The following account is taken from information provided to our School of Anthropology vaudeville archive by Susan Dempsey, granddaughter of the famous vaudevillian and composer:
This is Susan Dempsey. I promised a write-up to you on my grandfather and, from what little is known of his early life, here goes.
James L. Dempsey was born in Lowell, Massachusetts or Manchester, New Hampshire about 1881 but we have found references to him showing a birth date of 1878. He only admitted to being seven years older than my grandmother but was probably closer to twelve years older. His father was an actor who had emigrated from Aberdeen, Scotland and his mother came from Iteland. His father died when he was six and his brother was four and then his mother died two years later!
At this point both boys were sent to live with their maternal grandmother or great aunt in Boston. She owned a successful boarding house and he always considered Boston to be home. At a rather young age, he and his brother Louis became involved in vaudeville. There is mention of him in a book detailing Boston vaudeville. They had a song and dance act and ran the local B circuit for a number years, performing across Northern Massachusetts and including Albany, upstate New York, Buffalo, Binghampton, Susquehanna, Scranton, Philadelphia, Newark, and Boston. One of his routines was to tap dance on a handkerchief.
I have found music of his published by Frank Dumont who had a successful and well-known minstrel show in Philadelphia, and a lot of James’ early music was published in Philadelphia so there is likely to have been an early connection there (1900-1908). And we think that he served in the Spanish-American War, seeing service in Cuba.
His most famous song is Ace in the Hole, which is still being performed today! It is a great song and reminds one of music from the show Guys and Dolls. If you search this song on YouTube you will find a number of great recordings of it. It’s performed as a blues song, barbershop quartet, ballad and other ways. My uncle thinks that this song dates from the 1890s but I’ve not been able to locate the first publication.
His song A Beautiful Garden of Roses was one of the top ten songs of 1909 and I found a recording of this song from
October, 2007 by a Dutch organist, so this song also has “legs”. He wrote a song called Staggalee or Stagolee which was never copyrighted and Lloyd Price, the rhythm and blues singer picked up this song in 1959 and had a great hit with it as Stagger Lee.
James wrote most of his songs with Johann Schid, Joseph Burke and Richard Lilly and he also wrote under other names, one of which I’m very sure was Charles E. Baer. My Rose of Waikiki, written with Joseph Burke and Earl Burtnett, is one of the top songs still performed in Hawaii today for tourists.
James married my grandmother in 1912 in Boston. We always joke that his day job was vaudeville but his real job was professional gambling. He travelled the Boston-New York-Havana steamship line on a regular schedule and was known to throw $8000 to $10000 on the table after returning from one of his trips. He was also asking for the money back at the end of the week.
Around 1914 or 1915 he moved to New York and opened up a club where he and others entertained. He was always just this side of the law but was very well known and liked. He was in fact part of the original Tin Pan Alley songwriters and performers group and was friends with composers such as Irving Berlin and Gus Kahn. Joseph Burke, one of his writing partners, went on to write Broadway shows. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1916 and he agains opened a club, known as Jimmy Dempsey’s Rathskeller. At one point Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn offered him an acting contract but he didn’t take him up on it because, as the story goes, he didn’t trust him enough to even turn his back on him.
By this time, James had two children and my grandmother’s grandmother (who rates a story on her own) and my grandmother put their foot down so to speak to stop his gambling and straighten out. Dupont Corporation was building a Chambers Works in a small New Jersey town on the Delaware River. James signed on as a day laborer, and working under a number of different names was able to move his family down to Carney’s Point. The family grew to seven children, although one died in infancy and James went from being a day laborer, songwriter, actor and gambler to become a high level manager at Dupont, although, according to my dad, every once in a while one of his old friends would show up.
His brother Louis stayed in a cting and was in a travelling acting troupe. He performed under the names Jim Dempsey when he was on his own and ended up owning a night club in Ohio. I’ve even found music published in the 1920s published under the name Jim Dempsey or James L. Dempsey which appears to have been actually put out by James’ brother! My uncle said that Louis never liked his name and was always known as Jim.
James Dempsey died suddenly in 1931, many years before I was born. But what is so fantastic about him is that he only had a second or third grade school education. His oldest son was my father and when James died my father had to go to work at age seventeen at Dupont, supporting his mother, brothers and sisters during the Great Depression and when he retired he was a Vice President at Dupont. He was also part of the D Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
James’ oldest daughter entered a convent at age fourteen (we are very Irish!) and became Mother Superior of her order and a close confidant of Pope Paul II. Louise is still alive and living in Newark, New Jersey (as of 2008). He next oldest son became head of Corporate Labor Relations for Dupont.
The next oldest son was the first to graduate from college and was class president for four years. We lost him at Okinawa in World War II; he is one of the named heroes of the battle.
The youngest son retired at age 37 and now lives in the Hamptons on Long Island.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology owns the following James Dempsey sheet music:
The World Has Been So Mean to Me 1917 – by James L. Dempsey, Composer of Many Big New York Song Hits. Arranged by Harry J. Lincoln of Harry J. Lincoln Music Co. of Philadelphia. Sung with great success by the composer.
Please Papa Buy Me A Baby 1917 – by James L. Dempsey. Same credits as the preceding entry.
I Want Somebody to Love 1921 – by James L. Dempsey and Estella Sitler. Sung with great success by JAMES L. DEMPSEY. Published by Harry Lincoln Music Co. in Philadelphia.