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Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door

Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door

By Hugh Martin
Reviewed by Edward Reynolds
Trolley Press, 2010

$29.95, Hardcover

Fortunately for us, the late Hugh Martin—born and raised in Birmingham before fleeing to New York City and later Hollywood to forge a brilliant career as a songwriter and vocal arranger—wrote his memoir Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door a year before his death this past March. Even those not particularly enamored with Broadway and film scores will no doubt be lured into Martin’s charming world of show tunes, a life he shares with amusing, self-deprecating delight. Martin is a superbly engaging writer, with a captivating, dramatic style laced with blunt honesty.

He tells of his roller coaster relations with Judy Garland, bemoaning that her voice deteriorated. His clashes with Garland while working as her pianist revolved around her singing too loudly, or “yelling” as Martin called it. “I listened in sorrow to the wreckage of her voice, and grieved that she had not allowed me to protect it,” he writes. Martin walked out of rehearsals for A Star is Born after Garland insulted him. They later made up when he wrote a musical for Garland and her daughter Liza Minnelli. He worshiped Judy Garland, calling her the greatest entertainer ever. Martin offers his opinion on what led to her downfall:

In retrospect, I believe Judy’s problem was she felt
she had to reinvent herself in order to stay on top.
In actuality, she was never anywhere except on top.
You can’t improve on something that’s perfect. Have
you any suggestions for a rose? Or an orange?

Michael Feinstein, the legendary singer of the Great American Songbook who did a record with Martin, Michael Feinstein Sings the Hugh Martin Songbook, writes in the book’s foreword:

Hugh Martin is first and foremost a prodigiously
talented musician who writes both words and music with
formidable skill, plays the piano poetically and with
a sophisticated harmonic palette, sings like an angel,
and has contributed some of the most memorable vocal
arrangements and musical routines of the last century.

Feinstein adds that Martin was Tony Bennett’s favorite songwriter.

Martin writes of his life with plenty of dramatic flair but with an exuberance worthy of his famous tune “The Trolley Song.” His anecdotes are hilarious. In the 1930s, he was playing piano and singing harmony in a trio of singers called the Blue Shadows. Their first paying job was at a Baptist Church hall in Pratt City. Martin was nineteen years old and recounts the audience’s outrage as the Shadows’ Loulie Jean sang a sizzling Ethel Merman tune called “Sam and Delilah.” The church crowd stormed out in disgust as she sang, “Delilah was a floozy. / She never gave a damn…. / Delilah got in action. / Delilah did her kooch. / She gave him satisfaction, / And he fell ’neath her spell / With the aid of love and hooch.”

Among those of whom Hugh Martin wasn’t particularly fond was a songwriter he greatly admired, Irving Berlin. Berlin had given him two songs to write arrangements for. Martin wrote a few lyrics to accommodate the musical parts that he had added. Berlin grew angry that anyone would dare add lyrics to one of his pieces. Berlin found one musical piece by Martin to be so predictable that he told Martin he already knew the ending before Martin finished singing and playing it for him. In his memoir, Martin remembered:

He told me, in advance, what I had worked out for my
big surprise ending, and I felt like a sunken soufflé.
I hated Irving Berlin at that moment. Actually, of
course, I was hating myself for not having had enough
creative ingenuity to fool the old bastard—I mean,
the old master.”

Hugh Martin, of course, is best known for writing the greatest Christmas song ever, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” For that feat alone he ranks among the greatest songwriters in history. That he can pen his life story so endearingly and with such allure and eloquence is a grand farewell from a man who was a master with words in a three-minute song. April 2011

Edward Reynolds is a writer living in Birmingham.