The great crooner Bing Crosby claimed he owed much of his success to a lyricist he dubbed "the Poet." Crosby said, "One of the best things that ever happened to me was a 145-pound leprechaun named Johnny Burke." "Pennies From Heaven" was the first song lyric that Johnny Burke wrote for Crosby and it set the standard for a string of hits. Burke said he learned to write for Bing by paying attention to Crosby's conversational style and taking phrases directly from his speech patterns.
Johnny Burke wrote or collaborated on over 400 songs, and has the distinction of being the only songwriter to have had five out of the top 10 songs on Your Hit Parade—at the same time. Burke's songs have been included in 42 motion picture soundtracks and the scores of four Broadway musicals.
Johnny Burke got his start as a lyricist writing pop tunes with composer Harold Spina while working as a song plugger for the Irving Berlin Music Company in New York. In the 1920s Harlem stride pianist and entertainer Fats Waller had hits with Burke and Spina's novelty tunes, "You're Not the Only Oyster in the Stew" and "My Very Good Friend the Milkman."
This week Riverwalk Jazz salutes the magic of Johnny Burke's lyrics with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and special guest vocalist, Rebecca Kilgore.
Johnny Burke wrote most of his song lyrics for the movies. During the 1930s and 40s Burke and his longtime partner Jimmy Van Heusen scored the music for twenty Bing Crosby films, including the “Road” pictures starring Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, and the movie Going My Way which featured the Oscar-winning “Swinging on a Star." So many of the Burke-Van Heusen songs became hits for Crosby that he referred to the pair as his “Gold Dust Twins.”
Johnny Burke was one of the first songwriters to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His songs include: "Suddenly it's Spring," "Moonlight Becomes You," "What's New," "Going My Way," and "Pocketful of Dreams."
Photo credit for home page teaser image: Pennies From Heaven poster from 1936 Columbia Pictures film. Image courtesy moviepostershop.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2006