The theme for February 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks is Branching Out.
One way to take this week and month’s theme of branching out is to write about collateral relatives – those that share the same family descent as me but by a different line. I have many historical and famous kin that descend from collateral lines, but I chose to write about my lesser-known Cousin Percy Wenrich. He is my fourth cousin, three times removed. Meaning that he and my great-grandfather Abraham G. Kennedy were direct fourth cousins. We share ancestors Johann Matthias Wenrich (Weinrich) and Judith Schauer.
Although today most-likely only those that are fans of ragtime music or study music of this time period would recognize his name. He and his wife Dolly Connolly were Ragtime superstars in their own time! Actually, Percy Wenrich was a quite well-known composer of Ragtime and popular music of the time. When I discovered my kinship to him, I sought out his music. I am a fan of Ragtime music and remember playing Ragtime songs on the piano from the film The Sting. I have to say that I truly am a fan of his and I have a playlist devoted to the music of Percy Wenrich.
Percy Wenrich was born on 23 January 1887 in Joplin, Missouri. He was later known as the “The Joplin Kid” due to his links to Joplin.
He was the son of Daniel K. Wenrich and Mary L. Ray. He came from a musical family. His father Daniel “according to a 1912 [Jopin] Globe article, [he was known] for his musical ability as a quartet singer and “composer of campaign songs in the days of President William McKinley.” Percy’s mother, Mary, was an accomplished pianist and organist and his first teacher.” (1)
Percy published his first piece, titled “L’Inconnu,” in 1897 when he was 17. He had a thousand copies printed, which he sold one at a time in the district. While he was busy working up music, he was employed as an assistant postal clerk by his father. He also performed for friends at the YMCA at 418 Main St. [Joplin, Missouri] in 1901. Young Percy began writing his own melodies for which his father provided lyrics. Many of these songs were used locally at political rallies and conventions. He continued to be interested in music and enrolled in the Chicago Musical College to be trained as a “serious” musician. Chicago Musical College was run by Florenz Ziegfield, Sr., the father of the Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. He continued his efforts in writing popular song and while in Chicago, succeeded in having two of his works published, Ashy Africa and Just Because I’m From Missouri. Interestingly perhaps, both titles were suggested to him by Frank Buck, a Chicago music publisher who went on to become a famous producer of African travel and adventure films. While in Chicago, he worked for McKinley Music Company writing melodies for lyrics sent to McKinley. He composed various works including waltzes, songs, intermezzi and rags. He also worked in a Milwaukee department store’s music department where he published another song, Under A Tropical Moon. He later noted that working in the department store kept him from working in “the district” — an area that was home to many brothels. (1, 2)
His first best-seller without lyrics was “The Smiler,” published in 1907. He subtitled it “A Joplin Rag” in honor of his hometown. As I write this, I am currently listening to “The Smiler” as played by Sue Keller below.
He met his wife Catherine Ann “Dolly” Connolly, a vaudeville singer, in 1905, and a year later they wed. Dolly lists her place of birth as Chicago, Illinois and Michigan in various records, but she was actually born in County Caven, Ireland. Percy and Dolly toured as a vaudeville song and dance act for fifteen years.
Dolly was considered by many to be the “most beautiful of the famous ragtime singers and had marked out a steady career for herself in vaudeville when she met up and coming composer and accompanist Percy Wenrich, a handsome but rather shy and nerdy fellow who became a pop music genius. The unlikely couple hit it off instantly and became inseparable, living as well as touring together and Wenrich began to write music for her including the 1911 mega-hit Red Rose Rag which became one of Dolly’s signature songs along with Alamo Rag, also written by Wenrich.” (3)
“As many successful songwriters did during that time, Wenrich teamed up with Homer Howard to form his own music publishing house, the Wenrich-Howard Company. Together they published a number of his songs, including, Kentucky Days, Whipped Cream Rag and Snow Deer in 1913. Within only a year, Wenrich gave up the publishing business as it was taking him away from song writing and performing. So, in 1914, he gave it up to devote all of his time to composing and performing with Dolly in vaudeville. He connected with Leo Feist that year as his publisher and that same year he scored what may be his greatest hit of all time, When You Wore A Tulip And I Wore A Big Red Rose. For several years, perhaps fifteen or so, Connolly and Wenrich toured vaudeville singing mostly his songs. Connolly’s success also carried over to recording and she became a huge star recording songs for Columbia.” (2)
“Dolly had a contralto voice which allowed her to go down for some rather low notes while still having considerable power and she also possessed a wide vocal range. She could sing melodies precisely and exactly on pitch which was essential for vocal versions of rags. She didn’t impose too much emotion in her songs and never did scat singing or even fairly simple deviations from the melody but preferred to sing the music as written, especially when written by her husband who was writing for her range and vocal character.
