Gary James' Interview With
Dr. Elmo

When Dr. Elmo first recorded "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer", radio stations banned it. The Grey Panthers claimed the song was "ageist, sexist and violent" and DJ Jack Daniels was fired for playing "Grandma" twenty-seven times in a row! In 1979, Dr. Elmo pressed five hundred copies and hand delivered them to ten Tower Records stores in San Francisco. Before he got home, they called and asked for twenty-five more. A second message followed asking for five hundred more. Record companies all rejected Dr. Elmo's song. Today, after selling over eleven million copies, Dr. Elmo is the number two selling artist in Sony / BMG's Christmas catalog, behind Elvis! In 1982, "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" became the most requested song in radio history! Dr. Elmo performed in Christmas concerts, on the same bill with Brenda Lee, Hilary Duff, Gwen Stefani, Avril Lavigne, Bobby Helms, George Thorogood, Pat Benatar and Peter Frampton.

Dr. Elmo talked with us about his life and that record, "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer".

Q - Dr. Elmo, I believe you're the first singing doctor I've ever interviewed!

A - Alright. I'm glad to be the first.

Q - I would guess that you probably made more money from "Grandma" than you ever did as a doctor.

A - Well, probably. Although that's a possibility. I used to own a pet hospital in San Francisco. You could make as much money as you wanted, depending on how much you wanted to work. So even if I haven't made more money with the "Grandma" song, I'll tell you this, I certainly had a lot more fun with it.

Q - I see TV commercials where I hear the "Grandma" song being played in the background. You must get royalties from that.

A - Yeah. They come from many, many different places.

Q - And that song is also used in greeting cards?

A - Yeah. It's been in Hallmark cards and Hallmark Christmas ornaments and there's a new American Greetings card out now that has "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" that sings my recording when you open the card up.

Q - Do you get into other parts of merchandising as well?

A - Well, one of the biggest merchandising things we've had is the Dandee Company makes these reindeer that sit in rocking chairs. They rock back and forth and sing the song. That's probably been as lucrative as selling CDs. These toys we've been licensing, they've sold probably three and a half million of them. They pay you a lot more than when you sell a CD.

Q - Where is this merchandise being sold?

A - All Wal-Marts, Home Depot, CVS. They're pretty big time distribution.

Q - I know you used to make personal appearances around Christmas time. Do you still perform "Grandma" onstage these days?

A - Yes, I do. Tomorrow I'm flying to Tampa, Florida and hosting a Caribbean cruise and I'll perform on that. There's people who come on the cruise to see me perform for them.

Q - Cruises seem to be the "in" thing to do for Classic Pop recording artists.

A - Yeah. The people want to go on cruises to see you.

Q - It's an industry that has yet to reach its potential.

A - You know, I've been on a couple of other cruises and it's really been wonderful. A long time ago, when I was younger and first started playing, maybe in the mid '70s, I went on some cruises then just to perform. They would have us sit with the passengers sometimes. Some passengers wanted to sit with the entertainers. But at the time I was trying to get my career going. I felt it wasn't the greatest career move, even though it was a lot of fun. If you're off on a cruise, nobody can get in touch with you to book you and musicians never want to miss a booking. But I'm really looking forward to this cruise. It's on Holland America line. I think it's gonna be great fun.

Q - When I first heard "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer", I thought to myself; what local group did that song?

A - (laughs)

Q - Then I thought, wait a minute, it's too slick for any local group to have recorded that.

A - Oh, get out Gary. (laughs) It still sounds like a local group to me when I hear it. You're too kind.

Q - By slick I mean it was melodic and the lyrics were funny. You knew somebody had to be thinking when they wrote that song.

A - Oh, thank you.

Q - Did you write that song?

