July 10: Jimmy McHugh’s Boston Years
The Bay State has had its share of contributors to the Great American Songbook (Louis Alter, Billy Hill, the brothers Charles and Harry Tobias, Harry M. Woods), but the one at the top of the list is Jimmy McHugh, from Jamaica Plain. He wrote some 500 songs between the mid-1920s and mid-1950s, among them “A Most Unusual Day,” “Don’t Blame Me,” “Exactly Like You,” and “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.” The prolific McHugh earned his spot in the top tier of American songwriters.
We visited McHugh earlier this year, when he returned to Boston as a conquering hero and the mayor honored him with “Jimmy McHugh Day” in 1960. On this his birthday, we’ll go to the other end of his career, when he was starting out.
McHugh learned the piano at home, at a time when the piano in the parlor and the family singalong were the state-of-the-art home entertainment system. His mother was a fine pianist and Jimmy’s first teacher. He played both classical and popular music, and she encouraged him at every opportunity.
McHugh’s father was a plumber who thought it would be fine for Jimmy to join the family business, but McHugh Jr. had other ideas. At 16 he went to work first as an office boy, and then in the publicity department, for the Boston Opera Company. He learned about spin there, and found surprising ways to create press-worthy stories and sell tickets. A promoter was born.
McHugh played piano constantly in his teen years. He entered contests and competed for prize money; his closer was to plunk out “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with his nose. He took a job during the summer of 1914, singing and playing popular songs on Revere Beach, in the Crescent Spa, an ice cream shop in the big beachside dance hall, the Crescent Garden. Every day song pluggers brought new songs to play. When the summer season ended, McHugh went to work as a song plugger himself, for Irving Berlin’s firm, Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder. He was one of 22 song pluggers working for the Boston office, pedaling around town on his company-owned bicycle.
You can’t underestimate the importance of the song pluggers. There was no radio yet, and the movies were still silent. Song pluggers like McHugh were making hits the hard way.
McHugh enjoyed the work, enjoyed getting out in front of the public. He was a go-getter, and his enthusiasm and energy made him successful. He was working for Berlin’s company when he published his first song, “Caroline, I’m Coming Back to You,” in 1916.
After a short time in the army in World War I, McHugh was at a crossroads. He was a hard worker who could sing and play piano, knew the ins and outs of public relations, and knew how to please a crowd. He was writing his own songs in earnest. New York beckoned, and he finally moved there in early 1920. His New York years will be the subject of my next McHugh installment.
There are so many good McHugh tunes from which to choose…here is Anita O’Day singing “Exactly Like You,” written in 1930 for International Revue.