Have yourself a merry little Xmas, Mr. Martin

The 96-year-old composer of the classic holiday song talks about his life
Have yourself a merry little Xmas, Mr. Martin
Bettman; Everett Collection; Istock; Getty Images; Illustration by Taylor Shute

“One of the things I’m most grateful for is that God gave me a variety of gifts,” says Hugh Martin, the 96-year-old composer-lyricist who also built parallel careers as a vocal arranger, accompanist and singer. But the cover of Martin’s new autobiography, The Boy Next Door, emphasizes the thing he’s best known for: it mentions that he’s “the composer of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Martin told Maclean’s that he didn’t expect that song to be the biggest part of his more than 70 years in show business: “I only wrote it because there was a spot in the movie [Meet Me in St. Louis] that called for a Christmas song.” For many years, it was less popular than another song from the same film, The Trolley Song, and then suddenly, “a lot of people began to do it about the same time. I never found out who started it.”

There’s much more to Martin’s career than one Christmas song, though, and one of the purposes of the book is to remind us that he wrote music and lyrics for pop standards and jazz favourites alike, both alone and with collaborators like his former singing partner Ralph Blane. The book touches on the origins of his best songs, including Pass That Peace Pipe, which has been covered by Bing Crosby and even the Muppets, and the campy cult classic An Occasional Man, inspired by a phrase he heard from a maid in his native Alabama. Cabaret entertainer Michael Feinstein, who has performed and recorded many of Martin’s songs, told Maclean’s that he considers Martin “one of the most inspired songwriters of his generation,” and Stephen Sondheim put four of Martin’s songs on a list of 100 songs he wishes he’d written himself.

One reason Martin isn’t as well known as all this would imply is that he would interrupt his songwriting to do other types of work. He played piano for Judy Garland at her famous 1951 comeback concert (he says he was a good accompanist because he knew enough “to get out of the way”). As a vocal arranger, he drew on the lessons of his mentor, arranger-writer Kay Thompson, and brought a new sound to Broadway, making choruses sound as jazzy as any swing band: “We took voices and used them like instruments,” he explains. Feinstein says that because Martin was so in demand for other people’s music, “he never built up the body of original work that his muse offered.”

Still, Martin’s multiple creative hats make the book even more interesting than it would be if it were just about his own work. Martin got to arrange songs for greats like Irving Berlin, sometimes adding his own music and lyrics to theirs, and he tells us new things about them. Richard Rodgers has been portrayed as an ogre in several recent books, including Sondheim’s. But Martin tries to show a different side of Rodgers. “I loved Dick. He was wonderful to me,” he told Maclean’s, still grateful that Rodgers gave him his first big job as a vocal arranger and produced his first musical as a songwriter: “What a break that was for me.” There are also observations on performers he worked with, particularly Garland, but also Tony Bennett, who Martin reluctantly had to reject for a Broadway show because his voice wasn’t powerful enough for the theatre.

Like many books about the pre-rock ’n’ roll era, The Boy Next Door has less happy stories to tell once it reaches the ’60s. Martin suffered a nervous breakdown, wrote what Feinstein considers “some of his finest music” for shows that never got produced, and got left behind by changing tastes in music: “They didn’t want really good stuff, they wanted junk,” he sighs. “And so it was harder to get my stuff on.”

Still, the overall tone of the book is sunny, as you’d expect from someone whose signature song got happier with every revision: Merry Little Christmas started with a downbeat first draft, and is now mostly sung in the more cheerful version that Martin claims to “like the best. It has the line about ‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough.’ ” And while Martin emphasizes, “I don’t write for money, I write for love,” he knows he’s lucky to have created a song to support him in his advanced age: “I guess,” he chuckles, “I’ll be getting royalties for that until the day I die.”