Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Private First Class Hugh Martin Jr. during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Gordon Martin)

From the Magic City to musical history, Hugh Martin left a song

in our heart that embodies the feeling of the season.

By Tom Wofford

When Frank Sinatra asked master songwriter Hugh Martin to change a lyric in his classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Martin found the inspiration he needed on a visit to his native Birmingham.

It was 1957, and Ol’ Blue Eyes found the line, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” lacking in the uplift he wanted for the album he was calling Jolly Christmas.

Martin was staying in his childhood home on 15th Avenue South. A walk beneath the canopy of trees along nearby Highland Avenue inspired Martin to change the wistful line to something happier: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

American musical legend Hugh Martin Jr. died this past March in his adopted hometown, Encinitas, Calif., at the age of 96.

Though as versatile and talented as anyone ever to grace the American stage, Martin is best known for three songs he wrote for a movie, particularly one melancholy, heartfelt holiday tune that comforted and encouraged a war-weary public and has continued to warm hearts over the 67 years since.

Of the three songs Martin and songwriting partner Ralph Blane were hired to write for MGM’s Meet Me in St. Louis, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” didn’t immediately jump out as a future classic. “The Boy Next Door” was the film’s yearning love song, and “The Trolley Song” was the big hit, spending seven weeks at No. 1 on the Hit Parade and snagging an Oscar nomination. (This was the first of two Academy Award nominations for Martin and Blane, followed in 1947 with “Pass That Peace Pipe” from the film Good News.)

While many of Martin’s songs became standards, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” transcended them all. It’s been recorded by more than 500 different artists since Judy Garland became the first. It’s one of two songs of Martin’s included in the American Film Institute’s list “100 Years…100 Songs.”

Although he did not become the household name some of his peers did, Martin was no mere witness to American musical history. He helped define it.

Elaine Harrison, Martin’s best friend for the last 36 years of his life, said “He was a modest man, very down to earth, but he had a real confidence when it came to his talent.” As Tony Bennett described him last year, Martin was “the single most talented and finest human being I know.”

In his book, American Popular Song: The Innovators, 1900-1950, composer and definitive music critic Alec Wilder ranked Martin right beside Martin’s heroes and mentors, including Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers. But Martin’s influence goes far beyond the list of songs he wrote. He basically invented Broadway vocal arrangement.

Martin with Michael Feinstein in 1994

In his forward to Martin’s autobiography, Michael Feinstein, the most respected contemporary interpreter of classic American songs, described Martin’s work this way: “[Martin] fused a contemporary sensibility to thirties and forties musicals that brought a new energy and audience to the theatre. He found a way to be reverent and insouciant at the same time and evolved a new musical voice in the process.”

“A vocal arranger tries to find where the thrill is in the song,” was how Martin explained it.

Martin was born to Hugh Martin Sr. and the former Ellie Gordon on Aug. 11, 1914, in his grandmother’s home on 14th  Avenue South and, as he recalls in his enjoyable 2010 memoir, Hugh Martin: the Boy Next Door, his childhood was nothing short of idyllic.

“He adored his parents,” Harrison said. “He thought his life in Birmingham was perfect.”

“Our home was sort of open house to the neighborhood,” Martin’s younger brother, Gordon, remembers. “There might be children coming and going in the afternoon, or you might find Hugh in the living room, playing for my mother’s friends.”

Martin (on right) with his brother, Gordon, 1946

Hugh Sr. was a successful architect who later designed the 1927 Birmingham Public Library and the iconic Denny Chimes at the University of Alabama. “Ellie Gordon,” as Hugh Jr. called his mother, was a “remarkable musician” with a “beguiling soprano voice” who loved to visit New York and bring back treasures for young Hugh, who was an only child until he was 10 years old.

“She was an enchanting woman and the center of my life,” Martin wrote.

In 1923 Hugh Sr. designed and built a “honeymoon cottage” where the Martins’ younger son, Gordon, and only daughter, Ellen, were born.

“The house had two pianos,” brother Gordon remembers, and often his mother and Hugh Jr. engaged in duets with them.

Martin’s talent was innate, but it was his unique musical education in Birmingham that prepared him to take New York by storm.

At the age of five, Martin sat down at the piano and played “The Star Spangled Banner” by ear. Music lessons followed.

When Martin was 13, his mother returned from one of her many trips to New York with a piece of music that would have a profound impact on Martin, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

“Rhapsody in Blue changed my life,” Martin told Feinstein some six decades later when Martin accompanied him on the album Michael Feinstein Sings the Hugh Martin Songbook.

As a teenager, Martin would rush home from the Alabama Theatre to teach himself the songs he heard in those early 1930s musicals. Martin studied music at Phillips High School, then at the Birmingham Conservatory, before his formal musical education ended after three semesters at Birmingham-Southern College.

with iconic comedy writer-director Preston Sturges, who wrote the book for Martin’s 1949 Broadway show Make a Wish. (Photos courtesy of Elaine Harrison.)

Just as important in his musical education, Martin was also playing in local black churches and arranged vocals for and performed with a local swing-influenced group he put together, the Blue Shadows.

“That was when I knew I wanted to be in show business,” Martin said.

