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DAVE DAVIES, host:

We've made it an occasional holiday tradition on FRESH AIR to visit with Hugh Martin and play his song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Hugh Martin died Friday at his home in California. He was 96.

Martin is best known for that song and two others, "The Trolley Song," and "The Boy Next Door," all from the 1944 MGM musical "Meet Me in St. Louis."

Martin shared credit on his songs with longtime collaborator Ralph Blane, who died in 1995. They met in the late '30s as performers singing in Broadway musicals.

Besides composing melodies and lyrics, Martin did arrangements for stage and movie productions, including Judy Garland's 1954 film, "A Star is Born."

He continued working into the 1980s when he and Blane teamed up for a Broadway revival of "Meet Me in St. Louis" with several new songs.

Terry spoke to Hugh Martin twice. The first time was in 1989 with his collaborator, Ralph Blane.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Can you tell me the story of how you both teamed up together?

Mr. HUGH MARTIN (Songwriter): Yes. Ralph, you tell it.

Mr. RALPH BLANE (Songwriter): I'll tell you the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me...

Mr. MARTIN: Mm-hmm, me too.

Mr. BLANE: ...I was hired by Kay Thompson, the fabulous Kay Thompson.

GROSS: Oh, she is wonderful.

Ms. BLANE: She is wonderful.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, the greatest.

Mr. BLANE: And she put us together in her rhythm singer group that was going to be in "Hooray for What!" She was starring with Ed Wynn in a Broadway musical called "Hooray for What!" And we were in the chorus together, and we met there. That - the greatest thing that ever happened to me was in Boston, Kay left the show and Hugh got to finish the vocal arrangements that had to be done, and it started a whole career of vocal arrangements for Broadway shows.

Mr. MARTIN: We were actually devastated that Kay was - that they let Kay go because she was marvelous.

Mr. BLANE: Oh, I thought so too.

Mr. MARTIN: And they were crazy to let her go, because she was one of the great ladies. Kay taught me everything I know about music and arranging. She's just marvelous.

Mr. BLANE: And Hugh Martin taught me everything I know.

GROSS: "Meet Me in St. Louis," the film, was directed by Vincent Minnelli. Did he have any suggestions about how we wanted to get into the songs, and...

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, boy, he sure did.

Mr. BLANE: He was a very - he's a perfectionist.

Mr. MARTIN: And they were very brilliant suggestions, too.

GROSS: Can you give an example?

Mr. MARTIN: The best example I think is that when we wrote "The Trolley Song," and everyone loved it, Vincent came up with the idea that he wanted it sung by the chorus before Judy sang it, which sounded terrible to me. I couldn't understand why he wanted that. It just seemed wrong to me.

But now, seeing the movie, I can see how beautifully that idea worked out, of having the chorus kids come in on the car and set up the whole melody and lyric idea.

Mr. BLANE: And John Truett, the boy next door, dashing and trying to catch the trolley, and she's so thrilled that he's trying to make it - and does, finally, at the end.

Ms. MARTIN: He masterminded all of that and he was wonderful -wonderful director.

GROSS: Now, I want to play a version of "The Trolley Song." Now, this is a song that's kind of owned by Judy Garland, in a way, as a singer. But on this version, we're going to hear you, Martin, singing it. And this is from an album that you, Martin, and Ralph Blane made together in 1957.

Mr. MARTIN: I'm very flattered, thank you.

GROSS: Let's give it a listen.

Mr. MARTIN: OK.

(Soundbite of song "The Trolley Song")

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) With her high-starched collar, and her high-topped shoes, and her hair piled high up on her head, she went to find a jolly hour on the trolley and found my heart instead. With my light-brown derby and my bright-green tie, I was quite the lonesomest of men. I started to yen, so I counted to 10, then I counted to 10 again. Clang, clang, clang went the trolley; ding, ding, ding went the bell. Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings, for the moment I saw her I fell. Chug, chug, chug went the motor; bump, bump, bump went the brake. Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings, when she smiled I could feel the car shake.

GROSS: Hugh Martin, I like your signing a lot.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, bless you, Terry.

GROSS: Do you still sing?

Mr. MARTIN: You know, just your playing the record has given me the old itch to sing again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I'm going to go home and do my vocaleses. Thank you for playing it.

GROSS: Oh, it's a pleasure. How did you come up with the - the clang, clang lyric?

Mr. BLANE: Well, after we had written three different songs for Arthur Freed, which we thought would be corny to be about a trolley - I mean, we thought that, we'll write something wonderful for Judy to sing on the trolley. And we did three different songs for which he said: I know; oh, I love it, it's a beautiful song. But I've got a better place for it. I'm going to use it in the "The Follies."

Mr. MARTIN: Which he never did. It was a tactful way of throwing them out, and I'm so glad he did.

