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Jimmy Kennedy

The Man Who Wrote the Teddy Bears' Picnic

Jim Kennedy remembers his father, the prolific lyricist Jimmy Kennedy, in new biography

Updated: 20/12/2011

Of course, as the author, I am biased, but I think that The Man Who Wrote the Teddy Bears’ Picnic is the first true biography of my father. He was the Northern Irishman who wrote 'The Cokey Cokey', 'Red Sails in the Sunset' and dozens of other international best selling popular songs.

The Man Who Wrote the Teddy Bears’ Picnic it tells the story of Omagh-born Jimmy Kennedy. He was one of the last – and arguably the finest – of the professional Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the pre-Beatles ‘golden age’ of popular song.

My father claimed his songs hit the No. 1 spot 30 times worldwide during his 50-year career, but his name is little known outside of certain music business circles. I wanted to remedy the omission and celebrate his life, his roots and his contribution to popular song.

On the surface, my story is all about my father – how he rose from humble beginnings as the son of a village policeman in Omagh to become one of the leading songwriters of the 20th century. But it is much more than that.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened before The Beatles, many of the answers are in this book. My father learnt his craft from the sheet music of great songwriters such as Irving Berlin when he was a boy living in Coagh, when ragtime was just coming in. He was there at the birth of commercial popular song. But it was a time when folk, music hall and traditional song making were still in vogue.

However, he could see that the newer commercial styles, especially those coming through from America, were sure to win the day. He spent countless hours during his schooldays at Cookstown Academy (fellow pupil Ernest Walton later won a Nobel Prize for splitting the atom!) familiarizing himself with new pop trends and writing to publishers with his own creations.

Of course, he only got rejection slips at the time – but he learnt a lot. By the time he got to Trinity College, Dublin in the early 1920s, he was already an accomplished lyricist. Indeed he won a prize for sonnet writing in the Mid Ulster Mail, when he was 12 years old.

Years later, when I was the same age, I remember him working on songs at home in the drawing room of our house in Somerset. He would hum a tune, almost half whistle it to himself as he gazed out of the tall French windows that looked out onto the distant Blackdown Hills. Then he would sit down in the old wing chair with a manuscript, write out the top line of the song and fit in the words underneath.

Sometimes the whole process only lasted half an hour. I am sure this was the technique he used when, living in Walton on Thames in 1935, he rewrote a Will Grosz tune, coming up with the lyric that was to lead to the world-famous song, 'Red Sails in The Sunset'. 

My book is mainly a biography of the man himself, with many personal revelations. However, it is also an historical record of the ‘golden age’ of popular song. It is full of facts, observations and comment on the cut and thrust of the popular song ‘village’ that was London's Tin Pan Alley - and of the wider canvas in America, where my father had many of his biggest hits.

But at the start of his career, what he needed was hard work, more hard work, talent and luck. Fortunately my father had these qualities. In early 1930 he went to London and managed to sell the idea of 'The Barmaid’s Song' (he got the idea for the title from his local in Notting Hill) to a hardnosed music publisher.

The result? A first No. 1. Banned by the BBC because of the drink association, sales rocketed and he was ‘on his way’. And he never stopped. In 50 years in the business he had something like 2000 songs published, a good fifty of which were major successes. He was a one-man hit machine.

My father wrote 'The Cokey Cokey', which he adapted from a Canadian folk song, 'and The Teddy Bears’ Picnic', which gave magical children’s words to an old American tune. His other No. 1 successes, such as 'My Prayer', 'Red Sails in the Sunset', 'Isle of Capri', 'South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)', 'April in Portugal' and 'Istanbul, Not Constantinople', have been covered by countless other artists through the years.

They are still played all over the world today. Many, such as 'The Teddy Bears’ Picnic' have been re-invented on the internet – especially YouTube – by aspiring musicians and designers. A version of 'Istanbul' recently chalked up over a million hits.

Elvis Presley cut his teeth on one of his songs, 'Harbour Lights', in his early Sun recordings and even the Beatles sang 'Red Sails in the Sunset' during their famous 1962 Hamburg trip. More recently Bob Dylan did his own version on his Modern Times album (which he called 'Beyond The Horizon').

Outside of the music business, my father was a good friend of Denis Thatcher, who was his army boss during the Second World War. Indeed it was he who introduced Denis to his first wife and was best man at the wedding.

In later life he served the music business as chairman of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors for twelve years. He was a D.Litt (h.c.) of the University of Ulster, was awarded an O.B.E. in 1984, and was posthumously inducted into the American Popular Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1996. 

There he joined the very people from whom he learnt his trade when he started out on his own career, writers like Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Sammy Cahn.

The Man who Wrote the Teddy Bears' Picnic can be purchased in the CultureNorthernIreland Amazon store.

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