When My Baby Smiles at Me was the creation of the popular Montreal pianist Billy Munro. It was first played by The Kentucky Serenaders orchestra, of which Munro was a member, at the famous Rector’s restaurant in New York City. Music publisher Harry Von Tilzer heard it one evening in September 1919, and recognizing the tune’s hit potential, made a publishing deal with Munro. Von Tilzer eventually sold an interest in the song to Ted Lewis, the leader of the Ted Lewis Orchestra (of which Munro was member between 1919 and 1920), and credited Lewis and Andrew B. Sterling as lyricists of the song (though their contributions were later disputed). Soon after, Ted Lewis began featuring When My Baby Smiles at Me as his theme song and popularized it on Broadway in the successful musical revue, “Greenwich Village Follies of 1919.” The show ran for 232 performances, introducing the song to audiences from far and wide.
When My Baby Smiles at Me’s road to fame was marked by a dispute with the legendary Irving Berlin, who published a song with a very similar title, When My Baby Smiles. An argument ensued over who had registered the title first, and Berlin’s manager and Von Tilzer posted mudslinging advertisements in Variety magazine in February 1920. However, Billy Munro’s composition easily surpassed Berlin’s song.
The 1920 recording of When My Baby Smiles at Me by Ted Lewis charted for 18 weeks in that year, eventually hitting the No. 1 spot in the USA, where it stayed for seven weeks (competing against Al Jolson’s Swanee), and spawned other versions that year by Henry Burr (reaching No. 11) and by Billy Murray and Gladys Rice/Rachel Grant (No. 8).
The bouncy G-major song features a mildly syncopated rhythm, while in the idealized rhyming lyrics the singer rhapsodizes about his girlfriend’s eyes and lips. The sheet music and piano rolls sold in abundance, with cover pages playing up the connection to the popular Ted Lewis. Lewis recorded the Munro composition several times over the years and performed it nearly every time he was on stage, well into the 1960s. So famous was Lewis’s interpretation that “The Lawrence Welk Show” once featured a comic impersonation.
On film, When My Baby Smiles at Me became the title for an Oscar-nominated 1948 film starring Betty Grable and Dan Dailey, and was heard in other films of the 1930s and 1940s, including “Sing Baby Sing” (1936); “Hold That Ghost” (1941); “Behind the Eight Ball” (1942); and the biopic of Ted Lewis, “Is Everybody Happy?” (1943).
Hundreds of interpretations of When My Baby Smiles at Me have been recorded, varying from big band to easy listening to country, by stars such as Glenn Miller, Lawrence Welk, Bing Crosby, George Wettling, April Stevens, Jo Ann Castle, Roger Williams, The Harmonicats, The Crew Cuts, Max Bygraves, Spike Jones, Merle Travis, and Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The fabled Benny Goodman performed the song at Carnegie Hall in 1938, and Bobby Vinton recorded it live at The Copacabana nightclub in 1966. Composer Billy Munro also included his song on “Billy Munro’s Hits” in 1941, and with his trio he recorded it in 1951 on the flip side of “My Blue Heaven.”
Composer, pianist and musical director Billy Munro (1894 – 1969) was born in the British West Indies, spent time in England and the United States, and immigrated to Montreal in 1913 where he worked as a silent-movie pianist, and later played with Montreal’s Melody Kings and formed his own dance orchestra. In 1944, he hosted his own radio show on CKAC and became music director at CKVL, a new radio station that began broadcasting from Verdun in 1946. His program, “Les découvertes de Billy Munro,” was one of the most popular on French-language radio for a dozen years. He wrote for the “Ziegfeld Follies of 1927” Broadway revue and collaborated with Billy Eckstein and Sam Howard on the song, Music (Makes the World Go Round).
Clarinetist, singer and band leader Ted Lewis (1890 – 1971) was born Theodore Leopold Friedman in Ohio. He was popular in vaudeville and nightclubs, and hired such top jazz musicians as Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman for his band. Lewis was truly an entertainer, with elaborate gestures, corny jokes and showbiz pizzazz; and was known for performing in a battered top hat and for his trademark expression, “Is everybody happy?”. By the mid-1920s, he was one of Columbia Records’ top selling artists and one of the world’s top entertainers and band leaders. Lewis maintained an active show business career for more than 60 years.
Lyricist Andrew B. Sterling (1874 – 1955) was born in New York City. After graduating from high school, he began writing song and special material for vaudeville acts. In 1898, he met Harry Von Tilzer and the two began a songwriting partnership that would last three decades. Highlights from Sterling’s catalogue include Hello, Ma Baby, Meet Me in St. Louis, and My Old New Hampshire Home. He was inducted into the US Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.