A - Actually, it was written by a friend of mine, Randy Brooks. I met him in Lake Tahoe. I was writing some funny songs at the time. I got up and sang a few songs. He came up to me and said "I have a song that I think would be perfect for you. My band doesn't particularly like me to play it." I said "Well, let's hear it." He picked up the guitar and sang "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer". When I first heard it I thought, well, you know what I love about this? It's a totally original idea. Nobody ever thought about making up a Christmas song where Grandma gets throttled at Christmas.

Q - That's right!

A - I liked it. I thought it would be funny for a little while and then the novelty would wear off probably after one year. And of course for the first few years on December 26th it did wear off, but for some reason people kept calling and requesting it. It got this tremendous underground sort of thing going. I'm not sure if it could happen today because you can't call up the radio station and make a request. It's all automated.

Q - AM radio doesn't exist. There's no Top 40 anymore.

A - They've got some ways I guess of figuring if people like the music or not. I think for the most part what gets played depends on whether the record executives like it or not. (laughs) Not the public. I do believe that "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" was probably the last song I remember that was completely driven by public demand rather than record company hype. I can say that because there was no record company. In 1979, some of my friends took it to a DJ. I gave copies out to some of my friends and one of 'em took it to a DJ and he started playing it. Then other stations, when they got wind of it, started taping it from that station. At the time I didn't even have the where-with-all to send copies out to radio. I wasn't even in the music business hardly. I was playing and singing, but not on a level where I had a record company. And so in 1980, second year, they played it again. A lot of people talked about it. In '81, '82, '83, no records sold, but there was a big buzz. And I wasn't really sending records out. There was such a buzz and there were so many requests for it, one station was taping it from the next. And that's how it got distributed. There was a certain point in time when a lot of radio stations started calling me up and asking for interviews at Christmas. Every person that I would talk to would say "In my entire radio career I've never had this many requests for a song. Ever." I thought they were just being nice to me 'cause we were interviewing and they wanted to make me feel good. But after a hundred people said that, I thought there must be something to it. I think they're not just shining me on, they probably did get a lot of requests for it.

Q - New Christmas songs don't get a lot of airplay on the radio.

A - I know.

Q - That's probably because they're not as unusual as "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer". When Randy Brooks sang that song to you, he probably didn't sing it with the same inflections we hear in your voice on the record.

A - It was quite different.

Q - I almost forgot to ask, when you're on a cruise and you sing "Grandma", then what?

A - I sing "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" for forty-five minutes and that's the show.

Q - You sing it over and over again?

A - (laughs) No. Actually, I have a lot of songs. I played Bluegrass before I recorded "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer". It's kind of odd, most Bluegrass players are extremely traditional and they don't want anything to do with anything that's not traditional. I could sing funny songs better than I could sing serious songs. So, I've been playing Bluegrass for awhile. But when I go on the ship, I've written fifty other Christmas songs since the Grandma song, so I have pretty much of a wealth of material. I don't know how good it all is, but I have a lot of stuff to do in a show. We have some pretty interesting Christmas songs that I believe if I had recorded them at the time "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" was recorded, I think some of them could've stood the test of time.

Q - Those songs didn't get much promotion?

A - Well, here's the thing about it. I have gotten some play on some of my other Christmas songs and I have a song called "Grandma's Killer Fruitcake" that has sold a lot more sheet music than "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer". It's pretty much a mainstay in schools across the country where "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" isn't necessarily. So, that's one of the songs. If a music programmer is putting together a Christmas show, they certainly want to play "White Christmas". They certainly want to play Nat King Cole's song and there's just a certain amount of standards they automatically put in there. Thankfully "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" has made that cut, but it's extremely difficult. If I was a programmer and somebody was paying me to do it and my job depended on it, I probably would stick with the standards too. People look at Christmas music like it's their old friend. It's a real traditional thing. Being able to break through with "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" was really a good thing. If somebody is making up a list and they say we're gonna play a song by Bing Crosby and one by Nat King Cole and one by Dr. Elmo, what song are we gonna play by Dr. Elmo? It's gonna have to be "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer". They're not gonna play "Uncle Johnny's Glass Eye" or one of my other songs.

