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Obituaries

Noel Regney, 80; Wrote Favorite Christmas Tune, Hit Song for Singing Nun

November 30, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Noel Regney, who wrote the lyrics for the Singing Nun's 1963 No. 1 hit "Dominique" and a Cold War plea for peace that became a Christmas classic, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" has died. He was 80.

The French-born Regney died Sunday in Danbury, Conn., after a long battle with Pick's disease, a form of dementia.

"Dominique," an up-tempo ballad sung to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, spent five weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. charts in 1963 and turned the guitar-playing Jeanine Deckers, a Belgian nun known as Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile), into an international celebrity.

Regney co-wrote "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with Gloria Shayne, his wife at the time.

Among the duo's other popular songs are "Sweet Little Darlin,' " which was recorded by Jo Stafford; "Another Spring, Another Love," which became a standard for Marlene Dietrich; and "What's the Use of Crying," which was recorded by Eddie Fisher.

But "Do You Hear What I Hear?" was clearly their most enduring song.

Inspired by seeing two mothers with their smiling babies in strollers on the sidewalks of New York during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Regney wrote the words to the song.

Its final stanza includes the phrase: "Pray for peace, people everywhere."

A quarter-million copies of the original recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale were released just after Thanksgiving in 1962 and sold out within a week.

A year later, Bing Crosby scored a big hit with his version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

Over the years, it has been recorded by Perry Como, Mahalia Jackson and scores of other artists and has appeared on more than 120 albums and in versions ranging from jazz to reggae.

Although Shayne usually wrote the lyrics and Regney composed the music for their hundreds of songs, Regney originally wrote the words and music for their popular Christmas tune.

When he was done, however, he was unhappy with his own melody and asked Shayne to write music for it.

"I am amazed that people can think they know the song and not know it is a prayer for peace," he told the New York Times in 1985.

"But we are so bombarded by sound and our attention spans are so short that we now listen only to catchy beginnings," Regney said.

Looking back on the precarious state of the world when they wrote the song, Shayne said in the same article that "Noel's vision was responsible for the song's success. I said, 'We gotta be commercial,' but he insisted, 'No, we must do something beautiful.' "

Born in Strasbourg, France, in 1920, Regney (whose real last name was Schlinger) studied at the university and the conservatory in Strasbourg, at the Salzburg Mozarteum and at the Conservatoire National de Paris.

World War II curtailed his dream of becoming a composer.

Although he was forced to join the Nazi army, he escaped and joined the French Resistance.

After the war, Regney began his career as musical director of the Indochinese Service of Radio France and worked as director of the Lido nightclub in Paris.

He left France in 1951 to go on a world tour as musical director for French singer Lucienne Boyer.

After settling in New York City, Regney worked as an arranger, composer and conductor for television shows, wrote music for radio commercial jingles and married Shayne, who was playing piano in a New York hotel when he met her.

Shayne, who wrote James Darren's 1961 top 10 hit "Goodbye Cruel World," introduced the classical music-minded Regney to popular music. They were divorced in the early 1970s.

Regney is survived by his wife, Susan; two sons, Matthieu and Paul; a daughter, Gabrielle; a stepdaughter, Patricia Spiegel; a brother, Francis Schlinger; a sister, Annie Marie Schlinger; and two grandchildren.

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