Bing Crosby claimed he owed much of his success to a lyricist he dubbed "the Poet." Crosby said, "One of the best things that ever happened to me was a 145-pound leprechaun named Johnny Burke." "Pennies From Heaven" was the first song lyric that Johnny Burke wrote for Crosby and it set the standard for a string of hits. Burke said he learned to write for Bing by paying attention to Crosby's conversational style and taking phrases directly from his speech patterns.
Burke was born on October 3, 1908 in Antioch, California. When still young, the family moved to Chicago, where Johnny's father founded a construction business. As a youth, he studied the piano and some drama also. He attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he played piano in the orchestra. After graduating, he joined the Chicago office of the Irving Berlin Publishing Company in 1926, as a pianist and song salesman.
Irving Berlin, Inc. transferred Burke to its New York City office, where he began to write lyrics in collaboration with composer Harold Spina. 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, they 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". They wrote many songs that were played by leading bands of the day, including those led by Ben Pollack, Paul Whiteman and Ozzie Nelson.
1936 saw the end of the Burke - Spina partnership, as Burke left for Hollywood. His first partner there was Arthur Johnston. He then worked with Jimmy Monaco, but he was to make his mark in collaboration with Jimmy van Heusen.
Johnny Burke wrote or collaborated on over 400 songs, and has the distinction of being the only songwriter to have had five out of the Top 10 songs on Your Hit Parade—at the same time. Burke's songs have been included in 42 motion picture soundtracks and the scores of four Broadway musicals.
Johnny Burke wrote most of his song lyrics for the movies. During the 1930s and 40s Burke and his longtime partner Jimmy Van Heusen scored the music for twenty Bing Crosby films, including the “Road
” pictures starring Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, and the movie Going My Way
which featured the Oscar-winning “Swinging on a Star." So many of the Burke-Van Heusen songs became hits for Crosby that he referred to the pair as his “Gold Dust Twins.”
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 tune by "cool" jazz pianist Erroll Garner entitled "Misty". The 1956 film, The Vagabond King was Burke's last Hollywood work. Eight years later, he died suddenly at the age of 55 on February 25, 1964. He was survived by his second wife, Bessie Patterson, and son Lee Stanley who was born in 1943.
His song compositions include "Annie Doesn't Live Here Anymore", "The Beat of My Heart", "Pennies from Heaven", "One, Two, Button Your Shoe", "Let's Call a Heart a Heart", "So Do I", "It's the Natural Thing to Do", "All You Want to Do is Dance", "The Moon Got in My Eyes", "My Heart is Taking Lessons", "This is My Night to Dream", "On the Sentimental Side", "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams", "Laugh and Call It Love", "Don't Let the Moon Get Away", "Go Fly a Kite", "An Apple for the Teacher", "A Man and His Dream", "East Side of Heaven", "That Sly Old Gentleman", "Sing a Song of Sunbeams", "Hang Your Heart on a Hickory Limb", "Scatterbrain", "Sweet Potato Piper", "Too Romantic", "April Played the Fiddle", "Meet the Sun Half Way", "Only Forever", "Ain't It a Shame About Mame?", "I Don't Want to Cry Any More", "Imagination", "Dearest, Darest I?", "Isn't That Just Like Love?", "It's Always You", "Birds of a Feather", "Constantly", "Road to Morocco", "Ain't Got a Dime to My Name", "Moonlight Becomes You", "Sunday, Monday or Always", "If You Please", "Suddenly It's Spring", "A Friend of Yours", "Polka Dots and Moonbeams", "Going My Way", "The Day After Forever", "It Could Happen to You", "And His Rocking Horse Ran Away", "Like Someone in Love", "Sleigh Ride in July", "Yah-Ta-Ta Yah-Ta-Ta", "Put It There, Pal", "Welcome to My Dream", "It's Anybody's Spring", "Personality", "Just My Luck", "Aren't You Glad You're You?", "My Heart Is a Hobo", "Country Style", "Smile Right Back at the Sun", "Apalachicola, Fla.", "But Beautiful", "You Don't Have to Know the Language", "If You Stub Your Toe on the Moon", "Once and for Always", "You're in Love With Someone", "Someplace on Anywhere Road", "Sunshine Cake" High on the List", "And You'll Be Home", "Life Is So Peculiar", "Early American", "Here's that Rainy Day", "Ring the Bell", "The Magic Window", "Moonflowers", "To See You", "Misty", "If Love Ain't There", "He Makes Me Feel I'm Lovely", and "What's New?"...What beautiful lyrics he left behind for the world to continue to enjoy...