Piano Prodigy

La Grange, Ky., native
left impressive musical legacy

Buddy Pepper made his name in Hollywood

By Don Ward

January 2013 Edition Cover

January 2013
Edition Cover

(January 2013) – Martha Long says she doesn’t remember much about her famous first cousin, Jack R. Starkey. But as she starts to recall her childhood days growing up with him in the 1920s in La Grange, Ky., more and more details come to mind.
“He had a very outgoing personality and was well liked by everyone,” recalls Long, 88, who still lives in La Grange. “And he was a child prodigy for playing the piano. He played by ear. He was really talented.”
Long and her older sister, Dot King, 95 of nearby Crestwood, Ky., are among the few living relatives of the Hollywood composer and piano accompanist to many movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s. Starkey, who later changed his name to Buddy Pepper while performing as a child on vaudeville, grew up in a house at the corner of Washington and Walnut streets in La Grange. But when his father, Bruce Starkey, died when Jack was very young, Starkey and his mother, Bess, moved to Louisville, where he studied piano under Alma Steedman and she eventually remarried.

Jack Starkey, a.k.a. Buddy Pepper
Born: April 21, 1922, in La Grange, Ky.
Died: Feb. 7, 1993, in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

The cousins back home in Oldham County say they lost track of them, except for a few family get-togethers in Louisville when they would play and sing along to songs at the piano. Long also plays the piano by ear and so did her father, William Potts, Bess’ brother.

Pepper and Bess Schneider

Photo courtesy of the Oldham County Historical Society

Buddy Pepper was photographed with his mother, Bess Schneider, by the Louisville Courier-Journal during his visit in 1951 to her home after he returned to the U.S. from a European performance tour with Judy Garland.

“Jack got his musical talent from our side of the family,” she says proudly. She is one of 11 children in the Potts family. Eight are still living. Long was born two years after Pepper, while King was seven year older than him.
“I don’t recall much about him at all,” said King, 95. “People used to talk about him when he went to California, but we really never heard from him again after he moved to Louisville.
King did recall seeing the young Jack Starkey perform while still in grade school. “He used to play the piano in the chapel programs at Crestwood Elementary School,” she recalled. But she never saw Pepper perform professionally.
Long said she never saw Pepper perform on stage, either, but she heard about his talent all the time from others. She followed his career after he left for Hollywood, where he wrote songs for many motion picture films and musically accompanied movie stars, such as Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Jane Russell, Gordon MacRae, Lisa Kirk, Margaret Whiting, Jack Smith and Ginny Simms. He also performed in movies as well.
After her talented cousin left for fortune and fame in Hollywood, Long said, “That was the last I ever heard of him when he went out to California.”
Two of her prized possessions are autographed copies of sheet music from two songs Pepper wrote – one that helped make him famous: the 1953 song “Vaya Con Dios” (“Go With God”) he penned with Larry Russell and Inez James, and another song he wrote in 1963 with co-author and actor Dick Kallman for his native Oldham County: “Oldham County Line.” The first song has been recorded by many singers in more than 500 versions, with perhaps the most well-known recorded by Les Paul and Mary Ford. “Vaya Con Dios” reached the Billboard magazine Best Seller chart on June 13, 1953, and lasted 31 weeks on the chart. It reached No. 1 on Aug. 8 and remained there for nine weeks.
Pepper also wrote the title songs for two popular movies, “Pillow Talk” (1959), starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Randall, and “Portrait in Black” (1960), starring Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn.


Buddy Pepper

Born on April 21, 1922 in La Grange, Ky., Jack Rutherford Starkey (a.k.a. Buddy Pepper) was a child performer who debuted on radio as pianist, singer and actor at age 5. Beginning at age 13, he worked the vaudeville circuit until joining the Air Corps in World War II. After he completed his service, Pepper was signed as a composer and arranger for Universal Pictures, where he wrote such memorable songs as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Top Man.” His biggest hit was the 1959 title song for “Pillow Talk,” starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. He also wrote the lyrics for “Vaya Con Dios,” which has been recorded more than 200 times by various pop artists. Pepper also worked as an accompanist for actresses Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich. He died Feb, 14, 1993, at age 70 of heart failure at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Roles in Feature Films

1. Blondie Goes to College (1942) Atlantic coxswain
2. Reap the Wild Wind (1942) Call boy in coffee shop
3. The Reluctant Dragon (1942) Humphrey
4. Men of Boys Town (1941) Commissioner
5. Henry Aldrich for President (1941) Johnny
6. Small Town Deb (1941) Chauncey Jones
7. Golden Hoofs (1941) Morty Witherspoon
8. Meet the Chump (1941) Bellboy
9. Military Academy (1940) Second cadet
10. Seventeen (1940) Johnnie Watson
11. Streets of New York (1939) as Flatfoot
12. Rainbow (1978) Miscellaneous Crew
As Music Composer in these Movies
12. Portrait in Black (1960)
13. Pillow Talk (1959)
14. Because of You (1952)
15. The Winning Team (1952)
16. The Hucksters (1947)
17. Senorita from the West (1945)
18. This is the Life (1944)
19. Mister Big (1943)
20. Rhythm of the Islands (1943)
21. When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1943)
22. You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith (1943)
23. All By Myself (1943)
24. Top Man (1943)


1939: Feature acting debut in “Streets of New York.”
1945: Hired as composer and lyricist for Universal Pictures after serving in the military.
1959: Wrote the title song for the feature film “Pillow Talk.”

Source: Turner Classic Movies website

A “Buddy Pepper Day” celebration event was held Nov. 30 at Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, 984 Barret Ave., in Louisville as a fundraiser for the Oldham County Historical Society. Many people who showed up that day wore clothes of the 1940s and ‘50s. Waiters were dressed in 1950s attire with special drinks, music and menu offered to honor Pepper.
Cafe owner Lynn Winter said she came up with the idea as a fun way to raise money for the historical society, for which she is a paid consultant. In September, she donated a dinner for 12 people to be auctioned at the historical society’s fundraising Gala. The special dinner was held that evening featuring lobster thermadore.
“I’m an idea person, and (Oldham County Historical Society Executive Director) Nancy Thiess liked my unconventional way of bringing attention to one of Oldham County’s historical figures, so we picked Buddy Pepper.”
Winter said her staff always enjoys putting on themed dinners and dressing up. “It’s not only about the food, but it offers a chance to learn a little bit about the character through it and do so in a fun way,” Winter said.
Jack Starkey’s rise to famous began early in life when he emerged as a natural piano player at age 5. By age 7 he was playing the piano regularly on stages throughout Oldham County and the Louisville area. At age 11 he debuted as a piano soloist with the Steedman Symphony in Louisville and soon became its featured piano soloist. He appeared on WHAS radio in the 1930s, followed by a succession of local appearances that included Louisville’s Loew’s Theatre and the Kentucky State Fair.
In his teens, he moved to Louisville and at age 13 won the Major Bowes Original Amateur (radio) Hour contest. He then entered vaudeville at age 14. In 1941, he organized and directed a 16-piece juvenile band for Fanchon and Marco, who were California-based show producers. The orchestra performed for six months before disbanding when Pepper accepted the juvenile lead in the musical-comedy revue “Meet the People.” For two years he was featured in the Broadway and Hollywood revue, appearing as the younger brother of actor Jack Pepper (Ginger Rogers’ first husband) and in the process changing his name to Little Buddy Pepper. The revue toured the United States and Canada for 15 months, including a six-month run in Hollywood.

Garland Party

Photo courtesy of the Oldham County Historical Society

This June 10, 1939, photo was
taken at Jackie Cooper’s Beverly
Hills home in 1941 in celebration of
Judy Garland’s 17th birthday. From
left are Garland, Sidney Miller,
Cooper, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Pepper,
Leonard Sues and Bonita Granville.

That led to his first movie contract in 1938 in “That Certain Age,” starring Deanna Durbin. As a teen, he acted in the films “Men of Boys Town” (with Spencer Tracy), “Seventeen” (with Jackie Cooper), “Small Town Deb,” “The Reluctant Dragon” (with Robert Benchley), “Golden Hoofs” (opposite leading lady Jane Withers) and the “Henry Aldrich” series.
Although Pepper enjoyed acting, his greatest love was music. At age 23, Pepper entered the Army Air Corps, where he served for three years (1943-45) during World War II. He was assigned to the Special Services Section of the U.S. Army. While there, he wrote music, played and performed for military headquarters on numerous occasions. By one account, he traveled on a 12,000-mile circuit that included Alaska, performing in various Army shows.
After his military service ended, he continued his musical career as a composer and lyricist for Universal Studios. He contributed songs for movies such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Top Man,” “This is the Life” and “The Hucksters.” It was during this time that he also wrote the title songs for the films “Pillow Talk” and “Portrait in Black.”

Pepper and Garland

Oldham County Historical Society photo

Buddy Pepper and Judy Garland are pictured on April 8, 1951, opening night of her singing tour at London’s Palladium Theatre.

During the height of his career in Hollywood, Pepper became lifelong friends with actress Judy Garland and her first husband, Dave Rose. Garland and Pepper were the same age, born only two months apart. Pepper credited the couple for encouraging him to compose songs. Pepper even accompanied Garland on her first European singing tour in 1951 that included London, Paris, Rome, Monte Carlo and Stockholm. The first stop was a four-week show in London. During opening night on April 8, 1951, at London’s Palladium Theatre, Garland slipped on stage and Pepper rushed to her rescue, lifting her back to her feet. The event received a lot of attention in the media and the two laughed about it for years to follow.
Pepper later wrote about the incident in an article for the August 1951 edition of Photoplay magazine: “Her performance went smoothly until she finished the fourth number. At this time, we were supposed to exit. Suddenly, the audience fell silent and, looking toward the mike, I saw no Judy. However, right behind it, there was our girl, sitting flat on her you-know-what, stage center. I let out a howl, as she did, walked over to her and helped her to her feet. The audience started yelling and laughing with us, with which Judy threw her arms around me, gave me a big smack.
“It wasn’t until Judy started to sing her final number, ‘Over the Rainbow,’ that I finally really realized what happened. We were on at the Palladium. A baby spotlight was on Judy, and she’d done it. They started to roar before she’d even sung the last lyric, and as the curtains folded in on the final word: “Why oh why, can’t I?” it was bedlam.
“We were a bit bewildered by some of the newspaper reviews. They lauded Judy’s performance, yet they commented on her weight, her gown, her vocal volume and, naturally, all mentioned her fall. But we knew, above all, she’d been a hit. By noon that day, her four weeks’ engagement was sold out.”
Pepper suffered from acute arthritis in his hands late in life, preventing him from playing the piano, according to his cousin, Long. “They gave him lots of shots in his hands to try to help with the arthritis, but it didn’t help,” she had heard. He had long before quit writing songs or performing by then.
Pepper died Feb. 7, 1993, at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., of what his longtime friend and collaborator, Frank M. Chapman, said was heart failure. He was 70. A memorial service was held Feb. 29 at Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, according to an Associated Press story of that time.
King said she knew of no one in Oldham County or the Louisville area who attended the funeral or had any real connections to the famed Hollywood composer, Buddy Pepper, when he died. He was but a childhood memory of a kid who could really play the piano – a talent that carried the smalltown boy from La Grange all the way to the Silver Screen.

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