Kennedy was born near Omagh. His father was Joseph Hamilton Kennedy, a member of the Irish police force. Kennedy grew up in Coagh where he wrote several songs and poems inspired by the view of the Ballinderry river, the local Springhill house and the plentiful amount of chestnut trees on his land where his poem chestnut trees derive from. later on Jimmy moved to Portstewart, an Ulster seaside resort located to the north in Derry. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin.
He taught for a while in England before applying to join the Colonial Service as a civil servant in 1927. His music career took off, though, while he was awaiting a posting to the colony of Nigeria. He embarked on a career in songwriting by joining the staff of Bert Feldman, a music publisher based in London's Tin Pan Alley. In a career spanning more than fifty years, he wrote some 2000 songs, of which over 200 became worldwide hits and about 50 are all-time popular music classics.
"My Prayer" with original music by Georges Boulanger had English lyrics penned by Kennedy in 1939. It was originally written by Boulanger with the title "Avant de Mourir" in 1926.
Until John Lennon and Paul McCartney, he had more hits in the United States than any other Irish or British songwriter. His first success came in 1931 with the "Barmaids Song" sung by Gracie Fields. "Red Sails in the Sunset" (1935) was inspired by beautiful summer evenings in his native part of the world, and "South of the Border" by a holiday picture postcard he received from Tijuana, Mexico.
While serving in the British Army's Royal Artillery, where he rose to the rank of Captain, he wrote the wartime hit, "We're Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line" for the British Expeditionary Force. His hits also include "The Isle of Capri", "My Prayer", "Teddy Bears' Picnic" (music by John Walter Bratton), "Love is Like a Violin", "Hokey Cokey" and "Roll Along Covered Wagon".
He was a patron of the Castlebar International Song Contest from 1973 until his death in 1981 and his association with the event added great prestige to the contest.
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