Jimmy McHugh's Musical Legacy
Judy Garland sang for him, and President Kennedy once pulled a prank on him in church.
Confidante Louella Parsons chronicled his Beverly Hills parties. He was on the set when Shirley Temple practiced dance steps for “Dimples.” He plunked out some of his biggest hits on a piano he got from George Gershwin. Dean Martin’s daughter was his godchild. Yes, James “Jimmy” McHugh, subject of a newly released biography, “I Feel a Song Coming On,” and composer of such standards as “I’m in the Mood for Love,” ran with a star-studded crowd. Still, “I never really thought of him as a celebrity,” Dorothy Brooks said as she looked through photos in her Milford home Thursday afternoon. “He was … my uncle, and he was always there for us.” When Brooks, her late brother Jimmy Kashalena of Medfield, and sister Judy Kashalena of Brookline, were growing up, “he’d call all the time and ask how our studies were. He wanted to know how we were doing. “One of the things I do remember was he wanted me to take piano lessons. I said, ‘I’d like to, Uncle Jimmy, but I don’t have a piano.’ It wasn’t long before “a big truck came with a big crane” to her family’s apartment in Brookline “to put it up through the third-story window.” With a piano from her uncle, there were “no more excuses,” she said with a laugh. “He came at least once a year” to visit the extended family.
On his last trip home, he visited the Beaver Park Apartments in Framingham, where Brooks was living in 1968. “All my life I wanted to go to California to see my uncle,” Brooks recalled. She finally made the trip three months before his death in 1969. Last month, with the release of the biography by Alyn Shipton, Brooks, her sister and their California kin had a chance to recall some of their favorite stories about McHugh.
They also got a glimpse at the glamour that was once part of his life. While in New York for an October concert in McHugh’s honor and book-signing event, “we were treated like royalty. … We went to Sardi’s” with Shipton, a music critic for the Times of London, and McHugh’s youngest granddaughter “hired a stretch limo. We went all over, looking for places where my uncle, when he was struggling, worked, lived and played.”
The music man
Before he made his way to New York, where he teamed up with lyricist Dorothy Fields - for whom Brooks is named - and where he would encourage the Cotton Club’s managers to hire Duke Ellington in 1927, McHugh made a name for himself closer to home. Highlights included playing piano at the Boston Opera House, working as a song plugger for the Boston office of Irving Berlin Publishing, and rubbing elbows with James Michael Curley when the future composer and the future Bay State political juggernaut were delivery boys. Born in 1894, he was the eldest of the five children James and Julia McHugh raised in Jamaica Plain. It was assumed he’d follow his father’s footsteps into the plumbing trade, and the musical gifts nurtured by his mother would be merely a hobby, but McHugh had other ideas. He arrived in New York in the 1920s and was soon composing for entertainers at hotspots such as the Cotton Club, where he was the house composer, and for Broadway shows. He and Fields had made their way to Hollywood before parting company in 1935. “I don’t think I actually met her,” Brooks said of the woman who shares her name. “I remember getting presents from her” as a child. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” one of the many standards that bears both Fields’ and McHugh’s names, was inspired by watching a young couple outside Tiffany’s in New York. “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Diga Diga Doo” and “Exactly Like You” were also products of their collaboration, as were songs for the movies “Cuban Love Song” and “Dinner at Eight.”
In Hollywood, McHugh worked with Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser and Harold Adamson to create “I Feel a Song Coming On,” “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed,” and “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night.” During World War II, his “Comin’ In on a Wing and a Prayer” spent 21 weeks on “Your Hit Parade.” He staged his own nightclub acts in the 1950s, performed for Queen Elizabeth II, and was instrumental in promoting competitive swimming in California. His Boston Irish ties cemented his affection for the Kennedy clan. He wrote “The First Lady Waltz” for Jackie, and saw President Kennedy during the commander-in-chief’s trips to California. During one such visit, McHugh was surprised to see Kennedy place an inordinately large donation in the collection plate during a service at the Church of the Good Shepherd. It turned out Kennedy had folded a $10 bill to appear to be $100 as part of a prank. McHugh’s siblings, including Brooks’ mother, Helen, went to California to be part of a “This is Your Life” tribute hosted by Ralph Edwards. Brooks said her uncles, Larry on drums and Tommy playing the horn, joined their brother for a jam session on the TV show. “My mother’s family, every one of them played (an instrument) and sang,” said Brooks. “That’s how they entertained themselves,” and it was a tradition that continued when the family got together in later years.
Carrying the torch
When she was young, “we got to go to some of his shows when they opened in Boston or Connecticut,” said Brooks, who is retired from Natick Labs. “Every time my uncle released an album, we got a copy.” She recalled McHugh’s “wonderful smile. He was a charmer,” and is glad the music he made is still performed in shows such as “Jersey Boys.” Jimmy McHugh III, son of McHugh’s only son, and Lee Newman, great-grandson of McHugh and also Eddie Cantor, keep the legacy going with Los Angeles-based Jimmy McHugh Music. They also maintain McHugh sites on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.
He is credited with more than 500 songs, and “I like them all,” said Brooks, but, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me,” well, “that’s one of my favorites” and “Don’t Blame Me” is “a beautiful song.” She’s happy her uncle’s life caught the attention of the British author who has also written books on Fats Waller and Dizzy Gillespie. “It’s such a wonderful tribute to a wonderful, wonderful man.” And also a chance to recall a time when a kid from Boston could end up living a dream in the midst of stars.
(Julia Spitz can be reached at 508-626-3968 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Julia Spitz, The MetroWest Daily News, Saturday November14, 2009. Used with permission. All rights reserved.