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The Tragic Origins of Dancing in the Moonlight

The Tragic Origins of Dancing in the Moonlight

Dancing in the Moonlight is a perfect song choice if you’re hosting a late-night, outdoor party. It’s light, festive, and inspiring. 

It’s hard to imagine how this happy song could result from one terrible night.

What’s the origin story of Dancing in the Moonlight? 

Let’s dig in!

Who Originally Wrote Dancing in the Moonlight?

Sherman Kelly wrote Dancing in the Moonlight in 1969. Born and raised on the American East Coast, Kelly’s entire family played music. As an avid piano player, his mother encouraged him to learn to play by the age of six. Whether it was Jazz, Calypso, or Classical, the Kelly family loved listening to music together.

By the time Kelly was in high school in the late 50s, he had moved onto rock n roll. And although he graduated college with a degree in psychology, Sherman spent most of his time playing in bands. Kelly played music wherever he went and started recording demos while living in the Virgin Islands during the late 60s.

After moving back to the east coast, Kelly began scoring music for films while still playing in bands and recording. He toured with New York psych band Boffalongo, who later split up and morphed into King Harvest and Orleans. 

King Harvest took Sherman Kelly on the road in 1973. He performed as an opener and as a touring member of the band. By then, both artists had recorded Dancing in the Moonlight, so touring together was perfect. King Harvest recorded an album with Kelly later that year. Entitled “King Harvest, The Lost Tapes,” the record wasn’t released until 2007

Unfortunately, two unexpected events cause Kelly to stop playing music until 2008. A botched back surgery left Kelly with limited mobility and loads of pain. Afterward, he took comfort in writing with his brother Wells. But Wells died of a drug overdose while touring with Meatloaf in 1984. Grief overshadowed Sherman, causing him to let music go for a while.

In 2008, Kelly released an album called Burnin’ the Candle. As far as we know, he’s still around and may even play live in his hometown of Ithica.

What Was Sherman Kelly’s Inspiration for Writing His Hit?

While living in the Virgin Islands, Kelly and his girlfriend took a day trip to the Island of St. Croix. The original plan was to come back that same day with his friends. Instead, the couple decided to spend the night and relax a little.

As every hotel they found was less than welcoming, the couple decided to spend the night on the beach. What started as a romantic evening soon turned into a nightmare. A gang of five locals found Kelly, beat him unconscious, raped his girlfriend, and left them for dead.

Luckily, the police found the couple. Not only did the two survive the assault, but it could have been much worse. That same gang attacked and killed eight tourists three years later in 1972. All five assailants received a life sentence. And if this story isn’t crazy enough, the gang’s ringleader hijacked a plane in 1984 to escape further imprisonment. 

Not only did Kelly miraculously survive the attack that left him scarred and traumatized, but he turned it into a song. In fact, he turned the entire experience upside down and described a much happier, joyous alternate reality.

Dancing in the Moonlight describes everybody dancing, celebrating, and getting along under the moonlight. Writing the song helped Kelly heal, giving him hope by imagining himself in a much happier place. 

He recorded the song with Boffalongo in 1970, just a few months after his release from the hospital. And although that band didn’t last long, Kelly’s hit remains a favorite with every generation since.

King Harvest’s 1972 version of Dancing in the Moonlight remains the most popular cover. The single didn’t immediately take off. This is most likely due to multiply band break-ups and inter-personal disagreements. Luckily, things changed when the Perception record label took over in 1973. They pumped up promotion, and the single was all over the radio.

It’s surprising how much struggle circles around this incredibly uplifting tune!

Although we don’t have stats to back it up, we think King Harvest’s cover continues to gain popularity. It may not ever chart again, but it certainly feels like an American staple.

British rock band Toploader brought Moonlight back into mainstream ears with their cover in early 2000. A little slower, with a sprinkle of attitude, Toploader’s version reached the top ten worldwide. The British Phonographic Industry certified it three times over.

Swedish duo Jubel released a top ten cover of Dancing in the Moonlight in 2018. This is your jam if you love current trends like mumble wrap and soft rock.

What Movie Soundtrack Includes Dancing in the Moonlight?

Several films have featured covers and remakes of Dancing in the Moonlight. Most recently, the 2021 Disney+ film, Muppets Haunted Mansion, includes a delightful cover of the song. Dr. Teeth and his Electric Mayhem band conduct a sing-along version with on-screen words and fanciful action.

King Harvest’s cover has been used in several films, including The Tender Bar, Bates Motel, and Paul. TV shows such as the ‘70s, Girls, and Better Call Saul also feature the track.

Toploader’s remake of Dancing in the Moonlight appears in Shrill, A Walk to Remember, and the TV series Roswell.

From Tragedy to Inspirational Joy

The Dancing in the Moonlight has a fascinating journey, from the beaches of the Caribbean in 1969 to the ports of Sweden in 2018. One night of mayhem spurred a song of great joy and harmony that people still want to hear.

Which version of Dancing in the Moonlight is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!

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