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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Johnny Burke, lyricist (1908-1964): Sometimes “Swinging on a Star” but always a swinger, #2

The Later Years of Burke

Sammy Cahn, the lyricist, complimented Burke’s lyrics as “lacier and more fragile” than other lyrics. Cahn dubbed Burke the “Irish Poet, a real talent” and Cahn didn’t even like Burke personally. Cahn considered “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1953) one of the ten greatest songs ever written. It was Johnny Carson’s favorite song. Cahn’s opinion is noteworthy because he immediately replaced Burke in l953 as Van Heusen’s lyricist. Cahn and Van Heusen would go on to huge success as Frank Sinatra’s “Gold Dust Twins.”

1953 Van Heusen gave Burke one more try with their second Broadway musical Carnival in Flanders but it was a commercial flop. However, the beautiful torch song, “Here’s that Rainy Day,” came out of the show. Later in l953 both Van Heusen and Bing Crosby had had enough of Burke’s drunken undependability and told him to quit drinking or Crosby would fire him. Crosby’s best-selling 1953 autobiography, “Call Me Lucky” only praises Burke. Nevertheless, Burke decided to leave Hollywood and return to New York and his bars. Van Heusen stated that as early as 1947 Burke was such a fall-down drunk that when they wrote the Sinatra hit, “But Beautiful” Burke “was so sick that he couldn’t pick up a cup of coffee off the table. He had to put his face down and sip it.” Listening to the lyrics of that song it is hard to believe. But by l955, Burke’s productive years were over. He was adrift on a sea of sauce and sailing solo. On a whim he sent some unbidden lyrics to pianist Errol Garner for his new tune, “Misty.” Garner liked them, as did millions of others, and Burke had his final blockbuster. He was 47 years old. In l956, Burke returned to Hollywood to work on the film “The Vagabond King,” (music by Rudolf Friml). Starring Kathryn Grayson, the film was another Burke failure at the box office.

In 1961, Burke wrote music as well as lyrics for his third Broadway musical, “Donnybrook!,” based on the 1952 film “The Quiet Man” which lasted only a couple of months but the original cast album was nominated for a Tony Award. Stephen Sondheim stated that he wished he had written “Sad was the Day,” a song from the play.

In l964 Johnny Burke died at 55, alcoholism finally taking its toll on him.

Personal Observations

According to the New York Times, Burke was married four times. I could not find the name of his first wife. His second wife was the actress Bessie Patterson whom he married in 1939. Bing Crosby tells the story: Burke wrote lyrics for a 1933 Crosby movie, “College Humor.”  As a publicity stunt, the studio held a nation-wide Miss College Humor beauty context. The winner was Bessie Patterson, an 18-year-old from Tucumcari, New Mexico. She was brought out to Hollywood for a bit part in a l936 picture, “Rhythm on the Range.” Burke and Bessie dated and married.

They had four children, one of whom, Rory, was Bing Crosby god-daughter. His third wife was actress Patricia Stanley whom he married in l955. His fourth and final wife was actress Marissa (Mary) Mason whom he married in l961 after meeting her in his play “Donnybrook!.” They were living at the Parc Vendome Hotel (now condominiums) in the Theater District at his death. He like so many other entertainers had a funeral service at Campbell Funeral Chapel in mid-town.

My favorite Burke songs: “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” “It Could Happen to You,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “What’s New?” “Misty,” etc.

Other than his multiple wives and alcoholism I could find nothing about his ethical or moral practices, which is the purpose of my blogging. Sammy Cahn didn’t like him and he stiffed a couple of composer partners (Spina and Monaco) to follow his desires. To judge his disposition from his lyrics you would say he had a sunny personality which expressed itself in celestial thoughts of “heaven,” “moonbeams,” “dreams,” “stars,” “mist,” “moonlight,” “rain,” “moons,” etc. I could find no reference to any formal religious convictions in his life or family life in the multiple articles I read. I would assume that he was Irish Roman Catholic. Clearly, Christianity did not play an essential role in Burke’s thinking and actions. Burke deserved a book length treatment of his life and times and it is a shame that a family member (such as Patricia Dubin or Mercer Ellington did for their famous family members) has not written of the great lyricist’s rather short life.

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One Response

  1. bobcolonna says:

    When I was growing up we knew the Burke kids slightly. Catholicism did play a huge part in their lives. i remember Rory, Regan (twins) and Kevin coming to our house for Trick or Treat, all costumed as their patron saints!

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