Jimmy McHugh: A Hep Kid With a Beat

by | Dec 2, 2022

Jimmy McHugh, the prolific Boston-born songwriter, made many notable contributions to the Great American Songbook. Perhaps thirty of his 500 tunes became jazz standards, gems still being played almost a hundred years after he wrote them. Yet it would be incorrect to call this master of the popular song a jazzman.

This article is about McHugh’s formative years as a young man in Boston in the 1910s, and his success as a songwriter in New York in the 1920s. He had his closest encounters with jazz in those years, at the Cotton Club and with Duke Ellington. He also wrote some of his very best songs in New York, partnering with lyricist Dorothy Fields.

Tin Pan Alley was a tough and competitive neighborhood, and knowing about McHugh’s character can help us understand his success as a songwriter. For starters, he was ambitious, very ambitious, and willing to work the long hours needed to reach his goals. Second, he knew how to recognize and exploit the opportunities, musical and otherwise, that came his way.

Finally, the outgoing and personable McHugh was a born promoter. It didn’t matter what it was—a song, a show, a good cause, himself—he promoted it with gusto. He used every method at his disposal. Radio and “talking pictures” were new technologies in the 1920s, and he took full advantage of them. Were he now alive, he would eagerly embrace today’s social media marketing practices. There was nobody better than Jimmy McHugh at tending a personal brand.

A Piano-Playing Plumber’s Son

James Francis McHugh was born on School Street in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood on July 10, 1894, the son of James, a plumber, and the music-loving Julia. The Boston Irish working-class community of his youth shaped him. The men socialized at Tom McHugh’s Tavern, owned by his uncle, at Northampton and Washington streets. John L. Sullivan, the retired heavyweight boxing champion, frequented the place, and James M. Curley worked for the grocery business next door. The McHughs were enthusiastic Curley backers, and Jimmy soaked up that exposure to Irish-American politics. It stayed with him all his life. He was a strong Kennedy man in later years.

Mother and father saw different futures for their son. James wanted Jimmy to take up the plumbing trade, and he did try it for a time after high school. Julia, meanwhile, taught him to play the piano and encouraged his musical interests. And she taught her son well. McHugh later recalled how if Julia heard any copy-cat playing, she’d give him a rap across the knuckles. But if she heard something original, she’d give him a nickel. Julia was thus the first to reward Jimmy for improvising a good tune.

Faith and family were of the highest importance to the McHughs. Jimmy was raised a Catholic and remained a devout one all his life, which made him an atypical resident of Tin Pan Alley. And the family bond was the bedrock. Growing up in the early years of the twentieth century, music—the kind you made yourself, gathered around the piano in the parlor—was central in his family’s life. Decades later McHugh had vivid memories of their Sunday “family time.”

Sunday afternoons we’d have great times. After the dinner dishes were cleared away, we’d go into the parlor for a concert. My brother Tommy played the cornet and my brother Larry played the clarinet. I’d be at the piano, and we’d do semi-classicals. If it was a popular tune, my sisters (Helen and Mary) would join in with a vocal duet.

When it started to get dark my mother would get up from her easy chair—the one just under the picture of John Alden and Priscilla—and light the gas mantles. Then my father would ask us to play something snappy; he’d go out into the kitchen, sprinkle salt on the floor, and do a sand-dance shuffle.

We always knew when our mother thought we’d had enough for the afternoon—she’d come over to the piano, I’d get up from the stool and she’d take my place. My brothers and sisters would stop playing and singing, and my father would come in from the kitchen. We’d all sit back and listen to my mother this time while she played “Monastery Bells.”

“Those were the happy days. I’ll never forget them.” [1]

Jimmy McHugh, Piano-Playing Office Boy

As a teenager, the ambitious McHugh was determined to find work in the music business. His opportunity came in 1910, at age 16, at the Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue. (It stood where Northeastern University’s Speare Hall now stands.) Henry Russell’s Boston Opera Company hired him as an office boy.

It was an errand-running job for the most part, but the people I ran errands for! (Enrico) Caruso, (Nellie) Melba, (John) McCormack, (Luisa) Tetrizzini, (Jean) de Reszke, (Geraldine) Farrar. Then there was a theater manager from Haverhill who used to come backstage a lot and he’d give me a half-a-dollar for some little chore or other I’d perform, like getting him a newspaper perhaps. His name was Louis B. Mayer—the ‘Mayer’ of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios on the West Coast.
In those days there were about 50 pianos scattered around rehearsal and dressing rooms for the opera singers to practice with, and it was a big temptation for me to sit down and mess around on the keys myself. [1]

Photo of Jimmy McHugh

Jimmy McHugh in Boston

McHugh often yielded to that temptation. He liked to amuse the opera stars by playing arias in ragtime. Russell eventually assigned McHugh to the publicity department, where he had his first lessons in the art of promotion. He took to it readily. The Boston Opera Company went bankrupt in March 1914, and McHugh, months shy of his twentieth birthday, was out of a job.

He found work for the summer and early autumn of 1914, playing piano at the Crescent Spa, an ice-cream parlor on hectic Revere Beach. It was the first public swimming beach in the nation, and hundreds of thousands of city dwellers visited every summer. The boulevard opposite the beach was packed with amusements, including five carousels and at least three dance halls. The largest, the Ocean Pier, could accommodate 2,000 couples. Another, in the heart of the boulevard, was the Crescent Garden, and the Crescent Spa was on the first floor. Every other building on the boulevard had someone playing a piano, and the competition for listeners was intense. The area was packed with people, all day and into the night.

McHugh by this time was a capable piano player and sight-reader. At the Crescent Spa, he played the popular tunes of the day, which he learned from roving sheet music salesmen called song pluggers. If McHugh liked a plugger’s tune, he played it. (Perhaps he played W.C. Handy’s “The St Louis Blues,” published that year.) If his listeners liked the tune, they bought the sheet music to play at home. Sheet music sales determined what became a hit, and song pluggers drove those sales. McHugh soon joined their ranks.

Tremont Street Song Plugger

In late 1914, McHugh signed on as a song plugger at the firm of Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder for $8 a week. “Berlin” was none other than Irving Berlin, already one of America’s leading songwriters. Every morning, entertainers and musicians gathered at Waterson’s Tremont street office to hear the pluggers run through new songs. That done, the 22 pluggers hit the streets, moving around town on company-supplied bicycles. McHugh wrote in his unfinished memoir:

We traveled on bicycles from theater to dance hall to cafe. We marched in parades with megaphones. Anything for a plug. We gave managers of movie houses chorus slides to four or five songs—he would flash them on the screen and the audience would sing them. Backstage in the vaudeville houses we tried to get our song used as the background to an acrobatic act, to a dance, to a dog act. Saturdays I doubled at the music counters of dime stores. Everywhere we went we competed with pluggers from other firms, clamoring for the same favors. It was a desperate struggle, but it paid off. [2]

At Waterson, McHugh published his first song, “Caroline, I’m Coming Back to You,” in 1916. He sold it for $15. It was also the first of his tunes to be recorded, in 1918 by the Peerless Quartet, on Victor Records.

McHugh liked the hurly-burly of the song plugger’s life. He liked being in motion, meeting people, and putting over songs. He enjoyed competing with other pianists for the $15 prize in contests sponsored by South End fight promoter Miah Murray (probably the 1880s-era big-league ballplayer, catcher Jeremiah J. “Miah” Murray). McHugh’s clincher was to play “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”—with his nose. Apart from that, though, his playing already had a jazz feel, gleaned from Roxbury piano man Bobby Sawyer, who counted Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney among his star pupils.

Next to nothing is known about McHugh’s encounters with jazz in Boston, apart from his informal sessions with Bobby Sawyer. But there must have been more. He was on that bicycle, moving around the city from piano to piano, and he certainly traveled through the South End and Roxbury, where the jazzmen lived and worked. There was a strong contingent of black musicians active by 1919, members of the fledgling Local 535 of the Musicians Protective Association. Among them were pianists Harry Hicks, Walter Johnson, Jimmy Murray, George Tynes, and Tom Whaley. There is no way to prove it, of course, but McHugh probably met them all while making his musical rounds.

Then came World War I. McHugh enlisted in the army in August 1917, but a bout of appendicitis kept him stateside. After his discharge in 1918, he went right back to song plugging. His musical talent distinguished him among the Waterson men. He had a good ear, and not only could he sight-read, he could transpose any song into any key, making him the ideal accompanist. Sometimes Waterson sent him out with two other pluggers under the name of the company’s founder as “The Ted Snyder Trio,” and Jimmy played while the others sang. By 1920, he had risen to supervisor and was earning $25 a week. But he had reached the limits of what his home town could offer professionally.

New York Calling

McHugh wasn’t going to make it in the music business if he stayed in Boston, and he knew it. The center of the industry was New York City. That’s where the publishers were, and the theater, and the jazz. He had to be there.

Although New York beckoned, McHugh was not free to go. He had a family. During his Revere Beach summer, Jimmy met Bess Hornbrook, and they married later in 1914. Their son Jimmy was born the following year. McHugh first pitched the idea of New York to her in 1918, when he heard Berlin was leaving Waterston to strike out on his own. But Bess wasn’t interested—she didn’t care for his line of work or its lifestyle.

Irving Berlin did indeed start his own publishing company in 1919, and McHugh feared the Waterson catalog would suffer for it. He was anxious to move on, and the opportunity to do so came in early 1920. Publisher George A. Friedman offered Jimmy a job in New York at a salary of $100 a week. Bess still wasn’t interested. McHugh took the job anyway, leaving his wife and five-year-old son behind. The McHughs’ marriage was through, although they did not divorce until 1945, and he never developed an especially warm relationship with his son.

What a time to arrive in New York! Radio was just getting started. There were no networks until later in the decade, but individual stations were on the air and McHugh plugged songs on all of them. Record sales were also taking off—in 1920 Paul Whiteman sold a million copies of “Whispering,” an extraordinary number. McHugh saw potential there, too. He envisioned multiple artists recording the same tune, each producing its own revenue stream, and of course that’s what happened. When Friedman sold his business in 1921, Jimmy went to work for Mills Music, the publishing house owned by Jack and Irving Mills.

Everything Is Hotsy-Totsy

McHugh flourished at Mills Music. He was a genius at generating publicity, at getting the firm’s name (and his own) in the papers, and getting its songs played in public settings and on the radio. He wrote topical songs—if something was in the news today, it was in a Mills song on the radio tomorrow. A noteworthy example: when actor Rudolf Valentino lay dying, McHugh and Irving Mills composed “There’s a New Star in Heaven Tonight.” They had the song in circulation within hours of Valentino’s death.

Through all this activity, McHugh still played the piano. He teamed with Irving Mills in the Hotsy Totsy Boys for radio and recording work. And everything was indeed hotsy-totsy for McHugh when the Mills firm recognized his hard work, and made him a partner and stockholder in 1923.

And all this time, McHugh was writing songs. He wrote his first New York song, “Emaline,” in 1921, and Isham Jones recorded it. He wrote his second, “Stop Your Kiddin’, with Ferde Grofé in 1922, and The Original Memphis Five recorded it. In 1924, McHugh had a hit with “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street,” and in 1926 came an even bigger one, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me.” Jazz groups have used that up-tempo stepper to rouse lethargic audiences ever since.

Each of these took McHugh further away from sentimental songs like “Caroline, I’m Coming Back to You.” What McHugh’s biographer, Alyn Shipton, wrote about “Emaline” could just as well have been written about any of them:

The melody of “Emaline” and its regular but attractive chord structure demonstrated that from his very first effort as a New York songwriter, McHugh was in tune with the Jazz Age. He understood how to create pieces that stood independently as songs but that could also form a basis on which improvising musicians could jam. His day-to-day work brought him in contact with all manner of performers as he plugged the Mills catalog, but an increasing percentage of his customers were members of the burgeoning jazz scene in the city. [3]

The Cotton Club and Duke Ellington

Talking about McHugh and jazz leads straight to the Cotton Club and Duke Ellington. It didn’t take McHugh long to get up to Harlem after he joined Mills in 1921. That year he started writing for the floor shows at the Cotton Club. Gangsters owned it, of course, and they were paying McHugh serious money—$250 a week to write shows and then continuously revise them. With what he was earning at Mills, and at the Cotton Club, he was able to buy his parents a new house on Bournedale Road in Jamaica Plain in 1925.

Irving Mills, meanwhile, was managing Duke Ellington’s band. In 1926, he took McHugh to the Kentucky Club, where Ellington’s band was in residence. McHugh loved the band, and he talked the Cotton Club gangsters into hiring them for an upcoming show. It took about a year for all the pieces to come together, but finally, after one day of rehearsal, the Ellington band opened at the Cotton Club on Dec 4, 1927.

I heard Duke, and I wanted him. For one thing, he and his boys could read! The band I had to let go couldn’t. I had to sit down at the piano and play every tune for them until they learned it. Not only could Duke read, he promptly went to work writing the orchestrations—at $50 each—for the show. [4]

The mostly forgotten McHugh tunes Duke’s band played in Rhythmania, that first show, included “Harlem River Quiver,” “Doin’ the Frog,” and “Red Hot Band.” McHugh would remain at the Cotton Club until 1929, but by then, he already had one foot on the Broadway stage.

Partnership with Dorothy Fields

In 1927, McHugh met lyricist Dorothy Fields and invited her to write a club show with him. Their first collaboration was that first show of Duke’s in December. It was such a success that theatrical producer Lew Leslie hired them to write for him. Leslie was white, but he was the first producer to feature black entertainers on Broadway. McHugh and Fields wrote songs for the Broadway revue Blackbirds of 1928, which starred Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Adelaide Hall, and Aida Ward. It was a sensation. It included now-familiar standards like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” “Diga Diga Doo,” “Doin’ the New Low Down,” and “I Must Have That Man.” Blackbirds ran for 518 performances and spun off touring companies, and made Broadway celebrities of McHugh and Fields.

Photo of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields

Goin’ Hollywood: Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields boarding the 20th Century Limited

The duo continued to write for the Cotton Club, but Fields didn’t like the work or the club. She objected to the risque material the management wanted in the revues. Broadway was more her style. McHugh, no fool, knew that writing with Fields would be better than staying at the Cotton Club without her. They left in spring 1929, and soon Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler started writing the shows.

McHugh and Fields wrote for a second revue that opened in December 1928, Hello, Daddy. Dorothy’s father Lew starred in it, the choreographer was Busby Berkeley, and Ben Pollack’s band with Jack Teagarden and Jimmy McPartland supplied the music. Then Pollack’s band, using the name Jimmy McHugh’s Bostonians, made records of the songs from Hello, Daddy including “Futuristic Rhythm,” “Let’s Sit and Talk About You,” and “In a Great Big Way.” The nickels and dimes continued to accumulate at Mills Music!

Next came International Revue for Lew Leslie in February 1930, with “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Exactly Like You.” Just prior to that, however, Wall Street crashed and both McHugh and Fields lost nearly everything. Later in 1930 they joined the beeline of New York songwriters heading west to Hollywood and healthy paydays.

The two were partners until 1935, contributing music to about 15 films. They wrote a string of stellar songs in Hollywood that included “Lost in a Fog,” “Hooray for Love,” “Lovely to Look at,” “Don’t Blame Me,” “Cuban Love Song,” “I Feel a Song Coming on,” and “I’m in the Mood for Love.” But by 1935, Fields wanted to move on, and it was a turning point for both writers.

On her own, Fields first worked with Jerome Kern, and won the Oscar in 1936 for Best Original Song, for “The Way You Look Tonight,” from Swingtime. Then she returned to New York, where she worked with songwriters from Irving Berlin to Cy Coleman. She was working with Coleman on Seesaw when she died in 1974.

What About Fats Waller?

One question mark in McHugh’s career involves Fats Waller. Fats sometimes sold the rights to his tunes for next to nothing to raise some fast cash. Predictably, he’d regret these decisions when songs became money-making hits for others. Waller’s son Maurice wrote in his biography of his father:

Many times Dad accused Fletcher Henderson, Irving Berlin, or other writers of stealing his material. The most vivid memory I have of one of those incidents dates back to the time when we lived on Morningside Avenue. Dad was listening to the radio one Sunday afternoon. Suddenly he became infuriated and smashed his fist through the living room’s beautiful glass French doors. The song was “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a hit record credited to Jimmy McHugh. Dad had sold the song for a few bucks when he was broke back in the twenties. McHugh also “wrote” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” [5]

There is an undeniable Waller feel to those tunes, but if Fats wrote the melodies, McHugh never acknowledged it. Why would he—these were consistent money-makers. The lyrics, though, came from the pen of Dorothy Fields. She remembered writing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” after overhearing a young man say those words to his girl as they stood outside a jeweler’s window.

Waller may have been on McHugh’s mind when he bought the rights to his compositions from Mills Music in 1945. He surely understood the importance of copyrights, and viewed the Mills purchase as a way to regain the rights and royalties to his enduring early hits.

McHugh After Fields

Dorothy Fields always remained current, and had a more varied career than McHugh after their partnership ended. McHugh, meanwhile, continued writing—and plugging—songs. He collaborated with a series of other lyricists, always looking for another shot of that Fields magic. He partnered with Ted Koehler (“I’m Shooting High”), Johnny Mercer (“I’d Know You Anywhere”), and Frank Loesser (“Let’s Get Lost,” “Murder, He Says”).

McHugh’s longest association (1936-1951) was with Harold Adamson, a successful Hollywood lyricist who cut his teeth writing shows for the Hasty Pudding Club while a student at Harvard. The McHugh-Adamson pairing produced notable tunes like “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening,” “A Most Unusual Day,” “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer,” and “You’re a Sweetheart.” They wrote two songs popularized by Frank Sinatra, “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night,” and “Where Are You?”.

Unlike Fields, McHugh never won the songwriter’s big prize, the Oscar for Best Original Song written for use in a film. The Academy nominated him once as a lyricist in 1935, and four times as composer, in 1938, 1940, 1943, and 1944. His best shot was in 1940, with “I’d Know You Anywhere,” written with Johnny Mercer for the RKO comedy You’ll Find Out. The film starred the sinister trio of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre playing strictly for laughs, with interludes of Ginny Simms singing the McHugh-Mercer songs. But the winner that year was “When You Wish Upon a Star.” (Look for an outstanding version of “I’d Know You Anywhere” with Irene Kral singing with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra.)

Still a Hep Kid with a Beat

Jimmy McHugh’s career peaked during his eight years with Dorothy Fields. She was working on new shows up until the time of her death, but not so McHugh. His vital years as a songwriter ended by the early 1950s. His last film song was “Reach for Tomorrow,” with lyrics by Ned Washington, in 1960’s Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Ella Fitzgerald sings it in the film.

McHugh, meanwhile, turned to other activities: philanthropy, backing Jack Kennedy, and fighting to reform the copyright laws. He undertook this latter on behalf of ASCAP, where he was a member of the board. By the mid-1960s, McHugh’s music had all but disappeared.

Jimmy McHugh died of a heart attack in Beverly Hills, his longtime home, on May 23, 1969.

But it’s better to leave Jimmy McHugh on an up note. The mayor of Boston declared a Jimmy McHugh Day in 1960, and that might be a good place to end. But I’d rather end with his music, so we’ll go back to October 1948. He was in Boston readying his new musical, As the Girls Go. It opened on October 13, at—where else—his old haunt, the Boston Opera House. The critics panned it, though, and the show required a major overhaul before it could move to Broadway.

Doctoring the show kept McHugh busy, but he found time for the reporters. He always found time for the reporters. He told the Boston Globe, “When I was here in Boston with the Berlin outfit I was just a song-plugger. I played at baseball parks, theaters, fairs, conventions, banquets, everywhere the publishers could find to introduce and ‘put over’ a new number. There was no radio or talking picture then to sell a new song.” [1] And then he added the resonant words that even ended up in his obituary: “I was a hep kid with a beat then. Now? I’m still a hep kid with a beat.”

Whatever the hep kid did to fix that show in Boston, it worked: As the Girls Go opened on Broadway in December as planned, and ran for 414 performances.

* * * *


[1] Kneeland, Paul. “Boston’s Jimmy McHugh has 500 Ways of Saying I Love You.” Boston Globe, Oct 31, 1948.
[2] Shipton, Alyn. I Feel a Song Coming On: The Life of Jimmy McHugh. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 23. He is quoting from “Bring Him Along—He Plays!”, an unpublished autobiography by McHugh with Anne St John, circa 1967.
[3] Shipton, Alyn. I Feel a Song Coming On: The Life of Jimmy McHugh. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 38.
[4] Down Beat News, “McHugh’s View: Live with the Nation’s Youth,” Down Beat 27/8 (Apr 14, 1960), 12-13.
[5] Waller, Maurice and Anthony Calabrese. Fats Waller. New York: Schirmer Books, 1977, 168.

For further reading, start with Alyn Shipton, author of the definitive biography, I Feel a Song Coming On: The Life of Jimmy McHugh. Wilfred Sheed’s The House That George Built also contains material of interest.

Richard Vacca is the author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937–1962 (Troy Street Publishing, 2012) and co-author of What, and Give Up Showbiz? (Backbeat Books, 2020). Reach him at rvacca@richardvacca.com or send a message via this site’s Contact form.