Hugh Martin: US composer and lyricist who wrote the score for 'Meet Me in St Louis'

The songwriter, vocal coach and arranger Hugh Martin, with his collaborator Ralph Blane, wrote the score for Vincente Minnelli's film musical masterpiece, Meet Me in St Louis (1944) for which they composed three durable hits for the film's star, Judy Garland – the wistfully longing "The Boy Next Door", the Oscar-nominated "The Trolley Song", which was the biggest hit at the time of the film's release, and the beautiful and touching ballad, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", which has become a holiday perennial, with more than 500 recordings made of the song.

These songs alone would guarantee Martin and Blane a place in musical history. But they also wrote songs for Lena Horne, Jane Powell and Rosalind Russell, and the score for the Broadway hit Best Foot Forward, a college musical.

Martin, like Blane, wrote both music and lyrics, and he was also a highly regarded vocal arranger. The son of an architect and a mother who had musical ambitions for her son, he was born in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, and began studying music at the age of five at the Birmingham Conservatory of Music. His intention to become a classical musician changed when he heard the music of George Gershwin.

"'Rhapsody in Blue' changed my life, as did 'The Man I Love', which I heard while watching a silent movie with my mother," he told the singer Michael Feinstein, who recorded a fine album of his songs. "We gripped each other in excitement and my mother said to me, 'Go down and see what's on the organ rack, and there was 'The Man I Love' by George and Ira Gershwin. Show Boat was another influence – as a prologue to the silent version they played a recording of Helen Morgan singing 'Bill' and I fell in love with her, and went overboard for Jerome Kern."

While working in radio as a vocal arranger, he became part of a quartet formed by Loulie Jean Norman. "We both fell in love with Gershwin at the same time and did Of Thee I Sing in the Birmingham Little Theatre – a concert version by just the two of us!"

In the mid-1930s Martin moved to New York, where he made his Broadway debut as a singer in Hooray for What! (1937), directed by Vincente Minnelli with songs by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg. Kay Thompson, who was to become a major influence and lifelong friend, was the show's vocal arranger. Ralph Blane was also in the chorus, and the two men became friends and collaborators, forming a vocal quartet with sisters Jo-Jean and Phyllis Rogers. Calling themselves The Martins, and featuring arrangements by Hugh, they became regulars on comedian Fred Allen's radio show, and appeared along with Thompson on the radio series Tune-Up Time.

Richard Rodgers then asked Martin to see if he could write a close-harmony arrangement of "Sing for Your Supper" in the style of the Boswell Sisters, for his upcoming musical The Boys from Syracuse (1938). "I was working so could not go to New Haven where the show tried out, but I got a telegram saying, 'Your arrangement stopped the show, and they had to do it all over again twice.' It really took off, and it took off in New York too. So then Dick gave me 'I Like to Recognise The Tune' in his next show, Too Many Girls (1939), and again it was a show-stopper."

The "Sing for Your Supper" arrangement is still used in revivals, and always stops the show. Other productions to benefit from Martin's vocal arrangements included Du Barry Was a Lady (1939), Very Warm for May (1939), Pal Joey (1940), which made Gene Kelly a star, and Cabin in the Sky (1941), for which Martin gave singer Ethel Waters a celebrated obbligato for the second chorus of the title song. He provided the arrangements for Irving Berlin's Louisiana Purchase (1940).

The course of Martin's career changed when Van Johnson, who had been in the chorus of Too Many Girls, told Blane that the director George Abbott was looking for new composers to write the score for a musical to be cast with fresh young talent. "Ralph came to me and said, 'Why don't we?', so we wrote a song each, played them for Richard Rodgers, who was co-producing the show, and he loved them and gave us the job."

Their show, Best Foot Forward (1941), its numbers staged by Gene Kelly, was a hit, with each composer writing both words and music ("I wrote seven songs, Ralph wrote six, and we wrote one together"). When MGM purchased the screen rights they brought many members of the cast to Hollywood along with Martin and Blane.

