Matt Moloney

The Upsetting Story Behind The 70s Pop Song ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’

Despite coming out 50 years ago, King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” remains a favorite song for so many. And can you blame them? The lyrics are bright and happy, promising a night where everyone is dancing in the moonlight. A version remixing “Dancing in the Moonlight” and “Pumped Up Kicks” has even gotten tons of traction on TikTok. But there’s a dark and upsetting story behind the lyrics thanks to a night on the beach writer Sherman Kelly will never forget.

Trigger warning: SA

It all started in 1969. Songwriter Sherman Kelly was working in a nightclub on the island of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. One day he, his friends, and his girlfriend rented a yacht to go boating over to nearby St. Croix. The boat ride over was choppy though and Kelly was plagued by some pretty severe seasickness.

Rather than take the yacht back to St. Thomas the same day, Kelly needed more time to recover. He and his girlfriend tried to find a hotel to stay in that night, but none were that welcoming. In the end, they decided to sleep on the beach. “And that’s all I remember very clearly,” he told The Vinyl Dialogues. What happened next would change his life forever.

His night had to be put together for him, as he only remembered bits and pieces. Apparently the couple was discovered by local St. Croix gang, the Fountain Valley Gang. The gang members attacked Kelly and his girlfriend on that moonlit beach. The leader raped his girlfriend while the others beat Sherman Kelly. When the rest of the gang lined up for their turn with his girlfriend, Kelly fought the attackers away. Even so, he ended up so badly beaten that the doctors who would care for him in the hospital thought he wouldn’t make it.

What’s crazy is that Kelly and his girlfriend’s night could have been worse. Later, in 1972, the gang that attacked them in St. Croix would go on to kill 8 tourists and injure 8 more. They called it the Fountain Valley Massacre and it would ruin tourism inSt. Croix for many years to come.

That horrible night stuck with Sherman Kelly, of course. The healing process–both physically and emotionally–was long and arduous, lasting years. While he spent his time healing, he ended up penning the lyrics to “Dancing in the Moonlight.” He told The Vinyl Dialogues:

I envisioned an alternate reality, the dream of a peaceful and joyous celebration of life. It was just me imagining a better world than the one I had just experienced in St. Croix.

Sherman Kelly

He did just that in “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Check out the lyrics to the song’s chorus:

Dancing in the moonlight
Everybody’s feeling warm and bright
It’s such a fine and natural sight
Everybody’s dancing in the moonlight

Sherman Kelly, “Dancing in the Moonlight”

The song ended up first with Boffalongo in 1970 before becoming a major hit for King Harvest in 1972. It hit 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has remained a favorite ever since.

While Sherman Kelly has been forthcoming about that terrible night in 1969 on a beach in St. Croix, not as much is known about what happened to his girlfriend afterward. He rightfully kept her version of the story sparing, since ultimately those details are hers alone to share. Here’s hoping that she was able to find some peace as well.