Johnny Burke (lyricist)

John Francis Burke (October 3, 1908 – February 25, 1964) was a lyricist, successful and prolific between the 1920s and 1950s.[1] His work is considered part of the Great American Songbook.

Johnny Burke
Johnny Burke circa 1960. Photo by Leo Friedman, NYC.
Background information
Birth nameJohn Francis Burke
Born(1908-10-03)October 3, 1908
Antioch, California
OriginAntioch, California, U.S.A.
DiedFebruary 25, 1964(1964-02-25) (aged 55)
New York City, New York
GenresPopular music
Years active1926–1964
LabelsParamount Pictures
Associated actsHarold Spina
Arthur Johnston
Jimmy Van Heusen
Bing Crosby
Bob Haggart

His song "Swinging on a Star", from the Bing Crosby film Going My Way, won an Academy Award for Best Song in 1944.

Early life

Burke was born in Antioch, California, United States, the son of Mary Agnes (Mungovan), a schoolteacher, and William Earl Burke, a structural engineer.[2] When he was still young, his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Burke's father founded a construction business. As a youth, Burke studied piano and drama.[3] He attended Crane College and then the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he played piano in the orchestra.[4]

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1927, Burke joined the Chicago office of the Irving Berlin Publishing Company in 1926 as a pianist and song salesman. He also played piano in dance bands and vaudeville.[5]


Burke and Spina

Irving Berlin Publishing transferred Burke to its New York City office, where he began to write lyrics in collaboration with composer Harold Spina.[6] In 1932, they wrote "Shadows on the Swanee", followed in 1933 by "Annie Doesn't Live Here Anymore", their first big hit for the Guy Lombardo Orchestra.[1] In 1934, Burke and Spina wrote "You're Not the Only Oyster in the Stew", which was a novelty hit for Fats Waller, as was "My Very Good Friend, the Milkman".[1] Burke and Spina wrote many songs that were played by leading bands of the day, including those led by Ben Pollack, Paul Whiteman and Ozzie Nelson.[5] The Burke - Spina partnership ended in 1936 when Burke left for Hollywood.[1]

Burke in Hollywood

Burke's first partner in Hollywood was Arthur Johnston.[7] He then worked with Jimmy Monaco,[8] but he was to make his mark in collaboration with Jimmy Van Heusen.[9]

The team of Burke and Van Heusen turned out some of the great hit tunes of the 1940s. Burke signed a contract with Paramount in 1939, and spent his entire career with the same studio. Burke's primary function as a lyricist was working on the films of Bing Crosby.[1] Of the 41 films on which he worked, 25 starred Bing Crosby. Seventeen songs were substantial hits, including "Pennies from Heaven", "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams", "Only Forever", "Moonlight Becomes You" and "Sunday, Monday, or Always".[10]

Other works

In 1939, Burke wrote the lyrics for "Scatterbrain", with music by Frankie Masters and "What's New?" with Bob Haggart.[1] In 1955, Burke added lyrics to a standard by jazz pianist Erroll Garner entitled "Misty".[1] Burke also wrote the words and music to the Nat King Cole song "If Love Ain't There".

The film The Vagabond King (1956) was Burke's last Hollywood work. Eight years later, he died in New York City from a heart attack at the age of 55.[11]

Awards and honors

Burke and Van Heusen's song "Swinging on a Star", from the Bing Crosby film Going My Way, won an Academy Award for Best Song in 1944, one of seven Academy Awards won by the film.[11] Burke was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.[4]

In 1995, Burke's life was depicted in the Broadway musical revue, "Swinging on a Star".[12]

Personal life

Burke was married four times. He was married to Mary Mason in the 1960s, who played Liesl in The Sound of Music on Broadway; the couple had a daughter. He was married to Bess Patterson from 1939–1955; the marriage produced three children.


Among the landmarks of Burke's songwriting career were:


  1. Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. pp. 202/3. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.
  2. Furia, Philip (October 16, 2002). "American Song Lyricists, 1920-1960". Gale Group via Google Books.
  3. "Artist Biography by Steve Huey". AllMusic. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  4. "Johnny Burke". Songwriters Hall ofFame. Archived from the original on 2013-12-28. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  5. "Johnny Burke". Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  6. "Pennies From Heaven: The Lyrics of Johnny Burke". Stanford University. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  7. "Arthur Johnston". Songwriters Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 2016-02-23. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  8. "Jimmy Monaco". Songwriters Hall of Fame. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  9. "Jimmy Van Heusen". The Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  10. "THEATER; Johnny Burke Wrote His Songs With Moonbeams". The New York Times. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  11. "Johnny Burke, 55, Songwriter, Dies". Reading Eagle. Retrieved November 18, 2013.
  12. "Review: 'Swinging on a Star a Musical Celebration of Johnny Burke'". Retrieved November 18, 2013.

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