The son of a laborer and a domestic worker, songwriter Haven Gillespie (1888-1975) grew up in Covington but left school in fourth grade. He followed his sister to Chicago when he was 14, and started in the printing business, which exposed him to the popular sheet music of the day.
Gillespie discovered he had a talent for writing lyrics, and his sheet music became popular. He moved back to his hometown before heading out again, this time for Tin Pan Alley, the nickname of the Manhattan street that was home to the popular music publishers. James Claypool, professor emeritus at Northern Kentucky University, told the story of how the district got its name.
“Everyone was afraid people would steal their songs. So they would muffle the pianos. And you would hear what was going on in a tin-sounding format. And so people couldn’t really pick up the melody and steal those melodies,” Claypool said.
Gillespie collaborated with composer J. Fred Coots, creating many well-known songs of the day. In 1934, Gillespie’s publisher asked him to write a children’s Christmas song.
Claypool said Gillespie wrote most of his songs while riding New York subways. It was while he was riding the train that he came up with one of the well-known lines of the song. “There was a young boy up in front of him. And he just happened to say, well, is Santa Claus going to come see you this year? And the kid turned around, and all of a sudden, he said, well, you better be good. And he got that line that he used later in ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ ”
The song was a boon for parents trying to get their kids to behave, said Johnston: “Adults could straighten out their children. You better not do this, you better not do that. Basically, it’s saying you won’t get anything from Santa Claus if you don’t behave. And so from that standpoint, it’s really as much of an adult song as it is a children’s song.”
Claypool said it became one of the Top 10 Christmas songs of all time. “There are 800 recordings in every language known to mankind and also every genre of music. There’s rap, all kinds, rock and roll, whatever,” he said.
Beyond “Santa Claus…” Gillespie wrote songs recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holliday, who sang “You Go to My Head.”
Among the many songs Gillespie wrote lyrics for are “By the Sycamore Tree,” recorded by Rudy Vallee; “You’re In Kentucky as Sure as you’re Born,” recorded by Rosemary Clooney; “Right or Wrong,” recorded by George Strait; and “That Lucky Old Sun,” recorded by numerous artists, including Frankie Laine, Louis Armstrong, and Johnny Cash.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2212 which originally aired on April 8, 2017. Watch the full episode.