When You Were Sweet Sixteen

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"When You Were Sweet Sixteen"
Cover, sheet music, 1898
Songwriter(s)James Thornton

"When You Were Sweet Sixteen" is a popular song, written by James Thornton and published in 1898. Inspired and sung by the composer's wife, the ballad quickly became a hit song in vaudeville, it has a long recording history that includes numerous popular singers, has been heard on film, and is considered a standard of barbershop quartets.


James Thornton was a vaudevillian best-known during his life for his comedy monologues; however, he composed numerous popular songs, especially in 1880s and 1890s.[1] "When You Were Sweet Sixteen", published in 1898, was inspired by Thornton's wife, Bonnie, when she asked her husband if he still loved her. Thornton replied, "I love you like I did when you were sweet sixteen."[2] Bonnie Thornton, a popular vaudeville singer who sang many of her husband's compositions,[3] introduced the song in her act.[a]

"When You Were Sweet Sixteen" sold over a million copies of sheet music.[4] Thornton had sold it to two publishers, M. Witmark & Sons and Joseph W. Stern and Co., and it consequently became the subject of a lawsuit.[2][b]


The lyrics of "When You Were Sweet Sixteen" are typical of the sentimental ballads of the 1890s; the form is strophic, two verses with a chorus.


I love you as I never lov'd before,
Since first I met you on the village green
Come to me, or my dream of love is o'er.
I love you as I lov'd you
When you were sweet, when you were sweet sixteen.[5]

Recording history[edit]

The song has been recorded by many artists in many styles, and over a period of more than a century.

Early recordings[edit]

"When You Were Sweet Sixteen" was the number one record in 1900. First recorded by Jere Mahoney on Edison Records, it became the number one record in April and held the spot for five weeks;[clarification needed] it was also recorded by George J. Gaskin on Columbia and in November this record rose to number one as well, remaining so for eight weeks.[6] Other artists followed quickly including J. W. Myers (1901, Victor 1145) and Harry Macdonough (1901, Victor 1769).[7]

After 1946[edit]

Perry Como's recording of April 10, 1947 was released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 20-2259; the record first charted in Billboard on August 16, 1947 and lasted 12 weeks on the chart, peaking at #2. The song was one side of a two-sided hit; the flip side, "Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba (My Bambino Go to Sleep)", reached #1; the record was also released, with the same flip side, in the United Kingdom, by HMV with catalog number BD-1180. It was re-released in the USA in 1949 as a 78rpm single (catalog number 20-3300-A) and a 45rpm single (catalog number 47-2888), with the flip side "Song of Songs".

The 1947 revival of the song led to a number of artists recording it that year:[c]

Other influence[edit]

"When You Were Sweet Sixteen" is a standard of barbershop quartets.[7]

The song has been used in films a number of times. In the 1930 military comedy High C's, starring Charley Chase, it was sung by the soldiers while they are being bombed.[10] Shirley Temple sang it in 1938 in the movie Little Miss Broadway. In the 1946 film The Jolson Story, it was sung by Rudy Wissler dubbing for Scotty Beckett who was portraying the young Al Jolson.

This song also appears in the 1987 film "Ironweed" starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. A mustachioed barkeep sings this song behind his bar.


  1. ^ The original sheet music advertised Bonnie Thornton as having sung the song with "great success".[4]
  2. ^ Witmark had plugged the song and made it successful which precipitated Stern's suit; they settled out of court with a $5,000 payment by Witmark to Stern.[2]
  3. ^ The enormously successful film, The Jolson Story (1946),[8] in which the song is sung, may also have contributed to the resurgence of interest.
  4. ^ The Mills Brothers also recorded this song in 1940 (Decca 3381) and 1946 (Decca 23627).[9]


  1. ^ Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; McNeilly, Donald (2006). Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Psychology Press. pp. 1103–1104. ISBN 978-0-415-93853-2.
  2. ^ a b c Jasen, David A. (2003). Tin Pan Alley: an Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song. Taylor & Francis. p. 389. ISBN 0-415-93877-5
  3. ^ Rosenfeld, Monroe H. (April 1897). "Prosperous Vaudeville Vocalists". Metropolitan Magazine. Blakely Hall. V (3): 227–228.
  4. ^ a b Crawford, Richard (2001). America's Musical Life: A History. Norton. pp. 482–483. ISBN 978-0-393-04810-0.
  5. ^ Thornton, James (1898). "When You Were Sweet Sixteen". M. Witmark & Sons. Retrieved 2015-01-15 – via New York Public Library.
  6. ^ Phillips, Ronnie (2012). Rock and Roll Fantasy?: The Reality of Going from Garage Band to Superstardom. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-4614-5900-2.
  7. ^ a b Ruhlmann, William (2004). Breaking Records: 100 Years of Hits. Routledge. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-135-94719-4.
  8. ^ Conrich, Ian; Tincknell, Estella (2006). Film's Musical Moments. Oxford University Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-7486-2345-7.
  9. ^ Warner, Jay (1992). American Singing Groups: A History from 1940s to Today. Hal Leonard Corporation. pp. 47–48. ISBN 978-0-634-09978-6.
  10. ^ Anthony, Brian; Edmonds, Andy (1997). Smile When the Raindrops Fall: The Story of Charley Chase. Scarecrow Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-1-4617-3418-5.

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