Johnny Burke the Songwriter

This morning’s subject is not to be confused with the other Johnny Burke the minor film comedian. This Johnny Burke (1908-1964) was a tin pan alley songwriter, usually a lyricist. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Burke started out as a song plugger for the Chicago branch of Irving Berlin’s publishing comany, and as a piano player in dance bands and in vaudeville. With his first songwriting partner Harold Spina, between 1923 and 1936 he wrote tunes that were performed and recorded by Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Fats Waller, Ozzie Nelson, and Ben Pollack.

In 1936, Burke moved to Hollywood to work in the film industry, collaborating with a succession of partners. He stayed with Paramount the entire time he was there, co-writing tunes for 41 pictures (25 of them starring Bing Crosby) over a period of 20 years. They included “Pennies from Heaven” (with Arthur Johnson), “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” (with Jimmy Monaco), “What’s New?” with Bob Haggart, and several with Jimmy Van Heusen: “Moonlight Becomes You”, “Swingining on a Star” “Going My Way”, the theme to Road to Morocco, and scores of others. He also wrote the tunes for Preston Sturges’ short-lived Broadway show Carnival in Flanders (1953). The 1961 Broadway musical Donnybrook! starring Eddie Foy Jr and Philip Bosco was his last major work.

Burke died of a heart attack at age 55.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,