John Francis "Johnny" Burke (October 3, 1908 – February 25, 1964) was a lyricist, widely regarded as one of the finest writers of popular songs in America between the 1920s and 1950s.

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. When still young, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Burke's father founded a construction business. As a youth, Burke studied piano and drama.[1] He attended Crane College and then the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he played piano in the orchestra.[2]

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.[3]


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.[4] 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. 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". 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] 1936 saw the end of the Burke - Spina partnership, as Burke left for Hollywood.

Burke in Hollywood

Burke's first partner in Hollywood was Arthur Johnston.[6] He then worked with Jimmy Monaco,[7] but he was to make his mark in collaboration with Jimmy Van Heusen.[8]

The team of Burke and Van Heusen turned out some of the great hit tunes of the late 1930s and 1940s. Burke signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1939, and spent his entire career with just one studio. Burke's primary function as a lyricist was working on Bing Crosby films. 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.[9]

Other works

In 1939, Burke wrote the lyrics for "Scatterbrain", with music by Frankie Masters and "What's New?" with Bob Haggart (1914–1998). In 1955, Burke added lyrics to a standard by "cool" jazz pianist Erroll Garner entitled "Misty". Burke also wrote the words and music to the Nat King Cole song "If Love Ain't There."

The 1956 film, The Vagabond King was Burke's last Hollywood work. Eight years later, he died in New York City from a heart attack at the age of 55.[10]

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.[12]

In 1995, Burke's life was depicted in the Broadway musical revue, "Swinging on a Star".[13]

Personal life

Burke was married four times. He was married to Bess Patterson from 1939-1955, and they had three children.


Among the landmarks of Burke's songwriting career were:

  • with Harold Spina:
    • "Annie Doesn't Live Here Anymore"
    • "You're Not the Only Oyster in the Stew"
    • "My Very Good Friend, the Milkman"
    • "Shadows on the Swanee"
    • "The Beat of My Heart"
    • "Now You've Got Me Doing It"
    • "I've Got a Warm Spot in My Heart for You"
  • with Arthur Johnston:
    • "Pennies from Heaven"
    • "One Two, Button Your Shoe"
    • "Double or Nothing"
    • "The Moon Got in My Eyes"
    • "All You Want to Do Is Dance"
  • with Jimmy Monaco:
    • "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams"
    • "Don't Let That Moon Get Away"
    • "An Apple for the Teacher"
    • "On the Sentimental Side"
    • "My Heart Is Taking Lessons"
    • "Scatterbrain"
    • "That Sly Old Gentleman from Featherbed Lane"
    • "Sing a Song of Sunbeams"
    • "East Side of Heaven"
    • "Where the Turf Meets the Surf" (with Bing Crosby)
  • with Jimmy Van Heusen:
    • "Only Forever"
    • "Too Romantic"
    • "Sweet Potato Piper"
    • "Polka Dots and Moonbeams"
    • "Imagination"
    • "Moonlight Becomes You"
    • "Sunday, Monday, or Always"
    • "Going My Way"
    • "Swinging on a Star"
    • "It Could Happen to You"
    • "And His Rockin' Horse Ran Away"
    • "The First One Hundred Years"
    • "But Beautiful"
    • "Apalachicola, Fla"
    • "Here's That Rainy Day" (from the Broadway musical Carnival in Flanders)
    • "It's an Old Spanish Custom" (from Carnival In Flanders)
    • "Oh, You Crazy Moon"
    • "To See You Is to Love You"
    • "Suddenly It's Spring"
    • "Like Someone in Love"
    • "(We're Off on the) Road to Morocco"
    • "You May Not Love Me"
    • "It's Always You"


  1. "Artist Biography by Steve Huey". Al Music. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  2. "Johnny Burke". Songwriters Hall ofFame. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  3. "Johnny Burke". Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  4. "Pennies From Heaven: The Lyrics of Johnny Burke". Stanford University. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  5. "Johnny Burke". Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  6. "Arthur Johnston". Songwriters Hall of Fame. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  7. "Jimmy Monaco". Songwriters Hall of Fame. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  8. "Jimmy Van Heusen". The Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  9. "THEATER; Johnny Burke Wrote His Songs With Moonbeams". The New York Times. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  10. "Johnny Burke, 55, Songwriter, Dies". Reading Eagle.,3986050. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  11. "Johnny Burke, 55, Songwriter, Dies". Reading Eagle.,3986050. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  12. "Johnny Burke". Songwriters Hall ofFame. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  13. "Review: ‘Swinging on a Star a Musical Celebration of Johnny Burke’". Variety. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 

External links

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