Call it a swan song for Dr. Swain's songs.
At the Nebraska State Fair last week, Omaha's longtime songwriting dentist was awarded first and second prizes for two compositions — posthumously.
Dr. Royce Swain died on Aug. 2 at age 95, after a lifetime of writing music and lyrics mostly as a hobby, including the rousing “Stand Up and Shout Nebraska!”
Maybe you've never heard it, because it never caught on widely. But it's good.
So was “Twice as Much,” which sold a reported 800,000 copies when recorded by the Mills Brothers in the 1950s. It's not today's music, but it was big in its era.
At one time, three of the dentist's songs were listed simultaneously among the nation's 20 best-selling records. But for years, he would just return to his dental office near 40th and Dodge Streets, which included a small organ where he could tap out tunes whenever inspired.
“I never considered giving up my practice,” he once said modestly. “I'm a better dentist than I am a songwriter.”
Kent Swain of Omaha, a son, said that long after his dad had stopped filling cavities, he kept writing songs. In recent years, Kent would submit some of his dad's pieces to the Galaxy of Stars Songwriting Contest, with the winners announced at the State Fair.
The dentist had written the songs several years ago, but they never had been submitted for a contest. Wynne Adams, a former Nebraskan who organizes the contest from Tennessee, where she lives, said judges there didn't know the songwriters' names or ages.
Kent accepted the awards for his father at the fair on Sept. 2 — including first prize for “Mr. Shy Guy.”
“Royce had become a very dear person to me,” Wynne said. “He was always so passionate about music. No matter how sick he got, he was always thinking about and talking about music. He had such a wonderful, humble attitude about life.”
Royce was born in Pisgah, Iowa, where he grew up as an athlete and musician playing shortstop and marimba, similar to a xylophone. He marched in the University of Iowa band and earned a dental degree from Creighton University in 1943 before serving stateside as an Army dentist.
Good with his hands, he later built a backyard plywood spaceship, 24 feet long, for older son Steve, a fan of the 1950s TV show “Captain Video.” Steve called it the “Galaxy Starship No. 1.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Swain was cranking out songs and appeared on a national TV show, “Songs for Sale,” where Rosemary Clooney sang one of his tunes. His “Bumpity Bump” was played more than once on NBC's “Today” show.
In 1964, Maxine Morrison, wife of Gov. Frank Morrison, sang Swain's anthem on Nebraska Day at the New York World's Fair.
Stand up and shout Nebraska!
It's Huskers that we cheer.
Let's tell the world we love our state, and why we hold her dear.
With good earth and wide prairies, God gave us nature's best.
We're proud of our Nebraska — the Gateway to the West.
Swain once wrote a theme song for the philanthropic Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, as well as a tune performed by the Omaha Symphony at a pops concert: “Omaha Gets Better by the Minute.”
In the late 1970s, adapting to the times, he wrote “This Is Where It's At, You Disco-Loving Cat.” I haven't heard the tune, but how could you not like the title?
In the 1980s, he lived and wrote songs in Chattanooga, Tenn., and then resided in California and Las Vegas. He lived out his final 13 years in Omaha, and Kent said he believes songwriting contributed to his dad's longevity.
At Dr. Swain's funeral, two of his songs were played, including one that he also recorded: “I'm Going Home.”
'Twas never meant that I would stay / God bless you all. ... I'm on my way. / Hope I make it!
If Dr. Royce C. Swain also had hoped to make it as a famous songwriter, he never let rejections or what his son called “the uncertainty of the music business” keep him from coming up with new tunes. The songwriting dentist loved the music of words and the joy of setting words to music.
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