James Kennedy, songwriter and lyricist, is born on July 20, 1902 near Omagh, County Tyrone in what is now Northern Ireland. He puts words to existing music such as “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and “My Prayer” and co-writes with composers Michael Carr, Wilhelm Grosz and Nat Simon, among others. In a career spanning more than fifty years, he writes some 2,000 songs, of which over 200 become worldwide hits and about 50 are all-time popular music classics.
Kennedy’s father, Joseph Hamilton Kennedy, is a policeman in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). While growing up in the village of Coagh, Kennedy writes several songs and poems. He is inspired by local surroundings — the view of the Ballinderry River, the local Springhill House and the plentiful chestnut trees on his family’s property, as evidenced in his poem Chestnut Trees. He later moves to Portstewart, a seaside resort in County Londonderry.
While awaiting a Colonial Service posting to the colony of Nigeria, Kennedy embarks on a career in songwriting. His first success comes in 1930 with “The Barmaid’s Song”, sung by Gracie Fields. Fellow lyricist Harry Castling, introduces him to Bert Feldman, a music publisher based in London‘s “Tin Pan Alley“, for whom he starts to work. In the early 1930s he writes a number of successful songs, including “Oh, Donna Clara” (1930), “My Song Goes Round the World” (1931), and “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (1933), in which he provides new lyrics to John Walter Bratton‘s tune from 1907.
In 1934, Feldman turns down Kennedy’s song “Isle of Capri“, but it becomes a major hit for a new publisher, Peter Maurice. He writes several more successful songs for Maurice, including “Red Sails in the Sunset” (1935), inspired by beautiful summer evenings in Portstewart, Northern Ireland, “Harbour Lights” (1937) and “South of the Border” (1939), inspired by a holiday picture postcard he receives from Tijuana, Mexico and written with composer Michael Carr. He and Carr also collaborate on several West End shows in the 1930s, including London Rhapsody (1937). “My Prayer,” with original music by Georges Boulanger, has English lyrics penned by Kennedy in 1939. It is originally written by Boulanger with the title “Avant de Mourir” in 1926.
During the early stages of World War II, while serving in the British Army‘s Royal Artillery, where he rises to the rank of Captain, Kennedy writes the wartime hit, “We’re Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line.” His hits also include “Cokey Cokey” (1945), and the English lyrics to “Lili Marlene.” After the end of the war, his songs include “Apple Blossom Wedding” (1947), “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (1953), and “Love Is Like a Violin” (1960). In the 1960s he writes the song “The Banks of the Erne'”, for recording by his friend from the war years, Theo Hyde, also known as Ray Warren.
Kennedy is a patron of the Castlebar Song Contest from 1973 until his death in 1984 and his association with the event adds great prestige to the contest.
Kennedy wins two Ivor Novello Awards for his contribution to music and receives an honorary degree from the New University of Ulster. He is awarded the OBE in 1983 and, in 1997, is posthumously inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.