Subscribe
Dr. Elmo (Shropshire) plays his banjo as deers make their way up to his Novato ranch, Thursday December 14, 2006. Dr. Elmo popularized the song 'Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer back in 1979. (The Press Democrat) / Crista Jeremiason) 12/14/06

Nearly 3 decades after gaining the rights, Dr. Elmo is still cashing in with the quirky Christmas tune 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer'

Talk about a one-hit wonder.

"Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," the quirky Christmas standby that surfaces each holiday season, is still going strong 27 years and 10 million copies after it was released.

The song about the grandma who drank too much eggnog and succumbed to the hooves of Santa's animal seems permanently entrenched in the holiday season, thanks to former Windsor resident Elmo Shropshire, who now lives in Novato.

Dr. Elmo, as he's known from his former career as a veterinarian, is the singer whose hillbilly twang made the song a Christmas classic, vaulting it simultaneously onto lists of all-time favorite and all-time worst Christmas songs.

It's been turned into a cartoon-animated Christmas movie and is one of the most downloaded cell-phone ring tones of the holiday season. And it plays inside plush toys -- including a reindeer on a Harley, or in a rocking chair -- more than 2 million of which have been sold over the past five years.

Not bad for a guy who first recorded the song as a gag gift for friends and considered music more of a pastime than a career.

"I thought I would never make a dime in the music business and expected to just do it as a hobby," Shropshire said this week from his Novato home.

The song made him "a millionaire five times over," according to a 2005 article in Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, something the ebullient Shropshire does not dispute.

He feels like he won the music lottery with the right song and the right voice. "The royalties from all these directions are enough that I can live comfortably in Marin County," he said.

The playing of the song around Christmas time persists. It's been featured on countless TV shows, including Saturday Night Live, and on movie soundtracks from "Jarhead" in 2005, to the current "Deck the Halls" with Danny DeVito.

From the day after Thanksgiving until Dec. 24, when interest falls off precipitously, Shropshire, 70, is booked, mostly with radio and TV interviews.

"I'm up every morning at 4. I do almost 20 interviews every day," he said.

Dr. Elmo, as he likes to be called, still has plenty of energy. A month ago, he ran his first marathon -- in New York City -- finishing in a respectable 4 hours and 17 minutes.

On Thursday he was in a satellite-TV studio in San Francisco doing interviews and playing the song live for more than a dozen stations around the country, one after the other.

Shropshire tells how Randy Brooks, a fellow musician who penned "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," offered him the song, saying his own band wouldn't let him play it.

Shropshire spent $500 to record it with his then-wife Patsy and shelled out an additional $700 to make 500 singles. The song got initial radio exposure when it was played by San Francisco disc jockey Don Nelson, and callers kept requesting it.

The next Christmas season, in 1980, it garnered even more media attention when the Gray Panthers and "women's libbers" picketed outside Elmo and Patsy's concert in San Francisco.

The protestors said the song was denigrating to grannies across the country. Some women complained that grandpa appeared to be unconcerned about his wife's plight.

"There were picket signs that said 'What's so funny about a dead grandmother?' They said it was ageist and sexist and violent against women," Shropshire said. "They said 'We want you to stop singing this song.' At the time, it scared me to death."

A music video, shot on Shropshire's Windsor ranch, helped make it a perennial on MTV and on the Country Music Television channel. It's now on YouTube.

By the 1984 holiday season, the song was rivaling Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" in sales. Elmo and Patsy split up around then, although they share publishing rights for the song.

Shropshire, who has since remarried, hears from those who say the song grates on their nerves. But he says most people tell him they love it because it's a departure from the steady diet of sappy standards about chestnuts on an open fire, or being home for Christmas.

"Kids think it's funny," he said. "Whenever I perform it, everyone pretty much lights up. And it's great to see that."

Shropshire plays in a bluegrass band, sometimes making appearances in a Sonoma pub or a Marin nightspot.

A couple of years ago, around Christmastime, he shared a bill at the Arco Arena in Sacramento with a new generation of singers -- Hillary Duff, Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne.

He continues to tirelessly push "Grandma," and co-write oddball ditties often tied to the holiday season. They include "Christmas Without Martha," around the time homemaking maven Martha Stewart was in prison. There was "Ballot of Grandma," about the hanging chads of the 2000 election.

But none has caught fire like "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Shropshire's latest press release says he's retiring and will no longer promote his signature song. But that's part of a joke and tied in to his latest tune -- "Santa's e-mail from Nigeria."

The theme is that he'll be getting $20 million as soon as he sends $5,000 to Nigeria in response to an e-mail promising fabulous wealth if he wires the money.

"If I get my check from Nigeria, I am going to retire," Shropshire said, continuing the gag. "If not, it will be like one of Barbra Streisand's farewell tours."

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette