Jimmy Kennedy - The Irish Troubadour

Writer of songs for Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Born in Omagh in 1902, Jimmy Kennedy was one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century. Indeed, know it or not, just about everyone is familiar with the lyrics he penned in an illustrious and hugely productive career.

Situated amongst the beauty and splendour of the Causeway Coast,  Portstewart was home to the young Kennedy and would, in later years, be the inspiration behind some of his most famous songs.

He was educated at Trinity College Dublin after which he moved to England and entered the teaching profession. He also worked for a short time in the Civil Service. From the 1930s onwards, however, Kennedy wholeheartedly pursued his true vocation, songwriting.

For some twenty-five years he devoted himself to the songwriter’s craft and either separately, or working alongside George Grosz or Michael Carr, he created some of the most popular songs of the day.

His first notable success came in 1932 when he was asked to add the words to a jaunty number by the American composer JK Bratton. Originally titled The Teddy Bear Two-Step, and soon renamed The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, the song was a resounding success and sold some four million records.

The prolific Kennedy would go on to write over 2,000 songs with sales in sheet music and records counted by the million. The figures aside, what is truly remarkable is that he managed to maintain this prodigious output without ever compromising the quality of his work.

For many, the song for which Jimmy Kennedy will always be remembered is Red Sails in the Sunset. Harking back to those idyllic days of childhood the listener is invited to share in Kennedy’s memory of a blissful summer’s day when he watched a small yacht lazily wend its way westward towards the setting sun off Portstewart.

Red Sails in the Sunset
is a beautiful, bitter-sweet slice of nostalgia which evokes the balmy days of a bygone age without resorting to the saccharine sentimentality all too common in the songwriting of the period.

As Red Sails in the Sunset amply demonstrated, Kennedy was, in many respects, a storyteller as much as he was a songwriter and each of his songs had a story to tell uniquely its own. He had a natural knack for being able to compress a perfectly crafted narrative into a succinct lyric and to match that lyric to his co-writer’s tune.

The Isle of Capri
(1934) for example, relates to his reading of a Sunday newspaper report of the English music hall star, Gracie Fields, holidaying in her Capri villa. South of the Border meanwhile was conceived when Kennedy received a postcard from his sister in Southern California to tell him that, ‘today we’ve gone to Mexico, south of the border’. The song this simple line inspired would be recorded over 300 times.

During the second world war, Kennedy served with the British Army’s Royal Artillery, rising to the rank of Captain. It was whilst serving with the army that he was asked to write English words to the song Lili Marlene. It was a request he refused, however he was to write several ‘evergreen’ classics during wartime including; We’re Going to Hang Out Our Washing on the Siegfried Line (1939) and The Cokey-Cokey (1942).

Later named The Hokey-Cokey , the song became one of the dance sensations of wartime.  In later years, and particularly with the 1960s heralding the arrival of the rock ‘n’ roll era, Kennedy began to concentrate on writing songs for plays.

It is ironic, indeed poignant, that though his lyrics were to be sung by the greatest stars in the musical firmament, be they Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong, Kennedy would, in his lifetime, remain something of an unsung hero.

And yet one suspects that the genial, ever modest Kennedy would have wanted it no other way. And though his name rarely appeared in the public domain, his talents ensured he received deserved recognition by colleagues and peers within the music profession.

Awards included two Ivor Novello Awards (1971 and 1980) for his contribution to British music and two American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers Awards. In 1983 he was made an Officer of the British Empire and in 1997 he was posthumously inducted into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Jimmy Kennedy died in 1984 and is buried in Taunton, Somerset. Incidentally, the little boat which was the inspiration for Red Sails in the Sunset, ‘Kitty of Coleraine’, was recently discovered rotting away in Belfast. Restored and repaired it now takes pride of place, alongside a fishing boat sculpture and plaque, in a display to Kennedy on Portstewart promenade.

More than this though, it is the timelessness and universal appeal of his songs that have ensured that Kennedy, one of Ireland’s greatest musical sons, is not forgotten.

By Francis Jones

Further Reading:
The Encyclopaedia of Ireland – Brian Lalor (General Editor) – Gill &Macmillan 2003.