Legendary folk-singer, Oscar-winning actor, star of radio, TV and Broadway, but someone who in recent years is probably most often heard during the holidays. Burl Ives was a multi-talented performer but will forever be known as the voice of the snowman narrator of the animated Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, a perennial video favorite.
The character was made to order for Burl – Sam the snowman was even drawn to look like him – but that 1964 cartoon was only a very small part of the full, rich career of this talented performer. By the time of his death at age 85 in 1995, he’d experienced it all.
Burle Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born in rural Illinois, and as a young man followed the lead of many other early folk-singers during the Depression years — he hit the road, often literally singing for his supper. After a few years learning America’s music and living the life of a migrant, he worked his way back to his home area and began showing up on area radio stations.
Eventually moving to New York, he found work in clubs and stage shows. His bell-clear voice and rich store of folk songs proved to be a hit with the public, and he helped popularize songs such as “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Blue Tail Fly,” and “Lavender Blue.” In 1940 he was given his own radio show, and although his career was briefly interrupted when he was drafted, he later got a medical discharge and continued to perform.
In the post-war years he began to develop the acting side of his persona and over the next several decades appeared in a number of films, starting with small parts but working into solid roles. (His acting career was stalled for a while during the wild days of the McCarthy Era, but he was later able to resume working.) Among his many memorable characters were Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and his Oscar-winning turn as Rufus in The Big Country.
He also appeared regularly on TV – both as an actor and as a musician – and for many years was one of the most popular recording artists around. Some of his hits include “Call Me Mr. In-Between,” “On Top Of Old Smokey,” the Grammy-winning “Funny Way Of Laughin’,” and the holiday classic, “Holly Jolly Christmas.”
His highest charting song was a deceptively simple folk ballad that caught the imagination of the public in 1962, and I’d be willing to bet that it still sounds very familiar to modern-day listeners.
Burl Ives – “
Little Bitty Tear“