She also was stunningly beautiful and always dressed in the latest, most elaborate fashions of the time, similar to a Ziegfeld star such as Lillian Lorraine and was not above posing in a saucy manner smoking a cigarette and hiking up her skirt to show off a little leg. After her marriage to Wenrich she continued her career and actually expanded it as her fame grew and she and her husband became a major vaudeville attraction as either he or she or both put out hit after hit. In 1912 Wenrich and lyricist Edward Madden put out Moonlight Bay, which was an enormous hit and made the Connolly-Wenrich team an even bigger attraction in vaudeville.” (3)
The [Joplin] Globe reprinted a Chicago Tribune review of their act from Aug. 27, 1912. “Seated idly at the piano at the Majestic this week is Mr. Percy Wenrich, a plump and pleasing young fellow who plays with great expression and effect the melodies of his own composition. These works include such musical necessities as ‘Moonlight Bay’ and ‘Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet,’ ‘The Skeleton Rag’ and ‘Rainbow,’ to say nothing of a score of other sentimental tunes, which insist on being whistled. (1)
“Just back of Mr. Wenrich and the piano is Miss Dolly Connolly, an expert at the rhythmical rendition of Mr. Wenrich’s ballads. She sings most attractively while Mr. Wenrich helps out with the chords and both of them do about all that can be done for minor music. Ere the act is over, and while Miss Connolly is making one of her bewildering changes of costume, Mr. Wenrich plays a segment from each of his most popular ditties. Whereupon those in the audience applaud their favorites and Mr. Wenrich smiles benignly like a benefactor, which he probably is.” (1)
“In the 1920s Percy devoted himself to creating and contributing to Broadway shows both with and without Dolly with some success, the operetta Some Party, a strong performer in 1925 but without Dolly in the cast. Although Dolly had a successful career with Columbia Records and was continuing in vaudeville, her star had faded by the later 1920s (although she and Percy toured in vaudeville up to 1929 and Dolly and Percy hit Broadway with several shows in which she starred with mild success) with changing musical tastes and Percy also retired from composing and performing in the 1930s, apparently to care for Dolly who suffered from an undisclosed illness, apparently Alzheimer’s Disease, which caused Percy at first to limit their theatrical and radio performances and then to confine her to a sanitarium in 1947 where she stayed until his death in 1952. In 1939 Percy had put together a revue featuring classic songwriters which was called Songwriters on Parade but that seems to be his last venture into major entertainment. Dolly lived with her sister until her death in 1965 at age 77, by that time long forgotten by the general public.” (3)
A few more facts about Percy Wenrich: He was the founding member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. And he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
Side note: My great-grandfather Abraham G. “Abe” Kennedy worked many years as a public-school teacher, then as a principal. But after he retired, he worked in a music store and a piano store. He was musical and I truly believe he would have enjoyed knowing that he and Percy Wenrich were cousins and shared an affinity for music. In the photo above is Abe with his mother Susan Palmer Kennedy. Susan would have been a direct third cousin to Percy Wenrich’s father Daniel K. Wenrich.
Percy Wenrich’s direct line:
- Johann Matthias Wenrich (son of Balthazar Wenrich/Weinrich and Maria Elisabeth Magdalena ____) and Judith Schauer (daughter of Johannes Michael Schauer and Anna Magdalena ____).
- Matthias Wenrich and Eva Ephrosina “Rosine” Schauer (daughter of Johann Hans Michael Schauer and Elisabeth Catharina Lauck/Laux).
- Thomas Wenrich and Anna Margaretha Lingle (daughter of Thomas H. Lingle, Sr. and Anna Mary Feggen).
- David Wenrich and Catherine Kinports (daughter of John Kinports and Barbara Huber).
- David K. Wenrich and Mary L. Ray (daughter of William Ray and Elizabeth Jane Rodgers).
- Percy Wenrich.
My direct line:
- Johann Matthias Wenrich (son of son of Balthazar Wenrich/Weinrich and Maria Elisabeth Magdalena ____) and Judith Schauer (daughter of Johannes Michael Schauer and Anna Magdalena ____).
- Maria Esther Wenrich and Johann Jacob Spatz (son of Lorentz Spatz and Anna Maria Kirchenbauer)
- David Spatz and Hannah Hafer (daughter of Andrew Hafer and Elizabeth (Mary Elizabeth) Druckenmiller).
- Mary Ann Spotts and John Palmer (son of Floyd Palmer and Barbara Wolf).
- Susan Palmer and John Davis Kennedy (son of John Kennedy and Jane Williams).
- Abraham G. Kennedy and Mary Elizabeth Price (daughter of James Price and Julia Ann Mateer/Meteer). My great-grandparents.
I thought as an ending note that I’d include below one of my favorites by Percy Wenrich “Peaches and Cream”.
- Bill Caldwell: Ragtime composer Percy Wenrich was known as ‘The Joplin Kid’ – Bill Caldwell, The Joplin Globe online.
- Percy Wenrich – “The Joplin Kid” – Composer Biographies – The Parlor Songs Academy website.
- Dolly Connolly and Percy Wenrich: Ragtime Superstars by David Soren – The American Vaudeville Musem & UA Collection – The University of Arizona.
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Fantastic! I loved listening to these recordings. Even my hubs commented, “That’s a happy tune.” (The Smiler) Have you looked on archive .org to see if any old recordings of your cousins’ music is there? maybe even a recording of his wife. Very cool, thanks for sharing!
I had to look, there are many recordings by Dolly on archive ,org How fun!
I did find a few over on YouTube of Dolly’s singing. There are quite a few of Percy’s music on YouTube. But will check out on archive. org too 🙂