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Reviewed October 3, 2015
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Four Things to Know About the “Happy Birthday” Song
Be sure to practice your “Happy Birthday to You” harmonies before the cake comes out. Read on for an in-depth look at the ubiquitous birthday tune.
1. “Happy Birthday to You” is the most popular song in the English language. The Guinness World Records claims this impressive statistic, and no wonder—the song appears in nearly 150 films, has been translated into 18 languages, and is sung nearly every time the words “Happy Birthday” appear on a cake in North America.
2. The song was originally called “Good Morning to All.” Sisters Patty and Mildred Hill of Louisville, Kentucky, are credited with penning the classic tune in the 1890s, along with the original words, which were meant to be sung by Patty’s kindergarten students to start each day:
Good morning to all
Good morning, dear teacher
Good morning to all
No one is quite sure who first changed the lyrics to “Happy Birthday,” but the song was an instant hit around the country in the burgeoning age of radio.
3. It may cost you to sing it in public. Although princesses may reign over their birthday parties’ minstrels, the true royalties lie elsewhere. Indeed, Warner/Chappell Music owns the rights to “Happy Birthday to You,” garnering an estimated $2 million each year in licensing fees—a portion of which they donate to an educational charity founded by the Hill sisters. Hollywood studios often pay up to $30,000 for the rights to the song. Although the company’s lawyers don’t go around suing 5-year-olds, any performance of the song outside of a private home is technically in violation of the copyright, which explains why many restaurant chains choose to write their own birthday songs rather than send Chappell a sack of $20 gift cards every year.
4. Marilyn Monroe’s version may not be so scandalous. In what is perhaps the most famous rendition of the song, Marilyn Monroe’s breathy intonations of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”—not to mention her skintight dress—were perceived as overtly sensual and helped fuel the rumors of an affair between her and President Kennedy. However, in 2011, actress Joan Copeland claimed that Monroe was simply out of breath after missing her entrance cue and running to the stage in a dress that literally had to be sewn on her—thus explaining the excessively flirty tone.
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