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

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The Independent Online

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