Q - When Randy Brooks first played you the song, did you know right away it would be popular?

A - Well, I didn't know it would be that big, but I did know it would grab attention. Almost every artist needs something to break through. And I thought that had something that would make everyone pay attention. However, I still didn't think I would be played on the radio even at that point. There was nothing that made me think I was gonna become the kind of recording artist that they play their song on the radio.

Q - Who was the first person you played "Grandma" for?

A - I was playing at a casino in Tahoe, the Hyatt Lake Tahoe, the hotel. I turned around and his band had been playing there. He got snowed in. There was a big blizzard the day I arrived and he couldn't get out. Anyway, the next day he left. I was playing there the next two weeks. I started trying it out on the audience. They thought it was pretty funny. It didn't blow them over like I used to have a version of "Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road", I used to sing it like Doug Kershaw, kind of a Cajun fiddle version. That was my big show number and "Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother". But there was something to the "Grandma" song. I did feel like it had something going. Otherwise I wouldn't have gone in and rented studio time and recorded it. Now, when I got to the studio, we were trying to get the arrangement down and record it. The studio owner said "Elmo, as good as you play Bluegrass, I can't understand why you want to waste your money recording this song. (laughs) There were a lot of nay sayers. At the time I couldn't help but agree with 'em a little bit, but I kept thinking this is really an interesting song.

Q - After you recorded the song, did you knock on record company doors? Did you know anything about the music business?

A - Nothing. I knocked on a lot of doors. I didn't start knocking on the doors until the first year. When they started playing it in San Francisco, they started getting a flood of calls. I became aware of that and thought well, maybe it is a hit. And so then I started trying to get record companies interested. They wanted nothing to do with it. I remember there was a manager of The Pointer Sisters in San Francisco. I went by his office and kind of barged in and said "Look, my song "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer", it's being played on the radio and I think it's gonna be a hit. I wanna see if you'll help me out or manage me or something." He looked at me like I was crazy and said "Well, I want to give you some advice. The best thing that could possibly happen is if you get somebody else and I'd be interested in recording it. The Pointer Sisters are not interested." He didn't even ask 'em. (laughs) He was actually a pretty nice guy. He probably thought I was totally crazy.

Q - Did you spend $40,000 to press records before you got a record deal?

A - No. Not to press records. We weren't even pressing records. We didn't even get to that stage yet. We pressed 500 records to begin with. In 1983, I was totally frustrated because every year the song was really popular, but we didn't know how to get 'em into the stores. We took 10 copies to Tower Records and they took 'em on consignment for fifty cents a piece. Then they sold the other 490 copies we had in a couple of days. But we didn't have distribution. At that time, it wasn't easy to get distribution unless you were with a record label.

Q - Something must've happened because you got Epic / C.B.S. behind you?

A - Yeah. In 1983, here's where the money came in. I made a video in my living room, but I hired a director. We rented the equipment. They brought two semi-trucks up there. It was just like moving a movie. They completely re-did my living room to make it look almost like a television studio, hung lights on all the rafters and everything. Totally wrecked the house. We spent a whole week getting ready for that shoot. They shot it on film. It took two sixteen hour days to shoot that three and a half minutes.

Q - Who was watching the animal hospital while you were doing this?

A - Well actually, I leased my animals out at this point and so I wasn't making much income at that point either, which made it doubly hard because after we made the video, I also made a Christmas album. I never would have done it. I thought if a record company is interested, they'll probably want an album, not a single. That's when people were not so interested in singles anymore. So I had invested probably close to $50,000 in just producing the video and the album, and not making a lot of copies. In 1983, every record company turned me down. In those days there were a lot of record companies.

Q - Yes, there were.

