In the flood of books and television documentaries released in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, too little attention is paid to the significant role that music played in JFK's life. It's worth remembering that musical associations are bound to be some of the first things we think about when JFK comes to mind: Camelot, his friendship with Frank Sinatra, Marilyn's rendition of "Happy Birthday," and the like.
Indeed JFK would forever associate pop songs with the two great tragedies of his young life: the deaths of his brother Joe and his sister Kathleen. Bing Crosby's "I'll Be Seeing You" was playing on the radio in the Kennedy's Hyannis Port house when the family received the brutal news that Joe had perished in an airplane crash while on a dangerous mission in 1944.
JFK was young congressman in 1948 listening to the Finian's Rainbow Broadway cast album in his Washington apartment when he learned that his beloved sister "Kick" had been killed in a plane crash in France. The song "How are Things in Glocca Morra?" played as he broke down in tears.
Ted Kennedy wrote in his memoirs that hardly anyone but family and friends knew that JFK had a nice singing voice and that he regularly sang at family gatherings, often accompanied by his mother's piano playing.
Author Steven Levy recently said this about the music on our iPods: "It's not just what you like, it's who you are." JFK never owned an iPod, but knowing the songs he liked best and understanding why they were important to him can give us insight into who he was.
These were his five favorite songs:
1. "Blue Skies" as sung by Frank Sinatra. "Blue Skies" became one JFK's best-loved songs when he was a young man, and remained so throughout his life. Composed in the 1920's by Irving Berlin, "Blue Skies" was popularized by several of JFK's favorite performers: Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby in the 1930s and Frank Sinatra in 1946. The song captures the optimistic and carefree attitude of the future president. Indeed, in later years Kennedy aides would describe clear blue skies as "Kennedy weather" because of its positive effect on the candidate and the crowds that came to see him. The hope and optimism that JFK inspired in his countrymen as president are reflected in the confident faith in the future reflected in "Blue Skies." JFK was a huge fan of Sinatra's music, often playing his albums in the White House. He attended his Sinatra and the Rat Pack's show at the Sands in Las Vegas in February 1960, and Sinatra re-recorded his 1959 hit. Despite a widely publicized 1962 falling out between the two camps, when Sinatra's casino license was revoked by the Nevada Gambling Control Board in 1963, JFK tried to help. During a September 28 visit to Las Vegas, JFK asked Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer, "Aren't you guys being a little tough on Frank?"
2. "I Love Paris" as performed by Les Baxter and his Orchestra. "I Love Paris" is from the Broadway showCan-Can by Cole Porter. "I Love Paris" was another song that JFK loved and another that is associated with a carefree time. In her 1997 memoir Love, Jack Gunilla von Post detailed her previously unknown affair with JFK. In the book she recounts Kennedy's visit with her in Sweden in the summer of 1955. She depicts JFK as a sensitive man happy to be away from his public and family obligations back home. Enjoying a bit of anonymity for perhaps the last time in his life, JFK sang "I Love Paris" as they drove through the Swedish countryside.
3. "Camelot" as sung by Richard Burton. Inevitably we must mention the song most associated with the Kennedy legend. Indeed "Camelot" lent its very name to that legend. Most of us will recall that JFK's name only became associated with the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot in the wake of his death. Camelot was built around the fictional tale of King Arthur and Lancelot. In an interview just a week after the assassination, Jackie told author Theodore H. White that JFK used to play side two of the Camelot cast album before turning in at night. "If Ever I Would Leave You" sung by Robert Goulet was the first song, and "Camelot" sung by Richard Burton was the last. Jack called "Camelot" "the song he (JFK) loved best." Jackie insisted that this story be included in White's article, telling him: "They'll be great presidents again, but they'll never be another Camelot."
Indeed, there are many connections that bond Kennedy and Camelot, including the fact that Lerner was a prep school classmate of JFK's who organized his 1963 birthday show at the Waldorf in NY. Lerner and Loewe graced the cover of Time magazine on Election Day 1960. Camelot opened on Broadway a few weeks later, starting its run exactly as JFK was about to take office, making the show and administration contemporaries.
The sense of loss felt to the public and the association between the song and the show was evident to all asCamelot toured the U.S. in the months after JFK's death. When the houselights came up following the "Camelot" finale, the audience was often crying en masse.
4. "I Believe in You" as sung by Robert Morse. Less known is JFK's love of another Broadway show of the era, Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and the song "I Believe in You." JFK saw the show in New York in early 1961 and he had the original cast album in his White House record collection. We know the latter fact courtesy of Mimi Alford, who wrote of her affair with JFK in her 2012 memoir Once Upon a Secret. Alford recalls that JFK loved the song "I Believe in You," noting that he was especially fond of the way Robert Morse sang the lines about being a "seeker of wisdom and truth." The show is now forever seen as a Mad Men-era time capsule, rightly associated with the JFK administration.
5. "September Song" as sung by Walter Huston. JFK's favorite song was undoubtedly the wistful "September Song." Composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, "September Song" was written specifically for gravel-voiced actor Walter Huston to sing in the 1938 Broadway show Knickerbocker Holiday. Although both Bing Crosby and Sinatra recorded the song during the '40s, it was Huston's version that topped the charts after it was heard in the 1950 movie September Affair. In the lyric the older narrator explains to a younger lover that his time is short and he can't play "the waiting game." He lists the months of the year as a metaphor for life passing by quickly mentioning "September... November." At JFK's inaugural gala in Washington the night before he took office, comedian Jimmy Durante -- who had a voice that made Huston sound like Caruso -- added a strangely somber (and eerie prescient) note to the otherwise exuberant proceedings when he offered his own version of "September Song."
JFK's lifelong friend Lemoyne Billings would later state that by the time he reached his early thirties, JFK had seen so much death and had been sick so often that he began "living for the moment, treating each day as though it were his last, demanding of life intensity, adventure and pleasure." Many commentators would note that JFK refused to "wait his turn" and was already planning his White House run while still only a first term senator. JFK sang "September Song" at numerous family gathering through the years, sometimes even imitating Huston's voice as he did so. His close aide Dave Powers later wrote that JFK sang "September Song" after dinner at his family's Palm Beach mansion on Saturday before he went to Dallas. Powers noted that he sang it "better that usual" that night.
More stories and insights into the world of JFK and four other icons can be found his just released book "POPOLOGY: The Music of the Era in the Lives of Four Icons of the 1960s," which can be purchased on http://www.amazon.com