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A Tribute to Jimmy Kennedy
by Bridget Haggerty
Most Irish people think he was American. Most Americans think he was American. To set the record straight, this is a brief tribute to the man from Omagh, Co. Tyrone who wrote Red Sails in The Sunset and many other favorite standards. One of the most successful songwriters of all time, he had more hits in the USA than anyone until Lennon and McCartney.
Just about everyone is familiar with Jimmy Kennedy's lyrics, but very few people have ever heard of him and even fewer know that Red Sails in the Sunset was inspired by a beautiful summer evening in Portstewart, which is located on Northern Ireland's famous Causeway Coast. As for South of the Border - another of his popular songs - that one came about when he either received or sent a holiday picture postcard from Tijuana, Mexico - we're not sure which.
Jimmy was born on July 20, 1902 and by his own reckoning, he wrote 2,000 songs. Of these, 200 became world hits, while 50 became what are known as "evergreens", i.e. all-time popular classics.
He was raised in Portstewart, County Derry, and was educated at Trinity College in Dublin. He taught for a while in England before embarking on a career in songwriting. He was prolific and successful. His first big success was The Teddy Bears' Picnic - a song which this writer well remembers from her childhood. The music was originally called the Teddy Bear Two Step. It was written by American composer J.K. Bratton and Jimmy later added the lyrics. That hit was followed by many others.
We've already mentioned Red Sails in the Sunset (which made the Top 75 Irish Songs list on RTE) and South of the Border - but did you know he also wrote the Isle of Capri, My Prayer and the Cokey-Cokey, which would later become the Hokey-Pokey? There's been a lot of dispute as to who should be credited with its creation. In the states, Larry LaPrise is given the credit. But the facts remain that while Larry and his band were granted a copyright to the song in 1950, American GI's are on record as saying they heard and danced to a version of it in England during World War II. To support this, there's a record of it being published in 1942 by the Kennedy Music Co. Ltd., in 1942 - words and music by Jimmy Kennedy. The Happy Gang promoted it on Canadian radio and by '52 it had become The Hokey Pokey on the other side of Ray Anthony's US hit The Bunny Hop. As for its original title, Cokey Cokey, it's said that Kennedy thought it had started among 19th-century Canadian miners and had to do with cocaine, but others say that 'cokey cokey' was how Italian ice cream vendors in England hawked their product. One other interesting anecdote in relation to wartime England is that Kennedy refused to write English words for Lili Marlene while he was serving in the British Army, rising to the rank of captain; instead, he wrote the wartime hit, We're Gonna Hang Out Our Washing On The Siegfried Line.
While we attempted to do a more comprehensive tribute to him, there aren't that many personal details available about Jimmy Kennedy's life. But, we have found some interesting facts gathered from various sources. For example, Bing Crosby recorded nine of his songs, including Did Your Mother Come From Ireland. Bing also became a close friend. And, recently, the little boat that inspired Red Sails in the Sunset was discovered rotting away in Belfast. "Kitty of Coleraine" was restored and Kennedy was honored with a celebration in Portstewart.
In his lifetime, Jim Kennedy won two Ivor Novello Awards for his contribution to British music. He was awarded an honorary degree from the New University of Ulster, he was honoured with an OBE (Officer of the British Empire), and he chaired the Songwriters' Guild (now the BASCA) for twelve years.
He lived in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, for some years in the seventies and died in hospital in Cheltenham, England, on April 6, 1984, survived by his wife, Elaine, two sons, and a daughter. After his death, the name Kennedy was added to the annual Novello award.
His legacy to popular music continues and many of his songs have been recorded by a stellar lineup of recording artists. In addition to Bing, they include among others, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Platters, Petula Clarke, Paul Robeson, Perry Como, Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Glen Miller, and even Elvis Presley.
But, even more important than the long list of stars who sang his songs are the songs themselves. Besides the ones already mentioned, here are a few more:
Love is Like a Violin
Roll Along Covered Wagon
Serenade in The Night
Hang Out the Washing in the Siegfried Line
Play to me Gypsy
Underneath The Spreading Chestnut Tree
Instanbul Not Constantinople
April in Portugal...the list goes on.
On June 10, 1997, Jimmy Kennedy was inducted posthumously into the Songwriters Hall of Fame - an honor that was long overdue for this incredibly talented but alas, almost forgotten son of Ulster. We could close with any number of lyrics in tribute to his amazing song-writing skils, But, since this is an Irish site and he is an Irishman, we'll end with what was already one of this writer's favorite songs, long before she ever knew who wrote the lyrics.
Did your mother come from Ireland
for theres something in you Irish
can you tell me where you got those Irish eyes
and before she left Killarney
did your mother kiss the Blarney
for that little touch of brogue cant be denied
sure I know well be romancin
I can almost feel you dancing
when the Kerry pipers play
and I know that well be sharin
in the shamrock youll be wearin
on the next St. Patricks Day
Did your mother come from Ireland
for theres something in you Irish
and that bit of Irish steals my heart away.
RTE: Top 75 Irish Songs list
Jimmy Kennedy from The Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Fri, Nov 24, 2017
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
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This is such a fun book to read to my kids...its the pictures we enjoy the most. They make you feel like you are peeking through the trees at this wonderful picnic! This book is a treasure!
Click here for Teddy Bear's Picnic
Bing Crosby's Irish Collection which includes Did Your Mother come from Ireland. This is one of Bing's most popular recordings and is available on amazon.
Click here for Bing
O'Carolan is about the best composer that ever lived, it is about time that someone compiled some of his best works.
Click here for Living Legacy
All beautiful tunes by Carolan, This is one we've had for a while. First off, two planxties by Shelley Phillips (of The Fairy Round fame). All that you hope and expect are here. Eleanor Plunkett, Carolan's Concerto, Carolan's Farewell to Music and more.
Click here for Celtic Treasure.