A - There was probably forty record companies. They'd say "Stop sending this thing! We hate it!" Especially Capitol Records. "We hate this! Don't' send anymore!" In 1983, a distributor in Nashville, he was just a little guy, but he bought. If you went to sell 250,000 copies, you have to buy 'em first and hope that you're gonna sell 'em. So, it's a huge risk to take. So, Joe Gibson pressed 250,000 of 'em in Nashville and at the same time MTV started playing the video that I made. He sold all of those 250,000 copies within two weeks.

Q - What was the name of Joe Gibson's company?

A - Nationwide Sound Distributors. Just because of what happened right then and all the airplay, Billboard got wind of it and so that year "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" surpassed "White Christmas" in sales. So then in 1984, every record company except Epic refused to have anything to do with it, even though it was number one on the Christmas chart. They still turned it down. Isn't that hard to believe?

Q - It is, because they're in business to make money.

A - Exactly. Even if they don't like it or think it's a novelty, at least they need to make money. But finally a guy named Frank Rand from Epic Records was interested and he said he'd like to maybe put it out. We waited all year long and never heard from him. We figured he wasn't gonna put it out. Early October, which seems to be way too late to get it out, he called and said "Yeah, we want to do it now. We want the album and the single. We want to own the video too." So, by giving him the video, it was like giving him a $35,000 video. But never-the-less, in 1984 people had been hearing the song for five years by then and hadn't been able to buy it, except for Joe Gibson selling a few singles. Nationally the people knew the song, but never could buy it. So in the three weeks of December when Epic put it out, they sold over 500,000 singles and the same number of albums. That was the biggest selling item in December, 1984 and also Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was on Epic as well.

Q - "Grandma" has sold over ten million copies to date?

A - Yeah. Probably over eleven (million) now.

Q - Wikipedia says you became a millionaire five times over from that song.

A - Well, you know something? I have made some money, but protecting a copyright takes a lot of money. And all that money hasn't gone to me. But it's been good. It's been comfortable.

Q - And as much money as you've made, the writer of that song, Randy Brooks has made as much?

A - Yes. He's not getting artists royalties, but he gets 50% of the publishing and I get 25% of the publishing. So I would imagine he makes almost the same amount. And he's kept a day job all these years. He's really a wonderfully clever guy. I've recorded a lot of his other songs as well.

Q - What is Randy Brooks' day job?

A - He works at American Airlines. Been working there for many, many years.

Q - What does he do there?

A - I think he's an executive.

Q - Were you surprised when The Grey Panthers picketed a concert you were doing and protested that song?

A - I was not only surprised, but I was quite scared. I didn't know who they were. There's a lot of those shenanigans going around the San Francisco area anyway. But they called a left a message: "We're gonna see to it that you're stopped from ever singing this song." And with a message like that, and I got the message before I went down there. When I saw them picketing my performance, they had those signs that said What's So Funny About A Dead Grandma? I thought, wow! The songs seems to be interesting and it seems to be taking off, but it looks like this is it. When you're kind of young and impressionable, you have no idea what's gonna happen. I thought maybe they are gonna stop me from singing it. But one thing that happened is all the news media turned out for that picketing, the three television stations in San Francisco. When that happened, boy, things really blew up. Whatever little sales we had going, everybody wanted to buy a copy then. Everybody was on to it.

Q - Do you know what happened to that DJ who played "Grandma" twenty-seven times in a row?

A - I think they let him back to be a DJ. He made world-wide headlines. There was an article from Thailand about him getting fired for that. So I think the station thought it was good publicity and they let him back. He's not a DJ anymore. We talked to him recently. A year before last (2010) I was on Good Morning America and they did a really in-depth piece about it. They interviewed him and everybody that had anything to do with the song.

Q - I'm wondering why he played the song twenty-seven times. Two or three times I can understand. He probably did it because he knew it was going to get some kind of attention.

A - That's what I think, but he claims that he was in Iowa and the farmers were depressed and it was a bad year for the farmers and he said he was just trying to cheer 'em up. (laughs)

Q - Did you play banjo in-between animal visits at your hospital?

