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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.

Johnny Burke, lyricist (1908-1964): Sometimes “Swinging on a Star” but always a swinger, #1

Francis John Burke is widely regarded as one of the finest lyricists of American songs in the first half of the 20th century. In 1936 he wrote the words to one of the anthems of the Great Depression, “Pennies from Heaven.” His decade’s long connection with composer Jimmy Van Heusen and singer Bing Crosby is legendary. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in l970. Twenty years after Burke’s death, Linda Ronstadt, accompanied by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra revived his 1939 song “What’s New?” as a Top 40 single and as the title track of an album that sold three million copies (1983). In l995, Swinging on a Star, subtitled “The Johnny Burke Musical,” opened on Broadway, earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical. Who was this “Irish poet?”

Lyrics of Burke’s Life

The Early Years of Burke

Burke was born in Antioch, California, in 1908 to a businessman father William and teacher mother, Mary Agnes. When the family moved east to Chicago, young Johnny chose music over construction, so he studied drama and played piano as a teenager in a dance band. He eventually graduated from the University of Wisconsin and went to work for the Chicago office of the Irving Berlin Publishing Company in l926. Transferred to New York City with the Berlin company, he began to write songs with Harold Spina. In 1933 they wrote their first hit, “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” for the Guy Lombardo Orchestra. He was 25 years old. In 1934 Burke/Spina, wrote “You’re not the only Oyster in the Stew” and “My Very Good Friend, the Milkman,” which were big hits for “Fats” Waller. Wanting to write for Hollywood, Burke split with Spina and moved west with a Paramount Pictures contract in hand in l936. His first movie was Go West, Young Man with Mae West. In 1936 he began working with Bing Crosby on his movie, Pennies from Heaven. In 1940 his work on Crosby’s film, Rhythm on the River, garnered a nomination for an academy award song (“Only Forever”). In 1940 he also teamed up with Jimmy Van Heusen to produce some of the great hits in American music for the next 13 years. Burke would eventually write the lyrics for 25 Crosby films, getting an academy award in l944 for “Swinging on a Star” from the film, Going My Way.

The Crosby Years

A couple of Crosby stories. One story began in l939 with the hit song “What’s New,” written by Burke and Jimmy Monaco and Bing Crosby, the biggest name in American music. In the late 30s, Johnny Mercer and Burke were vying to be the permanent lyricist for Crosby. Mercer had written lyrics for a Crosby film in l936 (Rhythm on the Range) and thought he had the insider tract on this lucrative deal. But with the success of “What’s New” Burke got the job and began working with Van Heusen on scores of Crosby’s movies. Mercer never forgot the defeat and when, years later his son-in-law, Bob Corwin, a jazz pianist, tried lyric writing, Mercer gave him the ultimate put-down, “Sounds like Johnny Burke. Forget it.”  Another Crosby and Burke story concerns the lyrics to “Swinging on a Star.” On a night in l944 Burke was having trouble with a signature song for Crosby in his movie Going My Way. This version of the story has Johnny dining at Bing’s and one of Bing’s kids was acting up at the table. Crosby upbraided the boy for behaving like a mule. Since the movie song he had been told to write was to be addressed to some delinquent kids by the priest Crosby, the mule comment struck a cord. One thought led to another – a mule could be a fish could be a pig could be any animal. The next morning Burke gave the lyrics to Van Heusen and by nightfall the l944 academy award song was delivered to Bing Crosby. Sammy Cahn once said that it was the best “animal” song ever written. When asked the secret of his success, Burke said he simply listened to Bing Crosby talk “and either take my phrases directly from him or pattern some after his way of putting phrases together.” Crosby, in turn, called Burke and Van Heusen his “Gold Dust Twins” and insisted Paramount pay them $150,000 annually, more than any other songwriting team in Hollywood at the time. No wonder Mercer held a grudge. William Zinsser (Easy to Remember) also didn’t like Burke’s poetry: “I’ve never been able to remember a single lyric by Johnny Burke; the words leach out of my brain like moonbeams from a jar or wishes from a basket.” About the l942 Frank Sinatra/Burke/Van Heusen hit “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” Zinzzer writes the “words are too cute for any but the strongest stomach. I find Burke’s stuff hard to swallow. I’m aware, however, that I am a minority crank; the man has many admirers.” I am one. Burke and Van Heusen had their own music publishing house (Burke & Van Heusen, Inc.). In the summer of l946 the singer Mel Torme brought his song, “The Christmas Song” to Burke to publish. Burke rejected it by saying, “No fellas, no good. The minute you say ‘They know that Santa’s on his way’ you make it a one day song – Christmas Eve. No one’s going to buy a tune that’s only good one day of the year.” Torme took the song to Nat King Cole who told him, “This is my song,” and he recorded it. It was Cole’s greatest hit and has become a holiday standard.

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