santa's reindeer? Back in 1995, this singer-songwriter's debut album was one of the best-selling of all time. And now we have this. The childlike voice, the accelerating pace, the inexplicable "yippee" and headshaking "ba-doing ba-doing." Don't do this to us or to Gene Autry's original song.
If you think this performance is simply a one-off, think again. Jewel has also performed it live as a duet, using even more off-the-wall vocal sound effects. At least with the screamo/metal band, I Declare War, you pretty much know you're getting something nonstandard. In contrast, the "You Were Meant for Me," singer surprises, and not in a good way.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
So which CONTENDER do YOU think sang it best?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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