Novelty reindeer song still has legs, 30 years later

  • Dr. Elmo Shropshire, who recorded "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" in 1979, is playing shows throughout the Bay Area with his special holiday all-star Reindeer Band. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Its staying power has defied expectations, a Christmas song both beloved and despised.

Written as a joke more than three decades ago, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," made famous by former Windsor resident Elmo Shropshire, is a fixture of the yuletide season.

The ballad of a grandmother who drank too much eggnog and got run over by Santa's sleigh remains a staple of radio, pops up in movie soundtracks and on ringtones.

The quirky jingle has sold 11 million copies since it was first broadcast on a San Francisco radio station in 1979, according to Shropshire, a former veterinarian who's made millions of dollars from it.

He never expected it would be so big.

"I'm always surprised at the power of the song," he said from his home in Novato. "The song was so bizarre at first. There was a buzz to hear a Christmas carol where grandma gets killed at Christmas."

Part of its appeal is the counterpoint it provides to sentimental carols about chestnuts on an open fire or being home for Christmas.

From the start, Shropshire discerned a positive underlying message to what would become his one and only hit:

"The first time I sang the song, the main thing running through my mind was &‘This proves there's Santa Claus.' I didn't think &‘Grandma's getting killed.'"

But the catchy melody and humorous lyrics delivered in Shropshire's Kentucky twang also can be an earworm to those who make a point of avoiding it.

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