When Marilyn Monroe breathed her lascivious "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" into the microphone in a body-skimming glittering dress on May 19, 1962, the media went into overdrive.
Many rumors had already been circulating about John F. Kennedy's extramarital affairs, but none of his alleged liaisons was gossiped about more than the one with America's most famous sex symbol. On the day Kennedy hosted his 45th birthday party at Madison Square Garden in New York, Monroe was scheduled to perform her serenade.
Although she had practiced for hours, she was visibly trembling with excitement. She sang for "her" president in front of running television cameras. Press photographers, however, were not welcome.
Only a single picture was taken after that legendary performance. It was anything but scandalous; it was snapped by Cecil Stoughton, the White House photographer, who was the only one allowed to the party.
His snapshot shows Monroe with JFK and his brother, Bobby Kennedy. Other supposedly compromising photo material of the president and his mistress, which the paparazzi reportedly shot, never ended up in the tabloids. The FBI and Secret Service kept a watchful eye on them, mercilessly confiscating every negative. And even this unspectacular photo remained under lock and key for a long time. Yet, Monroe's serenade made birthday song history.
Elvis Presley: 'Happy birthday, baby'
While Monroe was the heartthrob of many men, Elvis Presley made women's hearts beat faster with his hip swinging and his sultry voice. In "Happy Birthday, Baby" the crooner congratulates his sweetheart who left him for someone else. What woman wouldn't have felt compelled to comfort "The King" over his heartbreak?
However, the original song was not written by him, but by The Tune Weavers, who kicked off their career with it in 1957.
The Beatles: 'Birthday'
This feel-good song from 1968 was created in the spirit of the hippie era. It appeared on the album "The Beatles," better known as the "White Album." The musicians briefly said goodbye during the recording to watch a rock'n'roll movie at Paul McCartney's house, which was just around the corner. That movie was "The Girl Can't Help It," shown on British television for the first time. It was a cult hit featuring famous musicians such as Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino and The Platters.
"Paul was one of the first to come back into the studio," recording assistant Chris Thomas later recalled. "And he wrote down the birthday song just like that. The others joined in and sang along. By 5 a.m., the song was done."
Many years later, in an interview with Playboy, John Lennon said, "I think Paul wanted to write a song like 'Happy Birthday, Baby,' the old '50s hit. But it was, sort of, made up in the studio. It was a piece of garbage." However, millions of Beatles fans see it differently to this day.
Stevie Wonder: 'Happy Birthday'
This catchy tune from 1980 has long since conquered the world and gladdened the hearts of many birthday boys and girls. But in non-English speaking countries, most people only sing along to the chorus of the Stevie Wonder hit and are not at all aware that the song is also an anthem for equal rights.
In addition, it was an unofficial call to create a day in honor of the Black civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., who was murdered in 1968. This did come about, but not until 1986.
Kool & The Gang: 'Celebration'
"Celebration" was also released in 1980 — the only song by the band Kool & The Gangto make it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, although they also produced other famous hits. With soulful disco funk, the former school band founded by brothers Robert and Ronald Bell made a splash in the 1970s and 1980s.
Saxophonist Ronald Bell, who was a Muslim, was inspired by the story of creation in the Quran when he composed the hit. He passed away in September 2020.
'Good morning to all' — the tune that started it all
The famous melody was first composed by Patty and Mildred Hill, two sisters who were teaching at a school in the southern US city of Louisville, Kentucky, over 100 years ago. Originally titled "Good Morning To All," it was so simple that even young children could learn it effortlessly. They published the song in their songbook "Song Stories for the Kindergarten" in 1893.
It wasn't until 1912 that the song's melody is said to have been accompanied by the words "Happy Birthday to you" for the first time. Nowadays, the song is sung everywhere from Vietnam to Armenia, Madagascar, India and Iceland. The Hill sisters never earned a cent from it, but record companies later did. The Hill sisters had assigned the rights to their music to Clayton F. Summy, whose company was later bought by Warner Music Group in 1998.
A gold mine for record companies
Although private individuals were allowed to sing the song free of charge at birthday parties at home, Warner Chappell Music made money if it was used commercially — for example in films, on albums or in electronic greeting cards. According to estimates, the company earned around $2 million (about €1.9 million today) a year in royalties from it. That came to an end in 2016 when a judge overturned the license rights, which Warner had actually claimed until 2030.
So here's a free serenade version from The Muppet Show: the Swedish chef really gets grooving along with his pots and pans. And if it happens to be your birthday today, we wish you from the bottom of our hearts: Happy Birthday!
Author Suzanne Cords
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