Mart Kenney was a Canadian music icon and radio pioneer, best known for his musical contributions during the Second World War.
He developed a long association with the Canadian Armed Forces early on in the war by playing concerts for servicemen all across the country. Mart also began "Victory Parade" radio broadcasts in February 1943, which were broadcast from different music halls where his band played live to thousands of service personnel.
His theme song, "The West, a Nest and You" was for years, the number one hit across Canada and overseas where the Canadian Forces were fighting. This song was particularly favoured by troops who were terribly lonesome for home, family, and "the girl they left behind."
In later years, Mart said that the radio broadcasts during the war years were, "an important opportunity to be a liaison through the airwaves between the people of the Armed Forces and their families and friends." In 1980, Kenney was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
Martin Kenney was born in Tweed, Ontario on 7 March 1910, and as a young boy moved west with his family to Vancouver, British Columbia. Mart started violin lessons when he was seven, and with the money he saved delivering newspapers, he built a short-wave radio that he used to listen to late-night radio broadcasts from as far away as California.
It was on this radio where he heard the "intriguing" sounds of the saxophone played for the first time. At age 15 he bought a used alto-sax with money he'd saved, and a few years later he was playing with a dance band at the nearby Hotel Vancouver.
Kenney formed his band The Western Gentleman in 1931 and made his radio debut in 1934. For the next 70 years, Mart brought his big band music to Canadians across the country in both live performances and on the radio.
Prior to the war, Kenney’s band had become the feature orchestra during the summer season at the Banff Springs Hotel, in Banff, Alberta. In 1940, inspired by the scenic grandeur around him, and dismayed by the latest war news, Kenney penned some lyrics that described the deep-green forests, golden prairies, sunset glows on the Rockies and this country’s myriad and beautiful lakes. The next day he composed the score, and the song "We’re proud of Canada" was born.
His music publisher sold over five thousand copies in the first month, earning him compliments from every corner of the Dominion. He recorded the song at RCA Victor Studios a few months later.
That same summer in Banff, Mart applied to Auxiliary Services in Ottawa, offering to entertain the troops while touring across the country. His request was granted, and on their next tour to Ontario they began performing for the troops at different military bases.
By 1942, Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen had travelled and performed extensively across the country and was known from coast to coast. The "Victory Parade" radio broadcast began the same year, and in February 1943, Kenney and his band performed on the show for the first time. The performances were usually held in large halls that played to thousands of service personnel. The show ran until March 1945.
Later in 1945, as Armed Forces personnel were starting to get back to civilian life, the band participated in several radio broadcasts promoting the sale of Government of Canada Bonds to finance programs for veterans.
In 1954, he celebrated his 20th year in network broadcasting. Over the decades Kenney collected a list of honours for lifelong commitment to music and for his volunteer work in civic and community affairs.
He was a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia, the highest civilian honours awarded to Canadian citizens who have served with great distinction in their field of endeavour. He was recognized for outstanding service to his country and community with two honorary doctorate degrees. There were many accolades, honours and awards from his peers, his community and the organizations for which he volunteered his time.
He was such an honoured citizen that when he passed away in 2006, the District of Mission, B.C., where he had lived for 35 years, put all flags at half mast for a week before his Memorial Service.
The legendary Mart Kenney was not only a great musician and radio music pioneer, he was a great Canadian, whose contribution to our culture and society was truly remarkable. He left a musical legacy that is tightly woven into the fabric of Canada.
A selection of audio recordings by the Mart Kenney Band
The West, the Nest, and You
Song Lyrics for "The West, A Nest and You"
The west, a nest, and you dear,
Oh what a dream t’would be,
A cozy little cottage
Beside the western sea.
And who knows someday maybe
Our dreams will all come true.
A cradle and a baby,
The west, a nest, and you