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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Jimmy McHugh, composer (1894-1969): Jimmy, say the Mass with a bit more sincerity, #1

Born James Francis McHugh to a Boston Roman Catholic plumber father in 1894, Jimmy McHugh wrote his first published song in 1916 (“Caroline, I’m coming back to you”) and his last published song in l964 (“The Wonderful World of Beverly Hills”) celebrating the famous city’s 50th anniversary. He had major hits in five decades, matched only by Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers. In 1951, at a command performance in London, the young Princess Elizabeth whispered to McHugh, “Mr. McHugh, not only do I love your songs, but I sing them as well.” The smash Broadway hit, Sugar Babies, in the l970s and l980s, was built around his music and the smash Broadway supernova of the first decade of this century, Jersey Boys, included three McHugh songs. Currently the popular cabaret singer and pianist, Michael Feinstein, highlights McHugh’s music in his shows.

The lyrics of his life

The Early Years of McHugh

Like George M. Cohan, born 20 years earlier, McHugh was born into a large New England Irish-American family. The McHugh family made the 8:00 Mass a regular practice in Roxbury, Mass. Young McHugh is quoted as saying the church building was a “somewhat old-fashioned affair, with pews, a small altar, and a small organ, which I somehow or other found myself pumping for the service. The priest would say mass, and so on.” McHugh continued his church attendance during his teenage years. One of his first professional colleagues in 1912 was a skeptical Scot named Alan Cahill who argued with him about the existence of God. McHugh held his ground and when Cahill died years later he asked for a priest to administer the last rites, saying, “If it’s good for McHugh, it’s good for me.” Jimmy McHugh married in l914 to Bess Hornbrook, but the marriage was a failure from the beginning. In 1923 McHugh teamed up with hard-drinking lyricist Al Dubin which eventually led to a McHugh nervous breakdown and a return to the Catholic Church in 1925. Even at a young age, McHugh couldn’t keep up with Dubin and his boozing and philandering. His escapes with the hard living Dubin drove him to be a life-long teetotaler.

In the late 1920s McHugh was working in New York and living the wild life. However, as a practicing Catholic he continued to regularly attend church, contribute money and go to confession. While utterly absent from his wife and children, he still sent money home to them. McHugh was business savvy and played the stock market during those heady years: “When I was doing all this on the stock market, not a day would pass by that I didn’t send four dozen roses to St. Malachy’s Actors’ church [in Manhattan] for the altar.”

In 1928 he teamed up with lyricist Dorothy Fields and for years their partnership was more than just professional. He wrote, “Dorothy and I became close – too close. I prayed to God to break it up. I was always praying to God to break it up. There was always something that made me know it was wrong, that it could not end well.” Meanwhile he was still married to Bess. Fields and McHugh broke up in l935. A hint of McHugh’s troubled relationship with his wife and girl friends may be gleaned from a comment he made about his granddaughter, Judy McHugh: “Judy has filled a great gap in my life, because she resembles the only lasting love of my life, my mother.”

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