“I was born in Birmingham–Alabama, that is, not England–in August, 1914, a month of world-shaping events quite aside from my birth.” –Hugh Martin
It’s amazing to think of how many talents have to work hard both on and off the screen in order to create a film–let alone a beloved classic. In fact, for every one person we see on screen, there are dozens of other people who have worked to train the actors and actresses, sew costumes, design sets, manage sound and lighting, and in some cases, create a magical musical score.
This article celebrates composer, arranger, vocal coach, and playwright Hugh Martin’s contributions to the Golden Age musical. While his main claim to fame is his work for the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me In St. Louis, in which Judy Garland sang several of his songs, including, “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Martin’s accomplishments in American musical theater and film extend far beyond the scope of this endearing musical and the creation of a Christmas standard.
Hugh Martin was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Ellie Gordon and architect Hugh Martin, Sr. He had a younger brother named Gordon and a younger sister named Ellen. Martin credits his mother for supporting his love of music, as she played piano and violin, while possessing a lovely soprano voice. Though not a stage mother, she dreamed of him becoming a concert pianist. Upon returning from her trips to New York, she would often gift Martin with sheet music to various songs she had heard performed. Her travels intrigued him so much that he decided to leave home for New York in 1933 to pursue a career in music. He attended Birmingham-Southern College where he studied music.
To Ellie Gordon, New York was a cultural hub from which she drew much inspiration. Moreover, she kept many notebooks filled with pictures and sketches of houses and buildings that interested her. Whenever her husband needed architectural inspiration, he could easily find it by leafing through her notebooks. She designed many interiors for her husband’s exteriors, making the two of them an ideal team.
Martin was a member of Mu Alpha Honorary Musical Fraternity at Birmingham-Southern College. His name is listed as a member in this 1932 yearbook page. Also listed is his friend, the great Loulie Jean Norman. Norman would later provide the singing voice for the character of Clara in the film version of Porgy and Bess, as portrayed by Diahann Carroll, and did the vocalization for the original Star Trek theme.
Martin found work performing in various vocal groups, with Kay Thompson as his mentor. He performed as part of the Rhythm Singers as well as with The Martins, and these collaborations gradually paved the way for his contributions to the booming Hollywood film industry. Special thanks to Don’s American Songbook for providing the following photos.
Martin’s first Broadway credit was as an arranger for the musical Hooray for What! He was a vocal or choral arranger for several other Broadway musicals, including The Boys From Syracuse (1938–39), Too Many Girls (1939–40), DuBarry Was a Lady (1939–40), Cabin in the Sky (1940–41), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949–51). As a performer, Martin appeared on Broadway in Hooray for What! (1937), Where Do We Go From Here (1938), and Louisiana Purchase (1940–41).
Ralph Blane was Martin’s songwriting partner for most of his work and the two recorded an album of their songs entitled Martin and Blane Sing Martin and Blane with the Ralph Burns Orchestra in 1956. Though Martin is remembered for composing many different songs, classic film fans are likely to agree that his most notable contributions were the songs for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). “The Trolley Song” provided Judy Garland with an iconic moment in her career and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is played to this day during the holiday season.
Martin and Blane were nominated twice for the Academy Award for Best Song for “The Trolley Song” in 1944 from Meet Me in St. Louis and for “Pass That Peace Pipe” (co-written by Roger Edens) from Good News in 1947. Hugh Martin also received four Tony Award nominations, three for High Spirits (Best Musical, Best Book Author of a Musical, Best Composer and Lyricist) and one for the 1990 revised version of Meet Me in St. Louis (Best Original Score).
After finishing Meet Me in St. Louis, Martin served in the Army and performed for troops in Europe. Martin would return to Hollywood after the war.
Although Ralph Blane is credited with writing the music for many of Martin’s songs, Martin claimed in his autobiography that he wrote both music and lyrics to all of the songs in Meet Me In St. Louis and that “all of the so-called Martin and Blane songs, (except for “Buckle Down, Winsocki” in Best Foot Forward), were written entirely by me (solo) without help from Ralph or anybody else.” His explanation for allowing Blane equal credit for the songs was explained, “I was reasonably content to let him receive equal screen credit, sheet music credit, ASCAP royalties, etc., mainly because this bizarre situation was caused by my naive and atrocious lack of business acumen.”
A Martin and Blane album was released in 1956. The people on the cover going clockwise are Richard Kolmar, Dorothy Kilgallen, Steve Allen, Sandy Blair, Bert Lahr, Rosalind Russell, Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, Suzy Parker, Sammy Davis Jr., and The Hathaway Man.
Martin’s other film work included songs for other Golden Age films, including Athena (1954) starring Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, and Vic Damone; The Girl Most Likely (1957) starring Jane Powell; as well as the film version of his Broadway hit Best Foot Forward (1943), starring Lucille Ball.
Martin wrote the music, and in some cases the lyrics, for five Broadway musicals: Best Foot Forward (1941); Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! (1948); Make a Wish (1951); High Spirits (1964); and Meet Me In St. Louis (1989), a stage version of the film with an expanded score by Martin and Ralph Blane. He also composed songs for a live television rendition of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, starring Peggy King and Tab Hunter. Additionally, he composed the songs for the West End musical Love from Judy (1952).
