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Burke, Johnny (John)

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Burke, Johnny (John), light-hearted American lyricist; b. Antioch, Calif., Oct. 3, 1908; d. N.Y., Feb. 25, 1964. Burke wrote songs for at least 43 motion pictures between 1930 and 1956. Most of the films were released by Paramount, starred Bing Crosby, and had music by James Van Heusen. Burke’s other most frequent collaborators included Arthur Johnston and James V. Monaco. He sometimes composed his own music, but with Van Heusen he wrote such songs as the Academy Award—winning“Swinging on a Star/" "Moonlight Becomes You,” and“Sunday, Monday or Always,” all of which were million-sellers. With others he wrote such hits as“Pennies from Heaven/’“I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams.”“Scatterbrain,” and“Only Forever.” His whimsical, optimistic words helped set the tone for the popular music of the late 1930s and 1940s.

The son of William Burke, Johnny Burke grew up in Chicago and attended Crane Coll. in the city as well as the Univ. of Wise, at Madison, studying piano and drama. He became a pianist in dance bands and in 1926 took a job as a piano salesman with the music-publishing company Irving Berlin Inc. in Chicago, later moving to the N.Y. office. In N.Y. he also worked as an entertainer in vaudeville, film, and the legitimate theater, and he turned to songwriting, initially as a composer. He was hired by the Fox movie studio and went to Hollywood where he wrote“Boop-Boop-a-Doopa-Doo Fox Trot” (lyrics by George A. Little), which was sung in the February 1930 release Let’s Go Places by actress Dixie Lee, who seven months later married Bing Crosby.

Burke earned his first screen credit as a primary songwriter for the June 1930 release Rough Romance, but with the decline in interest in musicals in Hollywood in the early 1930s, he returned to N.Y. to write for Tin Pan Alley; he also switched to lyric writing. More than three years passed before he scored his first hit, “Shadows on the Swanee” (music by Harold Spina, lyrics also by Joe Young), recorded by Isham Jones and His Orch., in September 1933. The same trio of writers was also responsible for“Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” which became a hit for Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians in November.

Burke formed his first songwriting partnership with Harold Spina, and the two wrote a spate of hits over the next two years:“The Beat o’ My Heart,” recorded by Ben Pollack and His Orch. (March 1934);“Fve Got a Warm Spot in My Heart for You,” by Pollack (July 1934);“Irresistible,” by Hal Kemp and His Orch. (October 1934);“It’s Dark on Observatory Hill,” by the Dorsey Brothers Orch. (January 1935); and“You’re So Darn Charming,” by Kemp (August 1935).

In 1936, Burke signed to Paramount Pictures, where he would work for the next 20 years, and moved to Hollywood. He was teamed with composer Arthur Johnston, and their first project was a Mae West vehicle, Go West, Young Man, which was released in November. No hits emerged from that film, but Burke and Johnston’s next assignment was more successful. They were lent, along with Bing Crosby, to Columbia Pictures and had five songs in Pennies from Heaven, including the title song, which topped the hit parade for Crosby and earned an Academy Award nomination. Burke and Johnston were among the several songwriters who contributed to the August 1937 Crosby picture Double or Nothing . One of their songs was“The Moon Got in My Eyes,” which Crosby took into the hit parade in September.

By the end of 1937, Burke had acquired a new collaborator, James V. Monaco. Burke became, and would remain for the next 16 years, Crosby’s primary lyricist. The first project for the new team was the May 1938 release Doctor Rhythm; among Burke and Monaco’s

four songs was“On the Sentimental Side,” which Crosby took into the hit parade even before the film opened. Sing, You Sinners, which followed only three months later, featured“I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams,” with which Crosby topped the hit parade in October, in close competition with a version by Russ Morgan and His Orch. East Side of Heaven, the next Crosby film with songs by Burke and Monaco, opened in April 1939; none of its songs became hits. On June 10, 1939, Burke married Bessie Patterson, who had come to Hollywood as the winner of a beauty contest that entitled her to a bit part in the 1936 Crosby film Rhythm on the Range and then attended the Univ. of Southern Calif. The couple later divorced. In total, Burke married four times, divorced three times, and had four children.