At age 20, Martin boarded the Birmingham Special for New York, and a year later he had landed a plum job as vocal arranger and one of three male singers in hot jazz singer Kay Thompson’s Rhythm Singers. A fellow member was Ralph Blane, with whom Martin formed his first songwriting partnership. Martin called Thompson “a trailblazer” and his “guru.” Martin told Bill Rudman, host of the weekly radio program Footlight Parade: Sounds of the American Musical, only Richard Rogers influenced his career more than Thompson.

Thompson (who later became equally famous as the author of the Eloise series of children’s books) got Martin his first work doing vocal arrangements on Broadway, and with two shows under his belt, Martin thought he knew something famed composer Richard Rodgers ought to hear.

Martin wrote Rodgers “a very presumptuous letter,” he said with a chuckle last year in an interview, suggesting that Rodgers use jazz vocal arrangements in his shows, like the ones Martin did for Thompson, to tap into the exuberance of swing. “I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t avail themselves of that extra dimension as people in the movies were doing,” Martin said.

with Timothy Gray (standing) during rehearsals for High Spirits, 1963. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Harrison.)

The result of the impertinent letter? “I got a job,” Martin laughed as he told the story in 2010 to Redmon. “I didn’t write it for that reason,” Martin insisted, but before long he was at work on the new Rodgers and Hart show, The Boys from Syracuse.

Rodgers took Martin under his wing. “Dick was thrilled by my music, but he said it didn’t have any structure. He taught me structure,” Martin told Redmon.

Rodgers brought out the best in Martin, and his mentorship helped Martin make his first big contribution to popular music. Between 1937 and 1940, Martin revolutionized vocal arrangements for Broadway shows, working on seven productions in those three years. The next year, only 27 years old, Martin wrote his first Broadway show, Best Foot Forward, which ran for more than nine months. Hollywood called soon after, which took Martin to California to become part of MGM’s legendary Arthur Freed Unit.

Martin and Blane were brought to MGM to write for Meet Me in St. Louis, but long before it was finished, Martin had decided to find a doctor who would overturn his original 4F classification and allow him to fight in World War II.

When Martin returned to Hollywood after the war, his MGM contract was no more, and, as he has sometimes mused, the best of his career was behind him. What still lay ahead would have been more than enough for many aspiring performers.

Martin wasn’t batting a thousand anymore, but he regularly wrote hits for Broadway, London’s West End and for television. He earned four Tony Award nominations.

on stage with Judy Garland at the Palace Theatre, 1951 (Photo courtesy of Elaine Harrison.)

Some of Martin’s proudest moments were as an accompanist, particularly for Judy Garland during her triumphant run at the Palace Theatre in 1951. Most of the time he was on stage with Judy, “it was just Judy and me. The audience was not even there,” Martin said later.

Martin continued working with performing arts royalty, like Noël Coward, Preston Sturges, Debbie Reynolds, and Jane Powell. He created a stunning score for a documentary about the painter Grandma Moses. In the 1980s he added a dozen new songs to Meet Me in St. Louis and took it to Broadway. Well into his 80s, Martin accompanied Feinstein in the recording of many of Martin’s most important songs.

Early in his career, Martin had worried about his ability to write lyrics, but he surprised himself. Writing lyrics “was just like breathing,” he said. His music alone would have secured his reputation, but it’s probably his lyrics that have made his songs immortal.

“A psychiatrist would have a field day” with his lyrics, Martin said last year. “They’re full of tremendous insecurity…I was never very sure of myself,” and this vulnerability gives his songs a power that many songs of the era do not have.

Earlier this month, Harbinger Records and the Musical Theatre Project released Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures, a CD of 30 demos and unreleased recordings. The CD comes with an 88-page booklet with a forward by Stephen Sondheim and essays by, among many others, Mark Eden Horowitz, senior music specialist at the Library of Congress.

Hugh Martin will likely always be associated with Christmas, which is probably just as well. Martin was one of Birmingham’s greatest gifts to the world, and his body of work remains evergreen, particularly the perennial “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” one of the most performed songs of all time.

In a show business world of superficiality and cheap sentiment, Martin’s work was authentic. And for those who wish to look beyond holiday commercialism, the sincerity of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” awaits, its weaving of hope and melancholy capturing the authenticity of the season like no other holiday tune.

Wilder described “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as “the most honest and genuine of all the attempts to wish one well musically in a season which otherwise has come to be symbolized by guilt and the dollar sign.”

Debbie Reynolds, Martin, Jane Powell and Ralph Blane, 1954 (Photo courtesy of Elaine Harrison.)

When Martin was writing the song, “I swear I never thought once about recordings, or the radio…or royalties,” he said. “I just wanted it to be the right song for that scene.”

Since then, hundreds of performing artists have found the song to be right for their scene, an impressive and surprisingly diverse list, from Sinatra, Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald, to Jackie Gleason, Connie Francis and Lee Ann Rimes, on down to Chicago, The Partridge Family, the Muppets, and even glam metal band Twisted Sister. For the past two decades, the version by Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders has been one of the top five most-played songs each holiday season.

When listening to the songs of the late Hugh Martin, it’s Christmas-time year round.

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One Response to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

  1. Claire Wilson says:

    Would someone at your publication be able to put me in touch with Ms. Elaine Harrison and Mr. Gordon Martin? The online Encyclopedia of Alabama has just finalized an entry on Hugh Martin, and we would like to find some images to accompany the text.

    Thank you,
    Claire Wilson
    Senior Content Editor

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