Martin continued to work with Judy Garland on other projects besides Meet Me in St. Louis. In fact, he played the piano while Judy sang at the Palace Theater in New York in 1951.
Martin collaborated with vocalist Michael Feinstein for a 1995 CD Michael Feinstein Sings The Hugh Martin Songbook, an album on which the then 80-year-old songwriter accompanied Feinstein on piano and sang a duet. He also released an album of his music called Hugh Sings Martin on the record label PS Classics, which drew from his catalog as a composer, lyricist, arranger, and singer.
Martin, a Seventh-day Adventist, spent much of the 1980s as an accompanist for gospel female vocalist Del Delker on her revival tours and in 2001 rewrote his most famous song (with the assistance of Garland biographer John Fricke) as a more specifically religious number, “Have Yourself A Blessed Little Christmas,” which was recorded that year by Delker with the 86-year-old songwriter playing piano on the recording.
Martin was held in high regard by the many people with whom he worked. Interestingly, actress Marsha Hunt is a songwriter in her own right, as she has written words and music to fifty songs. Hugh and Marsha were long time friends. He said, “her singing voice was melodious, her intonation and musicianship were far above average, and she was easy on the eyes.” Hugh coached Marsha during their MGM years together, 1943-1945. This photo was taken in April 2006.
He published his autobiography Hugh Martin – The Boy Next Door in October 2010 at age 96. Martin was a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Alabama Music Hall of Fame. He died on March 11, 2011, in his Encinitas, California, home at the age of ninety-six.
While I was working on my Master’s degree through the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa, I spent some time on campus with Hugh Martin specifically in mind. Though Hugh Martin grew up in Birmingham, his father’s architectural work extends beyond the city of Birmingham.
Miller, Martin & Lewis Architects was a partnership of architects John Miller and Hugh Martin along with engineer James A. Lewis. They designed numerous important buildings in Birmingham as well as dozens of buildings on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. In particular, they designed the Birmingham Public Library, University of Alabama’s Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, and University of Alabama’s Denny Chimes. According to Hugh Martin’s autobiography, his father’s creation of the Birmingham Public Library thrilled him the most, as it instilled in him a thorough love for public libraries.
Here are some shots I took of Denny Chimes, which is a key feature on Alabama’s campus.
Additionally, here are some shots of Gorgas Library as well as some items on display from its collection:
Martin’s childhood homes are still standing today. When Hugh Martin was born, his grandparents owned a home on 1900 S. 14th Ave. in Birmingham. In his autobiography, Martin reflects upon the large bay window in this two-story Victorian home. He was born in the room just behind this bay window. Today, this building stands as a counseling center for women and children.
When Martin turned 9, his father built a one-story wood-and-stucco cottage located at 1919 S. 15th Ave. This home is one block away from his grandparents’ home. Since Hugh’s mother suffered from fragile health, his father built her a special open sleeping-porch in the back of this particular home. The small front porch features red bricks and wood. In his autobiography, Martin recalls how his father would burst out of the front door in the morning, usually knocking over some milk bottles–a pleasant surprise for their family cats.
Later in life, Martin returned to Birmingham with his friend, Elaine Harrison, to visit his childhood home. Though much about the home remained the same, Martin noticed a new feature affixed to the front of the house–a plaque honoring Hugh Martin. However, he realized that this particular plaque was in honor of his father. The plaque reads, “Jefferson County, Historical Commission, Historic Structure, Hugh Martin Cottage, 1922.” The home is privately owned, although photographer Graham Yelton was able to snap some photos of the inside. Here are my photos of the exterior:
Hugh Martin’s high school, Phillips High School, still exists at 2316 7th Ave N. and has been reenvisioned as a K-8 school.
Birmingham-Southern College, where Martin studied music, still exists today. Hugh Martin was a member of the Men’s Glee Club during his freshman year of college there. Here is their 1932 yearbook photo. Hugh is in the second row from the top, four people over from the left.
The group photo was taken on the steps of the Stockham Building.
During my research on Hugh Martin, I was especially intrigued by stories surrounding “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The song was written during World War II and had lyrics that matched the serious realities of the time. Some of the original lyrics slated for Judy to sing in Meet Me in St. Louis were:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Judy famously quipped that if she were to sing those words to Margaret O’Brien, she would be seen as a monster.
Judy’s co-star, Tom Drake, spoke with Martin and mentioned that he believed the song had the capacity to become extremely powerful, however, it would need to be rewritten as a beautiful song for Judy to sing. The altered version is the one we see in the film.
Yet another notable version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” exists. Though Judy introduced the song, Frank Sinatra wanted Martin to alter the song because he did not like the “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” lyric.
In response, Martin took a walk down Highland Avenue in Birmingham and was inspired by the tall trees that lined the street. As a result, the former lyric was replaced with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
The trees still noticeably line Highland Avenue.
Hugh was very proud of his “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” as it aptly lines his stationary. Here I am with a letter from Hugh Martin to actor Dom De Luise.
If you find yourself taking in the southern charm of Birmingham or Tuscaloosa, I hope that you’ll enjoy knowing about this interesting Hollywood connection and its link to one of the most beloved holiday songs. Though Hugh has passed away, his legacy and music most assuredly live on.