Christmas: Hugh Martin, Songwriter of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Dies

Hugh Martin Jr., a composer, lyricist and arranger who created the enduring classics “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Trolley Song,”  sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, has died. He was 96.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin for my book, Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer, the first biography of the legendary director, which was published in 2009.

Read Emanuel Levy’s Four Part series on Meet Me In St. Louis below:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

At that time, the gifted musician and song writer was working on his own memoirs, which were published last year in a book titled: “Hugh Martin, Boy Next Door.” (The subtitle of his autobiography is, of course, taken from a song sung by Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Please read our review and series of articles about the making of the fabulous musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and how Minnelli worked (and fell in love) with Judy Garland, and in the process created a masterpiece.

Martin was born August 11, 1914, in Birmingham,  Alabama, and learned to play piano at age 5. He attended Birmingham Southern College before moving to New York.

Martin, who collaborated with Ralph Blane on Broadway and in film, died of natural causes Friday at home in Encinitas, north of San Diego.

The two men shared songwriting credits for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which is set at the turn of the 20th century and follows a Midwestern family on the verge of moving to New York City. Garland lit up the screen with her renditions of “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” (which was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar) and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Darker Notes

But the lyrics Garland sang in the film were not the ones Martin originally wrote. His first lines were even darker. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,” went the original. “Next year we may all be living in the past,” followed by “Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.”

A studio executive suggested lightening the lyrics, saying, “It’s OK for it to be bittersweet and nostalgic, but it shouldn’t be a dirge.”  So Martin went back to work, revising the lines:  “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light; next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Released during WWII, “Meet Me in St. Louis” and its signature songs struck a chord with moviegoers.

In 1957, when Frank Sinatra was recording a holiday album, “A Jolly Christmas,” he asked Martin to “jolly up” his song. So to substitute for “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” he came up with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

Sinatra’s version helped plced “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” into the ranks of cherished holidays classics. It has since been recorded by hundreds of performers, including Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, James Taylor and the Pretenders.

Although Martin and Blane shared writing credits in the 1940s, they worked independently.  “Ralph and I both wrote music, and we both wrote lyrics,” Martin once explained. “Almost always, each of us wrote songs unassisted by the other and simply pooled our work.”

For another of Judy Garland’s great films, 1954’s “A Star Is Born,” directed by George Cukor, Martin served as vocal director and arranger. He also accompanied Garland on piano during her solo show at New York’s Palace Theater in 1951.

Martin and Blane met in the late 1930s as performers singing in Broadway musicals. Martin was making a name for himself as a vocal arranger for Broadway shows when the duo got the chance to write words and music for “Best Foot Forward” in 1941.

That brought them to the attention of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which signed them to write for the movies. After finishing “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Martin served in the Army, performing for troops in Europe.

He returned to Hollywood after the war and received another Oscar nomination along with Blane and Roger Edens for the song “Pass That Peace Pipe” from 1947’s “Good News.”

Martin continued to write and arrange for both film and stage productions, including the Tony-nominated “High Spirits” (1964).  He and Blane teamed up again for a 1989 Broadway revival of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” writing several new songs.