The Song That Saved His Life
By Tom Morrow
One of the most popular songwriters of our “Greatest Generation” was Hugh Martin, who lived out the last two decades of his life in nearby Encinitas. I’m proud to say Hugh was one of my great encounters I’ve had the privilege to know and write about during my half-century in journalism.
During this time of year, it’s fitting that I tell you part of his story. In 1944, Hugh wrote the iconic holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. It was that song 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. That music is everywhere during the holiday season. It’s used in popular-play tunes, in advertising, on radio, and television.
Hugh’s talent was so good, he was hired to write the music in one of Irving Berlin’s Broadway shows. When he asked Berlin why his name wasn’t on the theater marquee along with his, Berlin answered, “People come because of my name – who ever heard of ‘Hugh Martin?’”
But, when Hugh wrote the music for the classic MGM film, “Meet Me In St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland, plenty of people heard his name. He wrote all three songs for that movie: “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
But, how did “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” save his life?
It was 1944, 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 the song 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 then-current hit in his command, the general ordered Hugh transferred to a Special Services unit safely behind the front lines.
“A few days after my transfer, the 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?”
Last week I told you about the Malmedy massacres. Hugh was nearby behind the American lines, but nonetheless close to being in harm’s way. He helped in keeping up spirits and morale by singing and entertaining the troops during that last great battle of World War II.
Each year, “Meet Me In St. Louis” is among the holiday movies played on television. Right up until his death 10 years ago, Hugh continued to receive large royalty checks each year for the playing and selling of his iconic Christmas song. Popular pianist and friend Kevin Cole, who was a frequent long-time pal and visitor to Hugh’s Encinitas home, told me he could attest to the large royalty checks Hugh received each year just for that one song.
“I’ve seen a few of those checks,” Kevin once told me. “They all were in the six-figure amount.”
In 2003 it was Hugh Martin who introduced Kevin, a world-renowned pianist, to Oceanside. One of the local Rotary clubs was raising money to buy instruments for an elementary school music program. Kevin gave piano concerts to raise money for the cause, all thanks to Hugh.
On Aug. 11, 2011, Hugh Martin, the man who could sing, dance, and write hit musical numbers, died 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 – An old friend and loyal reader, the late Frank Imbilli, who was a retired Oceanside firefighter, religiously attended church every Sunday, but never missed a chance to get in a quip or two for my 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, the priest 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.