James Thornton was one of the millions of Irish people who sailed to seek their fortune in America in the second half of the 19th century.
He was born in 1861 to Irish parents. His birthplace is often given as Dublin but it’s more likely to have been Liverpool. His parents John Thornton and Catherine Molloy had moved to live in England around 1860 and stayed there until 1869 when they set sail for America to begin a new life in Boston.
James Thornton was just eight years old at the time.
Thornton didn’t finish high school. Instead, he left to pursue a number of different short term jobs before working at a printing plant in New York where he was put in charge of a furnace.
While he was there he wrote a song called Remember Poor Mother at Home.
He then approached the owner of a night club called Crowley’s in New York and asked if he could perform the song for them.
The song went down well and Crowley offered Thornton a job as a singing waiter earning $2.50 a night.
It was the start of a 50 year career in show business.
Thornton then moved to a show on Bleecker Street in New York called The Allen’s Bal Mabille.
He quickly established himself as a successful vaudeville performer doing a mixture of songs and comic monologues.
It was here that he met Charles Lawlor, the composer of The Sidewalks of New York. They quickly developed one of the most successful partnerships in vaudeville.
Thornton married vaudeville singer Bonnie Cox in 1885. She began singing many of his songs and also teamed up with her husband and Lawlor on stage.
Thornton often toured as a monologist reciting comic stories, dressed in a long frock coat. According to one of his first publishers, Edward B Marks, he used “pretty high flown language for a low comedian”.
During his career, he considered himself primarily as a performer but he is now best remember for his songwriting.
He wrote several successful songs such as The Irish Jubilee, She May Have Seen Better Days, Maggie Mooney, There’s a Little Star Shining For You, On The Benches in Park, It Don’t Seem Like The Same Old Smile, When Summer Comes Around, The Streets of Cairo and My Sweetheart’s The Man in the Moon.
Despite his prolific output, When You Were Sweet Sixteen is the song for which Thornton is now best remembered.
There’s a popular story that he got the idea for the song from a compliment he paid to his wife Bonnie. Thornton liked the good life and would often go on drinking sprees with his friends.
He was such a spendthrift that Bonnie would often collect his wages from the theatre so Thornton couldn’t take it and squander it on drink. After returning from one particularly heavy session, his wife berated him for staying away so song and started crying. She said she doubted whether he still loved her.
The Fureys and Davey Arthur performing When You Were Sweet Sixteen.