Burke had began to collaborate with other writers by the summer of 1939. He worked with James Van Heusen for the first time, writing“Oh, You Crazy Moon,” which Tommy Dorsey and His Orch. took into the hit parade in September. Burke returned to Monaco for the next Crosby film, The Star Maker, which opened in August and gave Crosby three hit parade entries, “Go Fly a Kite,” “A Man and His Dream,” and“An Apple for the Teacher” (the last in a duet with Connee Boswell), all in September. Crosby was back in the hit parade in October with“What’s New?” The song had begun life as an instrumental that Robert Haggart, of Bob Crosby’s orchestra, had developed from a solo by the band’s trumpeter, Billy Butterfield, in 1938 and was initially titled“I’m Free.” Burke then added lyrics to create a song that went on to become a standard. Burke had yet another hit parade entry and one of the biggest hits of the year in November 1939 with“Scatterbrain” (music and lyrics by Burke, Carl Bean, Kahn Keene, and Frankie Masters). It was recorded by Frankie Masters and His Orch. and was at the top of the charts in December-January 1940.

Burke returned to working with Monaco at Paramount for Road to Singapore, the first of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope“road” pictures, released in March. Crosby had an entry in the hit parade from that film in April with“Too Romantic.” That same month Crosby’s next film, If I Had My Way, opened, but no hits emerged from the Burke- Monaco score. Burke returned to moonlighting with Van Heusen and scored a #1 hit in June with“Imagination,” recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orch. Miller also made the hit parade in June with“Devil May Care,” which Burke wrote with Harry Warren.

Monaco had already completed his contract with Paramount and left the studio by the time his final film with Burke and Crosby, Rhythm on the River, was released in August. It was one of their more successful scores, providing Crosby with his biggest hit of the year, the chart-topping, Oscar-nominated“Only Forever,” as well as the chart entry“That’s for Me.”

With the departure of Monaco, Burke arranged for Van Heusen to be signed to Paramount as his new full-time partner. Their first effort, Love Thy Neighbor, a vehicle for radio comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen released in December 1940, did not produce any hits,perhaps because of the dispute between ASCAP and the radio networks that caused ASCAP songs to be banned from airplay in early 1941. The ban was still on in April, when Burke and Van Heusen’s score to the second Crosby-Hope road picture Road to Zanzibar went unnoticed; but in July 1943, during the musicians’ union recording ban, Tommy Dorsey’s 1941 recording of one of its songs, “It’s Always You/’ with a vocal by Frank Sinatra, belatedly reached the Top Ten.

Crosby next made two pictures for which he did not need his contract writers, Birth of the Blues, which featured a score full of old jazz songs, and Holiday Inn, which featured songs by Irving Berlin. Burke and Van Heusen were lent out to RKO for two Kay Kyser vehicles, Playmates, released in December 1941, and My Favorite Spy, released in May 1942. Back at Paramount they drew the third Crosby-Hope road picture, Road to Morocco, released in November 1942. Crosby scored the highest charting recording of“Moonlight Becomes You” from the score; Glenn Miller’s recording also made the Top Ten; and the version by Harry James and His Orch. sold a million copies. Crosby also had a chart entry with“Constantly” from the film.

The combination of the U.S. entry into World War II in December 1941 and the beginning of the recording ban in August 1942 slowed work for the songwriters, who had only one film, the Crosby vehicle Dixie, in 1943. Released in June, it contained“Sunday, Monday or Always,” which Crosby recorded a cappella backed by a vocal group; the disc topped the charts and sold a million copies.“If You Please” from the film also made the charts for Crosby.

Burke and Van Heusen’s first assignment for 1944 was to add music to the movie version of the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin musical Lady in the Dark . Released in February, it contained“Suddenly It’s Spring,” which Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orch. recorded for a hit. The team’s next Crosby film was Going My Way, released in May; it became the top box office hit of the year and featured“Swinging on a Star,” which became the biggest hit of the year in Crosby’s recording, selling a million copies, and won the Academy Award. Crosby also scored minor hits with the title song and“The Day after Forever.” Burke and Van Heusen wrote songs for two more films during the year: And the Angels Sing, featuring Betty Hutton, contained“His Rocking Horse Ran Away,” which Hutton recorded for a Top Ten hit, and“It Could Happen to You,” a Top Ten hit for Jo Stafford; and Bell of the Yukon, featuring Dinah Shore, contained“Sleigh Ride in July,” which Shore recorded for a Top Ten hit and which earned an Academy Award nomination, and“Like Someone in Love,” a chart entry for Crosby.

