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Paul Vance, who wrote hit song about an ‘Itsy Bitsy’ bikini, dies at 92

He also co-wrote “Catch a Falling a Star” and one of pop music’s strangest parodies, “Leader of the Laundromat.”

Songwriter Paul Vance at his home in Delray Beach, Fla., in 2014. (Bruce R. Bennett/Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Stock Photo)

In 1960, songwriter Paul Vance took his family to a beach near their home on New York’s Long Island. His 2-year-old daughter, Paula, was wearing a two-piece swimsuit for the first time and was shy about being seen when she emerged from a dressing room. She covered up in a towel before going in the water.

Mr. Vance, who had already co-written “Catch a Falling Star,” a Grammy-winning hit single for Perry Como, was always alert for new song ideas. On the way home from the beach, he jotted down the first draft of what became his best-known tune:

It was an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini
That she wore for the first time today
An itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini
So in the locker, she wanted to stay

The lyrics reflected Mr. Vance’s (and his daughter’s) experiences. When she ventured into the surf, Mr. Vance later said, the bottom half of her swimsuit came off, leading him to write, “Now she’s afraid to come out of the water / And the poor little girl’s turning blue.”

When Mr. Vance got home, he called his songwriting partner, Lee Pockriss, to tell him about his idea.

“I sang the lyric on the phone,” Mr. Vance later said, “and by the time he got to my office a couple of hours later, he had 90 percent of the tune written.”

The novelty song was recorded by 16-year-old Brian Hyland and spent 13 weeks on Billboard magazine’s Top 40 chart, including one week at No. 1 in 1960. Since then, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” has become a pop-culture staple, frequently appearing in films and TV commercials through the decades. Mr. Vance called it a "money machine,” which brought him millions of dollars in royalties.

Mr. Vance was 92 when he died on May 30 at a nursing facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. His death was confirmed by two of his children, Joseph Vance and Paula Vance — the girl in the polka dot bikini. They said he had been in declining health for more than a year but did not specify a cause.

Mr. Vance had been writing song lyrics since his early teens, but through most of the 1950s he had an auto salvage business in Brooklyn as he tried to catch a break as songwriter. By 1966, according to Billboard magazine, songs he had written with Pockriss had sold more than 50 million copies.

“Everybody knows my songs, but they don’t know me,” Mr. Vance told the Palm Beach Post in 2015. “Being a writer is not like being a performer. I can walk anywhere, with ordinary people, and they don’t know me. If you told them the songs I wrote, they’d say ‘Get outta here!’ I look like a regular truck driver.”

He gave up the trucks and junkyards after finding success with “Catch a Falling Star,” written with Pockriss and recorded in 1957 by Como. The song has a lilting, almost childlike quality:

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day

It became a Top 10 hit in the United States and sold more than 1 million copies, making it the first single to be designated a gold record by the Recording Industry Association of America. It also earned Como a Grammy Award for best male vocal performance in 1959, the first year the Grammys were presented.

“Catch a Falling Star” allowed Mr. Vance to become a full-time songwriter, working with Pockriss at New York’s Brill Building, then the center of the songwriting trade.

“He was a very talented composer, a great composer, the opposite of me,” Mr. Vance once said of Pockriss, who died in 2011. “He knew music inside out. I don’t know one note of music.”

With various collaborators, Mr. Vance also wrote several hit songs for Johnny Mathis, including “Starbright” and “What Will Mary Say.” He and Pockriss composed the bittersweet ballad “I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do,” which has been recorded by Astrud Gilberto, Eddie Fisher, Carmen McRae and Natalie Cole, and “Playground in My Mind,” which became a No. 2 hit for Clint Holmes in 1973. The song features Mr. Vance’s son Philip singing the refrain, “My name is Michael. I got a nickel, I got a nickel, shiny and new.” (His daughters Paula and Connie also sang on several recordings.)

Mr. Vance’s last major hit, written with Perry Cone, was “Run Joey Run,” a teen tragedy song that topped out at No. 5 in 1975 for David Geddes.

In 1964, Mr. Vance and Pockriss wrote one of the strangest and most comical parodies in pop history, “Leader of the Laundromat.” A none-too-subtle knockoff of the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” it was a minor hit for a trio of male studio singers dubbed — what else? — the Detergents.

My folks were always putting her down (down, down)
Because her laundry came back brown (brown, brown)
I don't care if they think she's bad
I fell in love 'cause she looked so sad

“Leader of the Pack,” about a girl’s crush on a member of a motorcycle gang, ends in tragedy, and so does “Leader of the Laundromat”: “She grabbed my laundry and ran into the street, directly into the path of a runaway garbage truck. I yelled ‘Watch out, watch out, watch out, watch out!’ ”

After the clanging sound of a crash, the Detergents reach the final spin cycle:

I felt so messy standing there (messy standing there)
My daddy’s shorts were everywhere (daddy’s shorts were everywhere)
Tenderly I kissed her goodbye
Picked up my clothes, they were finally dry

Joseph Philip Florio was born Nov. 4, 1929, in Brooklyn. His father delivered ice in a horse-drawn wagon, and his mother was a homemaker.

In 2015, he described himself as “a 'dese, dem, and dose’ guy. I wasn’t even a street guy. I was a gutter guy. I was supposed to have become a Mafioso.”

He was a professional boxer in his youth, served in the Army and ran his auto salvage business before he connected with a music publishing company. As he entered show business, he became Paul Vance — “a made-up name,” he said.

He wrote more than 300 songs in all, dabbled in singing in the 1960s and produced a few albums by other artists. His songs were recorded by Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Julie London and Robert Goulet, among others.

In 1964, Mr. Vance took up an interest in harness racing and became a horse owner and breeder. He had a farm in Westbury, N.Y., and in the early 1980s owned a champion pacer named Secret Service, which was trained by his son Joseph. He retired to South Florida.

His wife of more than 60 years, Margaret Curte Vance, died in 2012. A son, Philip Vance, died in 2009. Survivors include three children, Joseph Vance of Westbury, N.Y., Paula Vance of Kings Park, N.Y., and Connie Vance Cohen of Plainview, N.Y.; a sister; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

In 2006, obituaries of Mr. Vance were published after the death of a Florida man named Paul Van Valkenburgh who claimed to have written “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” under the pseudonym of Paul Vance.

“Do you know what it’s like to have grandchildren calling you and say, ‘Grandpa, you’re still alive?’ ” the real Mr. Vance said at the time.

Van Valkenburgh was exposed as an impostor after Mr. Vance proved his identity by producing his royalty checks.

''Believe me,” he said, “if they think you’re dead, they ain’t going to send the money.”