Mr. BLANE: And finally he says, now about "The Trolley Song," I want you to try again for me. And I said, Hugh, he's not going to take anything less than a trolley - a song about the trolley.

So I went to the public library in Beverly Hills and was rummaging through some old, turn-of-the-century newspapers, and found a picture of a double-decker trolley - which they, incidentally, used in the movie. And under the trolley picture, it said: Clang, clang, here comes the trolley.

And I said, Hugh, look at this. And Hugh said, clang, clang, clang went the trolley, and about - it was very few minutes, he had the whole thing going. In fact, in didn't take long to write that song at all once we got the first line.

Mr. MARTIN: It was exactly three hours. Can you believe it?

Mr. BLANE: We were in Freed's office demonstrating it in three hours.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. BLANE: And he says, now, that's what I wanted all the time. He knew what he wanted.

GROSS: That's great.

Mr. MARTIN: And you know - oh, this is interesting about the verse, remember, Ralph? I called up Irene Sharaff, who had done the costumes for the film, and I said, Irene, could you tell me what Judy might be wearing in this scene? And she said, why do you want to know? And I said, well, we're working on this new song for the trolley, and I might be able to work in some of those phrases if I know what they wore in those days.

And she said, well, it might be - she might have on a high-starched collar, she might have on high-topped shoes. And I said, might her hair be piled high up on her head? And she said yes, it might.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: And I said, what is - might the boy be wearing? And she, you know, I practically set her words to music, from the costume descriptions.

Mr. BLANE: Right. And then when the picture was made, her hair was hanging down, not piled up on her head.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. MARTIN: He was wearing a straw hat and not a brown derby.

Mr. BLANE: They screwed us up again.

Mr. MARTIN: Didn't do a thing that the lyrics said. They weren't doing it in the show.

Mr. BLANE: But it made a nice verse.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes.

GROSS: Well, I want to play you, Ralph Blane, singing something from the Martin and Blane album, again recorded in 1957. And why don't we listen to you singing "The Boy Next Door," one of the songs that you both wrote for "Meet Me in St. Louis."

Mr. BLANE: Oh, wonderful.

Mr. MARTIN: He does that beautifully.

GROSS: Do you want to say anything about writing the song before we hear it?

Mr. MARTIN: No. It was just one of those melodies that really, I'm so grateful for because it - it really just came out of the blue, and then we put lyrics to it. There's nothing really special - oh, there is one little special thing about it.

After it was more or less finished, I asked Ralph if he thought it needed any finishing touches. And he said, why don't you work the address into it, Sally's address, 5135 Kensington Avenue. So we added that, and I think it's a nice touch.

Mr. BLANE: It's a wonderful touch. I love that verse.

Mr. MARTIN: That was her real address.

Mr. BLANE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: We were going to skip the verse and start with the melody...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...because we're so - just because we're so limited for time.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. I really messed you up. That's OK.

Mr. BLANE (Singing): I live at 5135 Kensington Avenue, and he lives at 5133...

GROSS: Hit it.

(Soundbite of song: "The Boy Next Door")

Mr. BLANE: (Singing) How can I ignore the girl next door, I love her more than I can say. Doesn't try to please me, doesn't even tease me, and she never sees me glance her way. And though I'm heart-sore, the girl next door, affection for me won't display. I just adore her, so I can't ignore her, the girl next door.

DAVIES: Ralph Blane singing "The Boy Next Door." Or in - in that version, "The Girl Next Door."

We're remembering composer Hugh Martin, who died Friday at the age of 96. The conversation we heard earlier was recorded in 1989. Terry spoke again with Hugh Martin in 2006, as the Christmas holidays were approaching.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

GROSS: Now, you once told a story on our show about how you and your late partner, Ralph Blane, wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Can I ask you to tell it again?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, first of all, I feel rather self-serving admitting this, but Ralph didn't really write it, honey. We wrote our songs separately, so that it's words and music by me.

GROSS: Oh, well. Good. So now you're really able to tell the complete story of how you wrote it.

Mr. MARTIN: I can really tell the complete story. Ralph was working in one room, and I was working in another, on "Meet Me in St. Louis." And I played the first 16 bars of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" over and over and over, and got stuck. I could not get - I couldn't find a bridge for it. And so I just put it aside and decided not to work on it.

And Ralph, who had heard it through the walls came to me the next day and said, whatever happened to that little, madrigal-sounding melody that you were playing? And I said, well, I couldn't make it work, Ralph, and so I discarded it. And he said, well, you find it and finish it, because I have a big feeling about it.

And so we did find it and I did finish it, but the original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, if I sing that to little Margaret O'Brien, they'll think I'm a monster.