Burke and Van Heusen’s movie schedule was light in 1945 as they concentrated on writing their first Broadway musical, Nellie Bly . But they did score a few hits:“Yah-Ta-Ta Yah-Ta-Ta (Talk, Talk, Talk),” a novelty song crafted for Crosby and Judy Garland, reached the Top Ten in June;“A Friend of Yours,” from the Crosby-produced film The Great John L., was a Top Ten hit for Tommy Dorsey in July; and“Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” their sole contribution to The Bells of St. Mary’s (the December sequel to Going My Way), was a Top Ten hit for Crosby and an Academy Award nominee. (Van Heusen also wrote the music to lyrics by actor Phil Silvers, reportedly assisted by Burke and Sammy Cahn, for“Nancy [With the Laughing Face],” a tribute to Frank Sinatra’s four-year-old daughter, which Sinatra recorded for a Top Ten hit in December.)

Nellie Bly opened on Broadway in January 1946; it was a flop, running only 16 performances, and none of its songs became hits at the time, although“Harmony” was interpolated into the October 1947 film Variety Girl, where it was sung by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope; it was then recorded for a minor hit by Johnny Mercer and the King Cole Trio.

Road to Utopia, the fourth Crosby-Hope road picture, opened in February 1946, as usual with a Burke-Van Heusen score. The risqué“Personality” emerged as a major hit, with three Top Ten renditions, the most successful being the #1 version by Johnny Mercer. Welcome Stranger, released in August 1947, was not exactly another sequel to Going My Way, but it reteamed Crosby with Barry Fitzgerald in a similar scenario. It was similarly successful, too, becoming the top-grossing film of the year, though none of its Burke-Van Heusen songs became hits. Road to Rio, the fifth Crosby-Hope road picture, released in February 1948, also became the top grossing film of its year, and its Burke-Van Heusen score included“But Beautiful,” which became a minor hit for Frank Sinatra. For The Emperor Waltz, the Crosby film released in June 1948 that was one of the ten most successful films of the year, Burke wrote lyrics for song adaptations of music by Richard Heuberger and Johann Strauss. Also successful was Crosby’s filming of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, released in April 1949, with a Burke-Van Heusen score that included two chart entries, “Once and for Always” (for Jo Stafford) and“If You Stub Your Toe on the Moon” (for Tony Martin).

Burke and Van Heusen continued to write songs for Crosby films into the early 1950s. Burke scored hits in 1953 with two adaptations of classical music:“Wild Horses,” a Top Ten hit for Perry Como in March, was based on Robert Schumann’s“Wilder Reiter,” while“Now That I’m in Love,” a chart single for Patti Page in May, was adapted from Gioachino Rossini’s“The William Tell Overture.” Burke and Van Heusen wrote the songs for and coproduced their second Broadway musical, Carnival in Flanders, in September 1953, but it was a failure. After providing lyrics to Van Heusen’s music for his 24th Bing Crosby film, Little Boy Lost, released later that month, Burke became inactive, reportedly due to illness; Van Heusen formed a partnership with Sammy Cahn.

Burke returned to work with the film The Vagabond King, released in September 1956, writing lyrics to music by Rudolf Friml. In 1959 he wrote lyrics for the Erroll Garner instrumental“Misty,” resulting in a Top 40 hit for Johnny Mathis; the song enjoyed Top 40 revivals in 1963, for Lloyd Price, in 1966, for Richard“Groove” Holmes, and in 1975, for Ray Stevens. In 1961, Burke wrote music as well as lyrics for his third Broadway musical, Donnybrook!, based on the 1952 film The Quiet Man; it ran 68 performances and the cast album spent two months on the charts. Big Dee Ir win with Little Eva revived“Swinging on a Star” for a Top 40 hit in 1963.

Burke died in 1964 at age 55 . In 1983, Linda Ron-stadt, accompanied by the Nelson Riddle Orch., revived“What’s New?” as a Top 40 single and as the title track of an album that sold three million copies. Swinging on a Star, subtitled“The Johnny Burke Musical,” which was conceived, written, and directed by Michael Leeds, opened on Broadway in 1995 and played for 97 performances, earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical.

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