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Peggy O’Neil

Before radio and record players were common, the only way for people to listen to music in their homes was to buy sheet music and play it themselves. The May 26 1921 edition of the Toronto Daily Star contained an ad for sheet music for a popular song, which printed the song’s chorus to entice the reader to buy it:

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The song is inspired by an actual person: Peggy O’Neil was a stage actress who performed on Broadway, and in London in a show titled Paddy The Next Best Thing that ran for 850 performances. She was apparently the first person ever to be interviewed on television. Pathé Films has footage of her from 1925.

Naturally, there are a number of versions of “Peggy O’Neil” on YouTube:

  • Billy Jones recorded a version in 1921. His style contains a lot of old-fashioned flourishes, and the mid-song patter appears to contain some Irish stereotypes about Peggy’s brother Dan that I could not find in printed lyrics anywhere.
  • Charles Harrison recorded a version, also in 1921, that sounds quite similar but is somewhat faster, and has an instrumental break instead of the mid-song patter.
  • Slim Whitman recorded it as a country and western song. It doesn’t really fit in that genre.
  • Tony Williams, the frontman for the Platters, recorded a slowed-down version of this song that turns it into a 1950s-style show tune. It doesn’t really fit this sound either, but Williams does have a wonderful voice.
  • Jack Smith and the Clark Sisters recorded a lounge-singer version in 1947. It’s very white-bread, and it’s interrupted in the middle by some mock-Irish dialogue that is painful to listen to. I couldn’t finish this one.

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