Becoming a Songwriter
Johnny had a long road to success. He spent many years toiling away at menial jobs and tried his hand at acting and singing before he became known for his songwriting. However, his talent was unmistakable, and he was soon on his way to fame and fortune.
Hit the Road to Dreamland
Eventually Johnny realized that his talents lay in lyrics and songwriting, which greatly helped his career. One of his earliest successes came when his friend Everett Miller wrote a song and he asked Johnny to compose the lyrics for it. The song, “Out of Breath and Scared to Death of You,” ended up in a revue called The Garrick Gaieties, and Miller’s father published the song. In addition, Johnny met a beautiful young woman, Ginger Meehan, who was performing in the chorus of the revue.
Johnny began bringing Ginger ice cream and taking her to the movies. Johnny soon met Ginger’s family, who encouraged Johnny to continue to pursue his career in songwriting.
Johnny began meeting other songwriters and music publishers and soon landed a job writing lyrics for an operetta. This was a wonderful opportunity for him, but he had to leave New York and Ginger to work in California where the operetta would first be staged.
While in California, Johnny had to work long hours to complete the operetta lyrics. Despite this, he was able to see some of his favorite musicians like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong perform. Listening to his idols provided a welcome change from the European opera music he was working with every day.
After returning to New York, Johnny gained full time employment with Miller Music, which had published “Out of Breath and Scared to Death of You.” The steady employment and income prompted him to propose to Ginger, and the two were married in a small ceremony in New York. Ginger quit her theatrical career and went to work as a seamstress, while Johnny kept working on his career.
Around that time, Johnny and a friend entered and won a singing contest. The contest led him to a semi-formal apprenticeship on a stage production. He worked with lyricist Yip Harburg and began to learn how to write lyrics.
I had been a dilettante at it, trying hard but most undisciplined, waiting for the muse to strike.
Johnny finally gained recognition and fame among other songwriters and musicians after he met Hoagy Carmichael. Hoagy and Johnny spent a year working on just one song, “Lazy Bones,” but it was a hit once it was released on the radio. The success of this one song gained him entrance into the musician brotherhood in New York. Johnny and Hoagy would go on to write many more songs together, including “Skylark” and “In the Cool, Cool of the Evening,” which won an Academy Award®.
Soon Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who had awarded Johnny first place in the singing contest, contacted him. Whiteman wanted Johnny to sing in a duet in addition to writing songs and comic skits. He offered him a weekly salary that would allow Johnny and Ginger to leave her mother’s home and move to an apartment in Manhattan.
Hooray for Hollywood
It didn’t take long for RKO Pictures, a California movie studio, to notice Johnny’s many abilities, and make him an offer to move to Hollywood, thinking he could be a “triple threat” in the pictures: songwriting, singing and acting. Johnny was still under contract to Mr. Whiteman, so the studio had to be willing to pay Mr. Whiteman to use Johnny’s services. The two parties settled on $500 a week, a small fortune during the Great Depression when many Americans could hardly make ends meet. Johnny would be receiving $1000 a week for his talents as a songwriter, singer, and actor.
Johnny jumped at the chance; he’d left Savannah to make it big as an actor in New York and after so many years someone finally wanted everything he had to offer. He was excited, but humble, as he knew he would be in a whole new environment working with people that didn’t know what a talented and hard worker he was, so he was essentially starting over – although with a generous salary.
Johnny was confident in his abilities, and musical movies were making a comeback. Technology had advanced so actors and singers could move around the set while talking and singing, instead of standing in one place to ensure their voices recorded evenly.
After arriving in Hollywood, Johnny was surprised to discover he was working mostly on “B” movies, low-budget pictures theatres had to play before they could play the big budget “A” movies. He acted in two B-movies, but it was clear his acting skills didn’t even compare to his songwriting or singing, and despite the studio’s initial enthusiasm for Johnny, RKO did not renew his contract.
Despite this setback, Johnny was offered a job writing lyrics for a revue in England. Though it sounded like a good opportunity, Johnny soon found out there wasn’t enough money for his salary after making this long journey to England by boat. He had no prospects for future career plans, and it seemed like his career in Hollywood might be over.
Johnny’s stint without a job or income was short-lived. As he and his wife prepared to return to the U.S., he received a wire that Warner Brothers studio wanted to sign a contract with him. Warner Brothers provided him with another chance to make it in Hollywood.
You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby
Johnny wrote for Warner Brothers and wrote quickly. The young songwriter who would spend weeks and months on a single song when he was in New York was more experienced and had responsibilities, and he started churning out song lyrics. Warner Bros. studio was a fast-paced workplace, producing musicals one after another, and cashing in on the new trend of featuring radio stars so the audience could finally see what they looked like.
As usual Johnny found inspiration from Savannah and his family. While writing one song he recalled something Ginger said to him when she and his mother were looking through a photo album. Ginger saw a picture of Johnny as a baby, and remarked, “You must have been a beautiful baby,” and Johnny’s proud mother immediately brought out a blue ribbon Johnny had won in a baby contest years ago! But Johnny remembered that phrase from his wife, and turned it into yet another lyric.
And when it came to winning blue ribbons,
You must have shown the other kids how.
I can see the judges’ eyes
As they handed you the prize,
I bet you made the cutest bow Oh! You must have been a beautiful baby,
‘Cause baby look at you now.
But this age of movie musicals was short-lived, and soon Johnny found himself out of work from writing Hollywood songs for movies. But once again, his multiple talents saved him. His singing voice combined with his songwriting skills spurred him to collaborate with other musicians and create a number of hits.
He and Ginger returned to New York after years in California, and Johnny found a job emceeing for a radio show called Camel Caravan. He was incredibly creative during this time; lyrics and songs sprang from him. One segment of Camel Caravan was called “Newsie Bluesies,” where Johnny would satirize current events and people, much the same way the show Saturday Night Live does with “Weekend Update.” Johnny would wait until the evening the show aired, and would sit down to write a whole new lyric for that week’s edition “Newsie Bluesies,” once again showing how he’d grown and matured as a songwriter.
While in New York, Johnny and Ginger, who had been married for nine years but had never been able to have children, adopted a baby girl from Georgia. Amanda, or Mandy, became was the light of their lives. Johnny wrote a song for her called “Mandy Is Two.”
You ought to see her eyes of cornflower blue
They really look as if they actually knew
That she’s a big girl now…
You ought to see how many things she can do,
She knows her alphabet and ties her own shoes,
And no one showed her how.
Upon returning to California, Johnny met Judy Garland. Garland had recently achieved great fame as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and she and Johnny fell in love with each other. They had a brief love affair, which ended when Johnny reaffirmed his commitment to Ginger and their new child.
Johnny’s songwriting and lyrics were deeply affected by this time in his life as he struggled to reconcile his love for another woman with his commitment to his wife and child. He and Ginger stayed together though, and eventually adopted a baby boy they called Jeff.