So I was young then, and kind of arrogant, and I said, well, I'm sorry you don't like it, Judy, but that's the way it is, and I don't really want to write a new lyric. But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, Hugh, you've got to finish it. It's really a great song potentially, and I think you'll be sorry if you don't do it.

So I went home and wrote the version that's in the movie.

GROSS: Now, I should explain that in the 1944 movie musical "Meet Me in St. Louis," when Judy Garland sings this, you know, she and her younger sister are very - it's Christmastime, but she and her younger sister are very unhappy because their father's job is taking him from St. Louis to New York. And he's going to move the whole family to New York. And they don't want to go and leave their friends behind.

So the younger sister, played by Margaret O'Brien, is crying and Judy Garland tries to comfort her by singing the song. Now, you said that the first version was lugubrious. What made the lyrics lugubrious?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I'll sing it for you.

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.

Mr. MARTIN: Pretty sad.

GROSS: But you changed that lyric, didn't you?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I did. The one in the movie was - let's see. Have yourself a merry little Christmas - oh, until then we all will be together if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow. That was the one that was in the movie.

Then I got a phone call from Frank Sinatra, saying: I'm doing an album called "A Jolly Christmas," and I love your song, but it's just not very jolly. Do you think you could jolly it up a little bit for me? So then I wrote the line about have your - hang a shining star upon the highest bow. And Frank liked that and recorded it, and people - they do - sometimes they do that line, and sometimes they do the muddle-through line - somehow.

GROSS: I like the muddle-through one.

Mr. MARTIN: I like the muddle-through one better, too.

GROSS: My guest is songwriter Hugh Martin. And here's Twisted Sister from their album "A Twisted Christmas." As you'll hear, they use the line Martin wrote for Sinatra.

(Soundbite of song, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas)

TWISTED SISTER: Ho ho ho, let's go. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the Yuletide gay. From now on, our troubles will be miles away. Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more. Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now. Ho ho ho, let's go. Ho ho ho, let's go.

DAVIES: Twisted Sister and their cover version of the Hugh Martin Christmas classic. Hugh Martin died on Friday, at the age of 96. We'll hear more of Terry's 2006 interview with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with the late composer Hugh Martin. They spoke in 2006, as the holidays were approaching.

GROSS: Let me ask you to share with us your favorite Christmas memory -since we all have your song playing in our soundtrack of Christmas.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, my favorite Christmas memory was of being 6 or 7 years old, and my mother decorating the tree. And she was a very artistic woman, and she did sensational Christmas trees. So it was a real joy every year when she would decorate it, and it was a very wonderful moment. That was my favorite Christmas memory.

GROSS: And what's Christmas like now?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, do I have to say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You don't.

Mr. MARTIN: I'm really upset by Christmas now. I just hate Santa Claus and the jingle bells and reindeer and the wrapped packages and the holiday push. I hate all of that. I just loved it when it was - well, all my life ago, 90 years ago.

GROSS: You liked it when it was less commercial?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, yes, didn't you? Well, of course, you're not old enough to remember when it was so beautiful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. It was always pretty commercial.

Mr. MARTIN: But I loved it when it was old-fashioned. We didn't even have electric lights on our tree. We'd have candles.

GROSS: We're about to hear a version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that you recorded a year ago...

Mr. MARTIN: That's right.

GROSS: ...and was released earlier this year, in a CD that's called "Hugh Sings Martin."

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

GROSS: And this features recordings that you've made, you know, throughout your career, particularly like in the - I guess in the '40s and '50s.

Mr. MARTIN: That's right.

GROSS: But it has this new recording from a year ago. You made this recording when you were 90.

Mr. MARTIN: I was 90 years old. I don't know how I got through it.

GROSS: And you're at the piano, playing and singing. It's quite beautiful. Do you want to say anything about making this recording before we hear it?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I just want to say, Terry, that I never would have continued singing at all if it hadn't been for you. Because you did an interview with Ralph and me in 1989, I think it was, when "Meet Me in St. Louis" opened on Broadway. And you played a little recording of me singing "The Trolley Song," and I was just about to stop singing because I wasn't getting all that much encouragement.

But when - at the end of the cut, you said: Ooh, I like your singing; I like it a lot. And that thrilled me so that I kept on singing.

GROSS: Well, it thrills me to hear you say that.

Mr. MARTIN: I mean it.

GROSS: And I still really like your singing.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

GROSS: And I want to wish you a merry Christmas, and I want to thank you for writing such a great Christmas song. Some of those Christmas songs tend to wear thin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Well, God really blessed me.

GROSS: Your song is so enduring. It's just one of the most beautiful and moving, I think, of all the Christmas songs. So thank you so much, and thank you for talking with us again.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, thank you deeply for saying that. Bye-bye.

(Soundbite of song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

DAVIES: Composer and singer Hugh Martin. He spoke with Terry Gross in 2006. He died Friday at his home in California. He was 96.

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