Oley Speaks

Oley Speaks (June 28, 1874 – August 7, 1948) was an American composer and songwriter who was born in Canal Winchester, Franklin County, Ohio.[1] His compositions include many religious songs, as well as his best-known success, "On the Road to Mandalay", which takes its lyrics from the poem "Mandalay" by Rudyard Kipling. The Canal Winchester Area Historical Society Museum has exhibits about the life of Oley Speaks, including original sheet music written by him.[2]

Oley Speaks
Born(1874-06-28)June 28, 1874
Canal Winchester, Ohio, United States
DiedAugust 7, 1948(1948-08-07) (aged 74)
New York City, United States
GenresArt song, choral music
Occupation(s)Singer, composer
Years active1898–1944


Speaks was born in Canal Winchester, Ohio, the son of a grain merchant and contractor.[3] He was ten when his father died, and his family moved to Columbus soon afterwards.[3] He learned the piano as a boy, and was praised for his baritone voice as early as 1891 by The Columbus Dispatch.[3] In the 1890s he began his career as a railroad clerk at a station in Columbus, Ohio,[4] until he decided to pursue his musical passions. He was developing a reputation as a fine baritone singer in churches in Columbus before he moved to New York City in 1898 and started taking lessons. One of his voice teachers was the American soprano Emma Thursby.[5] Speaks had a successful career as a singer, touring the United States giving recitals[6] and also appearing in oratorios.

Speaks began to write songs, many with religious themes.[7] He studied composition with Will Macfarlane and Max Spicker.[5] In 1907, he wrote "On the Road to Mandalay" using the words of Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mandalay", which sold over one million copies.[1] The song was a popular parlour ballad, particularly in the United Kingdom and British territories worldwide, and was boosted by the recording by Frank Sinatra which was released on the Come Fly with Me album in 1958. However, after some resistance from the Kipling estate over the omission of several verses, this version of the song remained embargoed in the British Commonwealth until it appeared on the digitally-remastered release of the album many years later. Speaks had two further million-selling successes, "Morning" to a lyric by Frank Lebby Stanton in 1910 and "Sylvia" to a lyric by Clinton Scollard in 1914. The American baritone Robert Merrill, the Austrian tenor Richard Tauber, the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling[8] and the American singer Nelson Eddy were among the singers who recorded "Sylvia". The Irish tenor John McCormack's recordings of all three famous titles are available on CD. More recently, American baritone Thomas Hampson has also recorded "On the Road to Mandalay".[9]

Speaks was a prominent member of ASCAP, where he was elected director in 1924 and served until 1943.[1] He was also a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.[10]

In the movies

Speaks can be described as a "one-hit wonder", but his most famous work was included in the soundtrack of several films:

Musical Works

Over 250 songs,[17] originally published by G. Schirmer or The John Church Company,[18] including:

Sacred Anthems, including:

  • Gently, Lord, Oh, Gently Lead Us (Thomas Hastings, arr. Lucien Chaffin) (Schirmer, 1914)
  • Now the Day is Over (Schirmer)

Choral Partsongs, including:

  • In Maytime (Frank L. Stanton) (John Church)



  • Carman, Judith E, ed. (2001). Art Song in the United States, 1759-1999: An Annotated Bibliography (Third ed.). Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-4137-1.
  • Echols, Paul C. (1986), "Speaks, Oley", in Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, IV, London: Macmillan Press, p. 280, ISBN 0-943818-36-2
  • Echols, Paul C. "Speaks, Oley". In Deane L. Root (ed.). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
  • Villamil, Victoria Etnier (2004). A Singer's Guide to American Art Song, 1870-1980. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-5217-9.
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