But one has to back up to find out how Alfred Bryan and Fred Fisher came to write their hit. It started when Fisher went to see a popular Broadway play by J. Hartley Manners, about an Irish-American girl named Peg. The name of the play? “Peg O’ My Heart.”
Fisher fell for actress Laurette Taylor’s performance. When the theatre launched a contest for a song to publicize the play, Bryan and Fisher composed an entry that earned them the $1000 U.S. first prize, a sizable amount in 1913. At the time Tin Pan Alley “Irish” songs (think When Irish Eyes are Smiling) were in vogue, and Bryan’s lyrics fit perfectly: “It’s your Irish eyes I’m after,” “Rose of Erin,” “Your glances with Irish art entrance us.”
Their song never actually made it into the play (although recent adaptations include it); in fact, vaudeville’s Irving Kaufman was the first to sing Peg O’ My Heart before Miss José Collins sang it in the Ziegfeld Follies. Feist published the sheet music with Taylor’s picture on it, and American tenor Charles Harrison released a Victor 78-rpm single, as did tenor Henry Burr (a No. 2 hit) and cellist Rosario Bourdon, both Canadians.
There followed a gap until Glenn Miller revived the song in 1937, as did various 1940s jazz bands: Buddy Clark, Stan Kenton, Nat King Cole, and Jack Teagarden.
Then in 1947 The Harmonicats revived the all-but-forgotten song as a harmonica instrumental single (the first pop recording to use “echo” or artificial reverb), and Peg O’ My Heart rocketed to the top as Billboard’s No. 2 song for 1947, later becoming a Grammy Hall of Fame inductee.
So popular was the song that Billboard’s Top 100 for 1947 listed three covers: The Harmonicats (No. 2), The Three Suns (No. 7), and Art Lund (No. 35). Billboard’s jukebox chart for August 1947 included six hit covers, including Buddy Clark’s and Clark Dennis’s.
Peg O’ My Heart continued a favourite through the 1950s, covered by Jerry Vale, Lawrence Welk, Billy Vaughn, the Four Aces, and England’s Ted Heath. Through the 1960s Pat Boone, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Andy Williams, Ray Conniff, Mitch Miller, and Duke Ellington performed it, and a version by Robert Maxwell, His Harp and Orchestra charted in July 1964.
As recently as 2011, punk band Dropkick Murphys, with eminent rocker Bruce Springsteen, paired the song’s lyrics with updated Celtic-rock music. Front man Ken Casey told “The Telegraph,” “It links two generations. We're spanning a lot of years of music here, yet our songs share similar themes, stories, and values.”
On film the song featured in “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” (1949), and on television appeared in a Hardees restaurant commercial and the British series “The Singing Detective” (its theme song) and “Downton Abbey.”
Peg O’ My Heart has been a part of popular culture for a century. ASCAP named it one of the most-performed love songs of the 20th century.
Alfred Bryan, 1871 – 1958, was born in Brantford, Ontario and educated in London, Ontario. In 1905 he moved to New York City, where he was arranger and lyricist of hundreds of songs, among them the hits Come, Josephine in My Flying Machine and I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier. A founding member of ASCAP, he was inducted into the U.S. Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Fred Fisher (Fischer), 1875 – 1942, born in Germany, wrote music for Tin Pan Alley publishers, films and stage. He is an inductee to the U.S. Songwriters Hall of Fame.