Paul Vance, songwriter responsible for the song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini – obituary

Paul Vance in 2014 - Bruce R. Bennett / Avalon
Paul Vance in 2014 - Bruce R. Bennett / Avalon

Paul Vance, who has died aged 92, wrote scores of songs for artists such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Johnny Mathis, but will be remembered chiefly for the novelty tune Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, a worldwide hit in 1960.

The inspiration for the song came from a family trip to Long Island. His wife had bought their infant daughter Paula a new bathing costume, but when some boys made fun of her skimpy attire, shouting she had no clothes on, she retreated to the locker room and refused to come out.

When she finally summoned the courage to go into the water, her bikini bottom came undone and floated away. By the time Vance reached home, he had written 90 per cent of the lyrics, and with his customary writing partner, Lee Pockriss, finished the music in half an hour.

The song became a No 1 hit for Brian Hyland,
The song became a No 1 hit for Brian Hyland,

Recorded by 16-year-old Brian Hyland, the track reached No 1 in the US. Its appeal stemmed in part from its suggestive wording, the age of the bikini wearer being unspecified, but its success helped popularise a garment then considered rather outré.

In 2006, however, while watching the television news, Vance was shocked to learn not merely he had died but that he had not written his best-known hit. A Paul Van Valkenburgh had passed away in Florida, where Vance lived, having apparently told his family he had composed the song but had signed away his rights years before.

Van Valkenburgh’s death was widely reported until Vance was able to obtain a correction, asserting his copyright and alerting record companies to the greatly exaggerated reports of his death.

Itsy Bitsy had reputedly sold more than 20 million copies, reaching the Top Ten in the UK originally and then No 1 in 1990 in a version devised by Andrew Lloyd Webber and sung by Timmy Mallett.

Numerous covers included a French one by Johnny Hallyday, and royalty payments funded Vance, who owned dozens of trotting horses, for the rest of his life. “Believe me,” he said at the time of his non-demise, “if they think you’re dead, they ain’t going to send the money.”

He was born Joseph Paul Florio in Brooklyn on November 4 1929. His mother was of Italian descent and his father not her husband, but a Jewish barber by the name of Willie. The parentage of several sisters was similarly varied.

Joe struggled with schoolwork. Only late in life did he discover he had Attention Deficit Disorder. The condition can cause thrill seeking and may have contributed to his lifelong womanising, chronicled at length in his memoir Catch a Falling Star (2014). Among his lovers was Andrea True, the pornographic actress who later sang the disco hit More, More, More (1976).

His book took its title from the first song Vance wrote, after stints in the Army and running a tow-truck business. Written with Pockriss, it gave Perry Como a No 1 hit in the US and was the first record given a gold classification. In the UK, it was released as the B-side to Magic Moments.

Vance’s other songs included Then Suddenly Love, recorded by Sinatra in 1964, Leader of the Laundromat, a parody of the Shangri-Las’ hit, and Run Joey Run, which David Geddes took to No 5 in the US in 1975.

Three years earlier, Clint Holmes scored a No 2 smash with Vance’s Playground in my Mind. Vance’s son Philip, then a boy, also sang on it, but subsequently developed a drug addiction and predeceased Vance.

Vance’s wife Margie (née Curte), who spent her later years needing full-time care after being hit by a car, died in 2012, and he is survived by a son and two daughters.

Paul Vance, born November 4 1929, died May 30 2022