The Song that Saved His Life
By Tom Morrow
One of the most popular songwriters of the “Greatest Generation” was Hugh Martin, who lived out the last two decades of his life in Encinitas, CA.
Hugh was a gentle man who wrote the iconic holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. He wrote others, of course, but it was “… Merry Little Christmas” that placed him in the all- time most requested category.
While Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” continues to be the best-selling holiday song of all-time, it is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that, today, remains the most-played and most-requested holiday song of all time. Hugh’s song is everywhere during the holiday season. It’s used in popular-play music, in advertising, on radio, and television.
Hugh wrote the song for the classic film, “Meet Me In St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland and Tom Drake. He wrote all three songs for that movie: “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
How did it save his life?
It was 1944, at the height of World War II, when Hugh finished the three songs for the film and then joined the U.S. Army. He was a man who was slight in stature and far from any rough and tumble G.I. When the movie came out with Garland singing the song, it was an instant hit. It shot straight to the top of the Hit Parade. By that time, Hugh was in Europe near the front lines in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium.
“Tom, I was the worst soldier to every don a uniform and carry a rifle … which I had to have help in taking apart to clean.”
When the commanding general of Hugh’s unit found out he had the man who wrote the hit “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in his command, he ordered Hugh transferred to a Special Services unit well behind the lines. The general did not want to lose such a national treasure.
“A few days after my transfer, the great German Counter-offensive (‘Battle of the Bulge’) broke out with my old unit being overrun,” he told me. “Kinda ironic and lucky for me wouldn’t you say?”
Each year, “Meet Me In St. Louis” is among the holiday movies played on television. Right up until his death, Hugh continued to receive large royalty checks every year from the playing and selling of his Christmas song. Popular pianist and friend Kevin Cole, who was a frequent long-time friend and visitor to Hugh’s home, told me he could attest to the huge royalty checks Hugh received each year for that one song.
“I’ve seen a few of those checks,” Kevin said. “They all were in the six-figure amount.”
Hugh Martin died Aug. 11, 2011, at the age of 97. He was a talented, kindly man from Birmingham, Alabama, who was a good friend. I miss him — we all should miss his talent.
CHRISTMAS MEANING – The late Frank Imbilli, a retired Oceanside firefighter, attended church every Sunday, but never missed a chance to get in a quip or two for this column. Such was the case at one Christmas mass at St. Mary’s By the Sea Catholic church.
“I go early to get my usual seat,” Frank told me. “Weather permitting the celebrating priest is outside, greeting parishioners. As I approached, I could hear that he was asking people a question.”
When Frank got up to the priest, he asked: “Frank, what does Christmas mean to you?”
Without missing a beat, Frank replied: “It means that Santa Anita opens tomorrow.”
GREAT QUOTES: “How do they know?” – Dorothy Parker, when told President Calvin Coolidge had died.
SCAG SEZ: “A table mate who’s mind is slipping somewhat of late observed the other day that, ‘if it weren’t for Thomas Edison, we’d be watching television by candlelight.’” — Cecil Scaglione,