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Bing Crosby & Ireland’s Greatest Songsmith, Jimmy Kennedy
Isn't it wonderful when your hobbies follow you around like faithful dogs. All my life, my passions have been golf and music and every now and then, they crash serendipitously into each other. The latest occurrence was in April in the clubhouse of the Portstewart Golf Club in Northern Ireland. I was looking at the view from the window, out onto the Atlantic and across to the coastline of Donegal. The club steward came up and told me I was looking at “the more northern part of Ireland, even though its in the south”. What he meant was that Donegal sits in the Irish Republic, aka Southern Ireland, despite its geographical location. The same steward was soon quizzing me about what I knew of Portstewart. It seemed he was accustomed to his visitors striking out on that question, but I had a surprise for him. I knew something. So, when he told me that the most famous person to come from Portstewart was Field Marshall Montgomery of Alamein, I expressed surprise. “Not Jimmy Kennedy, then?” I asked. He flinched. “You know about Jimmy Kennedy?” I did.
For anyone reading this who doesn’t, let me tell you that Kennedy was Ireland’s most famous and prolific songwriter over a 40-year career. Late in his life, he turned up as a guest on the British TV show of the Irish crooner, Val Doonican. Looking and sounding like a retired Civil Servant, he sat at a piano and accompanied Doonican on a medley of his songs. What a catalogue! Ballads, party songs, dances, wartime patriotism, Irish songs, Hawaiian songs, you name it, Kennedy doubtless had one in his repertoire. Any British reader will doubtless have danced the Hokey Cokey at some stage, or hummed The Teddy Bears Picnic, or seen a wartime film with someone singing about the Washing on the Siegfried Line. Well, Jimmy Kennedy was responsible for all of that.
He’s best known though for what Bing, in his best French, once called “chansons nostalgiques”, songs with a story, often of lost love and separation. And the most famous of them was inspired by the view I was looking at across the bay at Portstewart. Kennedy lived there in his youth and had the same view from his parents’ home on Strand Road. One night, he saw a sailing boat glide across the bay in front of the setting sun and “Red Sails In The Sunset” was the result. Crosby was one of the first to record it and featured heavily on his fledgling KMH radio show. Now, in the clubhouse, a painting hangs on the wall of showing the boat - Kitty of Coleraine - against the setting sun.
Another Kennedy masterpiece was “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)”. The parentheses are significant. My host at Portstewart was now on a roll and asked if I knew that the original draft of the lyric was “Down Donegal Way”, Donegal, as we could see, sitting south of the Irish border. I expressed surprise but took the story at face value. As my golf round progressed however, I found myself humming the lyric, with precious little hint of Donegal and lots of reference to Spanish lace and mission bells. So I decided to check out the Montgomery story. That was a porky too, although his family did hail from Donegal. When I confronted the steward at the end of my game, he just smiled and said, with a twinkle in his eye “ah well, its a nice story - and this you are in Ireland, you know!”.
The strange thing is that the real story is even better. Kennedy was a words and music writer, although his real talent was for a lyric with a story. He also had a knack of backing into his song titles. Another of his songs, “Harbour Lights”, came about when he was driving home one night through southern England and, lost in fog, suddenly found his headlights shining on a pub called The Harbour Lights. Kennedy said he had the song in his head by the time he got home. So too, “South of the Border”. When Kennedy’s two sisters took a vacation in Southern California in the mid-1930s, they sent him a postcard, with a Tijuana postmark. “We’ve been down to Mexico today”, it said, “south of the border”.
In terms of recordings, Bing covered more of Kennedy’s songs that any other major singer although he was often late in getting around to them. “South of the Border” hit the music stands in 1939 and Bing sang it immediately on radio, but it was 25 more years before he cut a commercial recording (even though his image appeared on the sheet music). Bing’s 1965 Longines piece is a fine recording but nothing like the gem that a 1939 Decca version would have been. “Harbour Lights” was written in 1937 but passed over by Bing until its revival in 1950, and “The Teddy Bears Picnic” had been around for 20 years before Bing took a swing.
Bing and Jimmy met once, in Dublin in the 1970s, courtesy of Bing’s favourite Irishman, George O’Reilly. In his 2011 biography of his father, The Man Who Wrote the Teddy Bears Picnic, Kennedy’s son recounts the meeting and how his father had asked Bing about the arrangement for his duet with Rosemary Clooney on “Isle of Capri” (another Kennedy standard). “Yes, great arrangement,” Bing had said, “Livingston & Evans”. Kennedy snr. was impressed by Bing’s powers of recall, although would doubtless have been less so had he known that the answer was wrong. Jay Livingston and Ray Evans were behind Bing and Rosie’s Travellin’ Two-Beat collaboration, but “Isle Of Capri” was a Billy May creation from Fancy Meeting You Here six years earlier.
No matter. The mutual admiration was strong. Bing, in a private message, went out of the way to speak of the simplicity of Kennedy’s songs. “I wish I had a bob for every time I have sung “South of the Border”, he added, before going on to single out “Did Your Mother Come From Ireland” as his favourite Kennedy song (It was another accidental lyric. Kennedy’s co-writer, Michael Carr, had earwigged a chat-up scene on a train when a young suitor asked a girl “Was you mother Irish?”. He and Kennedy spent days trying to put that line to a melody before realising it was too short to scan.)
Kennedy was quick to repay Bing’s compliment. In a radio interview, he talked about all the performers who had sung his songs, from Bing to Sinatra, Elvis to the Platters, but he singled out Crosby as the one he admired most. “I think he was the best interpreter of my songs because he sang them the way I wanted them sung,” he said. “I think other writers would say the same thing. He didn’t try any fancy tricks or change the tempo or mess about with it like so many performers. He didn’t inject himself into the song. He had so much style, he didn’t have to. He sang the song like you’d sing it to yourself.” The esteemed music critic, Henry Pleasants, said something similar. “Certainly the art of no other singer has been so deceptive,” he wrote, “if only because Bing’s singing, at its best, has always seemed so easy, so free of artistic pretension, so devoid of any suggestion of accomplishment. No other singer, it seems to me, has been so inadequately assessed.”
Article first published in the Summer 2016 issue of BING!, the official journal of the International Club Crosby