“You'd better watch out. You'd better not cry. You’d better not pout. I’m telling you way—Santa Claus is coming to town.” This holiday warning, delivered to children annually from November to December 25, calls to mind the North Pole, chimneys across the world, and a jolly man in a red suit. Yet, the traditional Christmas song actually has roots that stretch back to northern Kentucky. Covington native James Haven Lamont Gillespie, or simply Haven Gillespie, penned the holiday classic in 1933.
Gillespie was born in Covington in 1888. His formal education only lasted through fourth grade and Gillespie left to work as a “printers devil” in Chicago. While he maintained his membership in the typographical workers’ union for the rest of his life, he really focused on his songwriting career by the second decade of the twentieth century.
Gillespie hit an unexpected commercial and cultural home run with "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" in 1933. He was beset by personal tragedy, as his younger brother had recently passed away, when a New York contact asked him to write a holiday song. The resulting hit drew on his childhood memories of his mother warning him and his brother to be sure to wash behind their ears, or Santa would take notice. He spun the somewhat bittersweet memory of his own childhood Christmases' into the jaunty tune that has become such a staple in our holiday music.
In the process, Gillespie's song has also become a formative piece of the lore attached to Santa. Generations of children have learned about Santa's powers (omniscience and moral clarity) and responsibilities (distributing rewards to the "nice" children and withholding rewards from the "naughty" kids who "cry" or "pout"). The implied agreement, good behavior in exchange for gifts from Santa, has helped countless parents channel their children's holiday excitement into less "naughty" activities.
While Gillespie's career often took him away from Kentucky, to New York City or the West coast, he maintained ties to the state and remained a Kentuckian. He even wrote a ditty about his hometown of Covington called "This Old Town," which was picked up in northern Kentucky papers in 1912.
When the Maysville Public Ledger picked up the song, they simply replaced "Covington" with "Maysville" to capture their own local sentiment.
Many of his songs became commercial successes, including hits like “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze,” “Drifting and Dreaming,” and “You Go To My Head,” which earned Gillespie tens of thousands of dollars in royalties. He approached the pinnacle of his songwriting success during 1949 when the top three songs in the country, “That Lucky Old Sun,” “The Old Master Painter,” and “God’s Country" were all written by Gillespie. Many of the most celebrated musicians of the twentieth century performed and recorded Gillespie songs, a partial list includes Frank Sinatra, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Josphine Baker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Louie Armstrong, and George Strait.
In 1961, when Gillespie was 73, a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal talked with the songwriter about his most famous creation. The reporter asked how he felt "when he hears his own 'Santa' song over and over, from juke boxes, five-and-dime stores, on radio and television, at Christmas concerts, and even from the Salvation Army on the street corners?" Gillespie responded to the effect that "it's sort of like a crazy man hitting himself on the head with a hammer--its awful good when it stops...but the royalties are so nice."
The marker reads:
Haven Gillespie (1888-1975)
The composer of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" was a native of Covington. He attended local school, became a printer, and later employed by Cincinnati Times-Star and N.Y. Times. Gillespie's songs carried Americans through Great Depression and World War II; they include "Breezin' Along With the Breeze," "You Go To My Head," "Honey," and "That Lucky Old Sun." The marker was erected in 1988, a century after Gillespie was born.