A - I didn't start playing music until I was almost 35. I was working at the veterinary hospital, so I used to make myself a sandwich and every day at lunch, when I'd have time, I'd just eat the sandwich in about five minutes and spend the other fifty-five minutes practicing the banjo. It was just hobbyish.

Q - So, you weren't what we would call a "frustrated musician"?

A - No. Not yet. I was happy! It seemed like starting that late, I didn't expect very much, so whatever I got I was happy with.

Q - Why the banjo? Why not guitar?

A - Well, the guitar is usually easier to pick up and start making music with. I was driving down the road and I heard "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" come on, by Earl Scruggs. It was really an astounding recording. Even now when I hear his recording of that song, it's really amazing. The energy and the incredible way that song sounds. I've thought about that a lot. I can't imagine what somebody looks like who's doing that. Then I met one or two people in the late '60s, a banjo player by the name of Bernie Leadon who was a friend of mine from Gainesville, Florida and I was really blown away by hearing him play banjo and guitar. So, he was another one of my big inspirations to be a musician that's really great. He played lead guitar and banjo for The Eagles. He was one of the founders of The Eagles. At the time he came to see us, he had just come from England and he said "I have an album here" and it didn't have a label on it, it was just an acetate pressing, and he said "You guys wanna listen to it?" We listened to it and the first song it was "Take It Easy". It was one of those songs, we're thinking that's not Bluegrass! And yet, it must've been awful for him having two Bluegrass dolts saying "This doesn't sound like Bluegrass!" Yeah, I can hear a little banjo in there, but not near enough. He even went to a couple of our gigs and played. It was so exciting to hear him play. He was such a great player. But it just shows you how dumb you can be if you are kind of traditionally minded in Bluegrass that we didn't even recognize the greatness of that album.

Q - Just like the record companies didn't understand the massive popularity a song like "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" would have.

A - (laughs) Right.

Q - That's the thing about the music business, it's so imperfect.

A - That's right. It's all subjective.

Q - If a guy like you didn't have a lot of persistence and determination, the world would never have heard of that song.

A - Oh, thank you so much. I've seen so many people and know so many people who are more talented than I am, but I think sometimes as a result of that talent, they were given a lot of talent on the side, but on the other side they didn't have the drive to make it happen. They felt like the talent should be enough, but most of the time it's not.

Q - How often do you perform Bluegrass music?

A - Usually three or four times a month. In the summertime more than that.

Q - Does that mean you travel the U.S.?

A - No, we don't. We usually just play locally in Northern California.

Q - How are you billed? As Dr. Elmo?

A - Dr. Elmo And Wild Blue.

Q - Do they ask you to sing "Grandma" at the end of your set?

A - Sometimes. But most of the time if we're billed as Dr. Elmo And Wild Blue we just play our show and we don't usually put the "Grandma" song in it unless it's Christmas.

Q - You're playing original music?

A - Some original and some traditional.

Q - How many guys in the group?

A - Three regulars, but we usually always have a fiddle and a mandolin player. I play banjo and we have bass and guitar. The bass player and guitar player, we've been together for twenty years.

Q - You recorded a Halloween album. How did that go for you?

A - We've sold maybe 25,000 copies. Once we got SONY to put some stuff out for us, they made five albums for me, or distributed five albums. But you know, Halloween is not a big selling thing. 25,000 copies doesn't sound like much, but for a Halloween album it's decent.

Q - You performed on the same stage as Peter Frampton.

A - Yeah. I was on the bill in this big concert hall in Los Angeles. Peter Frampton was on the bill. George Thorogood and Pat Benatar. It was great to meet them. It was one of those things where I just sang "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer". I went on right after George Thorogood. He just sang "Bad To The Bone" and the entire building was shaking. I walked out there with my little acoustic guitar. When I started singing, a lot of people started singing along. They stood up afterwards. I couldn't believe it, so it was a wonderful experience because I felt extremely intimidated when I went out there.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.