The team's first assignment for the studio was to write a song for Judy Garland to sing in For Me and My Gal. Titled "Three Cheers for the Yanks", it was a patriotic piece that was cut from the final print. Another song for Garland, "The Joint Is Really Jumpin' Down at Carnegie Hall", became her speciality number in the all-star musical, Thousands Cheer (1943), after which the team were assigned to write the score for Meet Me in St Louis, a heart-warming turn-of-the-century tale in which Garland experiences the pangs of first love as the family faces an impending move from St Louis to New York to further the father's career.

Martin described the "ecstasy" of hearing Garland sing "The Boy Next Door": "Conrad Salinger was such a gorgeous arranger, and Judy sang it with such perfection." The buoyant "Trolley Song", with its rousing opening line, "Clang, clang, clang went the trolley...", was performed as Garland wove her way through a crowded streetcar looking for her swain.

Martin wrote both words and music for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", but his original version was so dark that it almost failed to get into the film. It started "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past", and Garland wisely refused to sing it.

Martin said that his resistance to changing it was broken by Tom Drake, who played the boy next door. "He told me, 'Hugh, this is a great and important song. Don't be a stubborn idiot. Write a lyric for that beautiful melody that Judy will sing.' I did, and I thank Tom from my heart." The song has been performed by such vocalists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and Doris Day, as well as the rock band Coldplay. Sinatra's version was used in Carl Foreman's movie The Victors (1963) as a stark counterpoint to a soldier's execution, while Mel Torme's recording featured prominently in the film Home Alone (1990). Martin and Blane contributed songs for other MGM musicals – for Ziegfeld Follies (1946) they wrote the torrid "Love" for Lena Horne, and "Pass That Peace Pipe" (with Roger Edens) for Gene Kelly, June Allyson and Nancy Walker. The latter was cut, and eventually used in Good News (1947), which starred Allyson and Peter Lawford. Joan McCracken sang the song in a grand production number in a café, and it became the second Martin-Blane song to be nominated for an Oscar.

A later score, Athena (1954) starring Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds, included the ballad "Love Can Change the Stars", and for another Powell vehicle, The Girl Most Likely (1957), the last film to be made at the RKO studio, they wrote the lively "Balboa". He also wrote songs for the film The Girl Rush (1955), starring Rosalind Russell.

Martin's long friendship with Garland – he accompanied her on her memorable "comeback" engagement at the Palace Theatre in 1951 – ended temporarily during the making of A Star is Born (1954) because of her rendition of "The Man That Got Away". "I wanted her to sing it moodily, quietly, and so did Harold Arlen and George Cukor. When I went back to New York, Arlen called me and said, 'What happened?' I told him that she had belted it. 'Oh, no! It shouldn't be belted. It's an introspective song.'" On the day of the recording, Cukor said, "Can you do anything to stop her from yelling that song?"

Martin returned to Broadway with a show conceived for Nancy Walker, Look Ma, I'm Dancing (1948), and Make a Wish (1951), based on the film The Good Fairy, but neither had a substantial run. His most successful stage musical was Love from Judy (1952), which was produced in London and ran for two years. In 1963 Best Foot Forward was revived off-Broadway starring Liza Minnelli in her New York debut, and Martin and Blane gave her a new ballad, "You Are For Loving". Her single of the song sold half a million copies. Martin collaborated with Timothy Grey on the score for High Spirits (1964), an adaptation of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, directed by Coward with Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati.

In the late 1960s, an addiction to amphetamines led to a nervous breakdown, but in 1979 Martin was music director and arranger for the hit revue Sugar Babies, starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller.

A Seventh Day Adventist, he was an accompanist for the gospel singer Del Delker during the 1980s, and in 1989 he rejoined Blane to write new songs for a stage version of Meet Me in St Louis. He also wrote, with John Fricke, a new version of his most famous song, "Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas", recorded by Delker. In 2009 he wrote his memoirs, The Boy Next Door.

Hugh Martin, songwriter: born Birmingham, Alabama 11 August 1914; died Encinitus, California 11 March 2011

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Arts and Entertainment
Nemanja Matic holds the Capital One Cup with Branislav Ivanovic on Sunday
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th-century cartographer created the atlas
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accountant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A specialist two partner firm o...

Recruitment Genius: HGV Drivers - Class 1 and 2 - Excellent Pay and Benefits

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Class 1 and 2 HGV Drivers are r...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Technician is req...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Account Managers - Radio

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Cheshire's number 1 commercial ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot