Above, from left: Sydney Chaplin, Barbra Streisand, Bob Merrill and Jule Styne during rehearsals for Funny Girl
In our recent feature article about singer Jimmie Rodgers, we note that he is often confused with a perhaps more famous Jimmie Rodgers, of a different musical genre. Same with Bob Merrill. We also note that there was tragedy involved in Jimmie’s life. Same here. And finally, that he wasn’t what people assume he was. Ditto again.
Bob Merrill, in case you didn’t know, wrote Jimmie Rodgers’ monster 1957 hit “Honeycomb,” and that is the connection between these two men with different but equally mistaken identities. Or names. [Editor: Now even I am confused!]
Let’s go through it again…
First, the confusion: Bob Merrill was not the same person as opera star Robert Merrill, nor was he the popular trumpeter named Bob Merrill. Born Henry Levan, Robert Merrill was taken as a stage name, then abbreviated to Bob to avoid confusion. It sort of worked, but a lot of people who watch the New York Yankees think the late opera singer also wrote “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” and a lot of jazz enthusiasts think a trumpeter penned the theme from Mahogany.
Second, the tragedy: Merrill’s career fizzled after first enjoying monstrous success as a pop songwriter, followed by middling success on Broadway, followed by brief but significant success as a film screenwriter in the mid 1970s. By the 1980s, age and changing times passed him by, but he never quit trying. In the 1990s he became terminally ill and put a bullet in his head.
Thirdly, the assumption and denial: It has been said that Bob Merrill composed the worst songs ever written. That assertion has been denied more than it has been said, and there’s no need to dignify that statement any more.
Fact is Merrill must’ve known something about making music tick; recordings of his songs sold millions and repeatedly topped the pop charts. Ask anyone over the age of 50 if they’re familiar with songwriter Bob Merrill (and stress that this is not opera singer Robert) and 999,999 out of a million will say no. Now show them a list of his songs, and they’ll immediately agree that they know most of them. So let’s take a look at some, and try to figure out his uncanny ability to appeal to the masses.
Although there is significant evidence that Merrill couldn’t read music, it is obvious he had an innate musical skill. The first compositions he hawked around Tin Pan Alley were considered too complex to be successful. Not knowing the rules, Merrill pushed the envelope, but the business wasn’t ready for the chord and key changes he created. It’s likely he was actually a musical prodigy, but took the advice and began writing simpler songs.
To intentionally dumb down his music, Merrill began composing with the aid of a child’s xylophone. He would develop a simple stream of notes, then collaborate with a composer to fully realize the song. Merrill is thus thought of as a lyricist, but in many cases he had a lot to do with the basic melody.
His first hit composition was “If I knew You Were Coming, I’d a Baked a Cake.” It was performed and recorded on a radio show with Eileen Barton backed by a studio band. Barton was a sort of torch/jazz/r&b singer with an obvious sexiness that translated to the recording. It was released on a tiny independent label, but became too big and was contracted to Mercury records. The song remained a well known standard into the 1970s, creating a catch-phrase which has since dropped from the popular lexicon. The record went to the top of the pop charts, and the song lingered on the Billboard charts in various versions for about a year. Georgia Gibbs had a notable “competing” version.
Mitch Miller, who left Mercury to rule the roost at Columbia Records, had a penchant for novelty songs and liked the material he saw from Bob Merrill. Miller had changed the musical scene with Frankie Laine’s “Mule Train,” which Miller probably viewed as a novelty song — perhaps not realizing that it was a combination of a pre-rock and roll orchestration and Laine’s performance that put the record in orbit. In any event, Miller loved novelty songs and even forced Frank Sinatra to bark like a dog on one infamous duet with Dagmar. Miller used a number of Merrill songs to launch the career of Croation singer Albert Cernik, whom Mitchell Miller renamed after his own name as “Guy Mitchell.”
One of the first Merrill compositions Mitchell drove up the charts was “My Truly, Truly Fair,” which went all the way to #2. A competitive version by Vic Damone sold nicely as well, and at this point Merrill could seemingly do no wrong. Next came hits like “Feet Up (Pat Him on the Po-Po),” “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” “Look at that Girl,” and “Sparrow in the Treetop” which hit the top ten for Mitchell, and was one of the last top tens for Bing Crosby. Singer Rex Allen topped the country charts with a version, and achieved decent crossover success, making it three versions that hit the pop charts.
Each of these songs seem a bit mundane in retrospect, perhaps part of the reason is that the musical score for these is credited to Merrill alone. Working with his xylophone, he managed to create these simple but extremely catchy melodies — something the pop music scene could benefit from today.
In 1953 a Merrill song went on to even bigger success: Patti Page’s recording of “How Much is that Doggie In the Window.” It topped the pop charts from late March until early May. A competing version did likewise in Great Britain, and many great vocalists of the day would either record it or perform it.
By the mid-1950s Merrill was a songwriter of some renown. His next major composition was “Honeycomb,” which kind of banged around among various artists before Jimmie Rodgers rode it to the top in 1957. This remains Rodgers’ signature song, and despite its simplicity, it is held in higher esteem than “Doggie” or “Baked a Cake.” It was around this time that the “mambo” dance craze prompted Merrill to do a new arrangement and updated words to a traditional Italian folk song, which became Rosemary Clooney’s huge hit, “Mambo Italiano.” In 1955 none less than Perry Como took a Merrill song to the top five, the bouncy and enjoyable “Tina Marie.”
In 1957 Merrill moved into the world of Broadway. His first production was New Girl In Town starring Gwen Verdon. Merrill composed both words and music for this show, which ran for 431 performances.
Merrill was back on familiar ground — the top of the charts — in 1961 when the soundtrack for the Broadway production Carnival hit the top of the album charts. It didn’t launch any huge single hits, yet as both composer and songwriter it indicates the ability Merrill had to strike at the pulse of the American record buying public.
Although he collaborated or was peripherally involved with a number of productions, his greatest success came with the 1964 musical Funny Girl, which he partnered with composer Jule Styne as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand. The show ran for over 1300 performances at the Wintergarden Theatre and included a number called “People,” which has since become Barbra’s signature song.
In the 1970s Merrill found more success as a screenwriter, including the script for the Diana Ross vehicle Mahogany. While he continued to write songs, he was no longer writing hits, and eventually struggled to find his muse. As of 1993 Merrill was still at it, working in Nashville trying to develop material. His health began failing, ultimately leading to suicide. But Merrill’s legacy remains; “Mambo Italiano,” “Honeycomb,” and certainly “People” remain oft-performed and instantly recognizable, earning him a rightful place of honor in the great American songbook.
Yeah that’s three different guys. All very talented — the subject of this article is the one on the left. Or first, if you’re on a hand held device.