Thursday, September 9th, 2010...11:26 am

Johnny Green, Body and Soul

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Access badge, Academy Awards, 1962, MS Thr 569 (1945)[Manuscript Cataloger Michael Austin recently completed a major project to catalog our extensive collection of papers relating to composer and Harvard alumnus Johnny Green. He contributed this post about Green and his collection.]

If Johnny Green had listened to his father, the twentieth century would have been deprived of one of its greatest artists in motion-picture and big-band music.

Johnny Green, MS Thr 569 (1915)

Born in 1908, Green was the son of a wealthy banker who “drove” from the family home on Long Island to work in Manhattan via yacht; his early life was one of privilege and relative luxury. Both of his parents were accomplished amateur pianists, but his father considered musicians fundamentally “bums” and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps on Wall St. When the boy — who had already proven himself something of a musical prodigy — entered Harvard College at 15, he was compelled to major in economics, and his own taste for the good life, consisting of shows, fine clothes, wine, food, and cars made bucking his father’s financial support and plans for his life difficult.

Green, however, was convinced that he was no dilettante; all he needed was some small but demonstrable proof that he could make it — one way or another — as a professional musician. Once, at the tender age of 14, he had played one of George Gershwin’s own compositions in front of the composer at a party, with words to the effect of “That’s how it should be played, sir!”, but his real entrée into show business came even before he graduated from Harvard. As leader of the Gold Coast Orchestra (a nod to the apartment blocks on Cambridge’s Massachusetts Ave. known as the “Gold Coast”, inhabited by wealthy undergraduates), he had a hit with “Coquette”, written for Guy Lombardo, who had been impressed by Green’s college band. The song remains a jazz standard to this day.

I've Got a Heavy Date, MS Thr 569 (1767)

Still, that wasn’t enough for his father, so after graduation Green knuckled under and went to work for a stock brokerage. He lasted precisely six months, by which time the notoriety of “Coquette” had gained the attention of the music world. From 1928 to 1942, he worked as a piano accompanist, orchestra conductor, arranger, and composer for Broadway and West End musicals, for a variety of radio programs on NBC, CBS, and BBC, and for Paramount’s Astoria Studios. Success followed upon success, with hits coauthored by lyricists Edward Heyman and E.Y. Harburg such as “Out of Nowhere”, “I Cover the Waterfront”, “How Can I Hold You Close Enough”, “I’m Yours”, and, most especially, “Body and Soul”, which became Green’s signature tune. During this period he worked with Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Merman, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire, among many others.

Body and Soul, MS Thr 569 (1767)

Green matured during the period in which a wave of “legitimate” European musicians, trained in the classical tradition of the nineteenth century, were migrating to the US and finding jobs in commercial songwriting houses (“Tin Pan Alley”), vaudeville, and the motion-picture industry. Many, like Green, were Jewish. As a newly emerging locus of artistic activity, the Hollywood studio system was not controlled by the long-established powers dominant in other areas of American cultural life, and thus it welcomed these first- and second-generation immigrants.

The motion-picture musical “spectacular” of the mid twentieth century, which had its roots in the aesthetics of vaudeville, came to flower with the grand new technology of Technicolor. Having learned film scoring from veterans Adolph Deutsch and Frank Tours at Paramount, in 1942 Green went to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he combined artistic mastery with technical expertise to create the studio’s “house sound”, achieved in part by changing the traditional seating of the orchestra. In 1949 Green became executive music director at MGM and stayed until 1959, after which he became a freelance composer, arranger, and conductor, working for Warner Bros., RKO, Paramount, and Columbia and branching out into the new medium of television. Over the course of his career, he won five Academy Awards: four for arranging and conducting music for the motion pictures Easter Parade, An American in Paris, West Side Story and Oliver!, and one for his original composition The Merry Wives of Windsor Overture, a subject in MGM’s Concert Hall series. He was also music director for the iconic MGM musical Brigadoon and Columbia’s Bye Bye Birdie.

Score for "Consider Yourself" from Oliver! MS Thr 569 (944)

In addition to his motion-picture work, Green maintained an intense — some might say punishing — concert schedule as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl for 32 years and guest-conducted the San Diego, Denver, and Chicago orchestras, along with several other major American civic orchestras, well into his seventies. He adapted jazz standards and signature movie themes as well as much classical music for concert performance, particularly arias from operas such as Pagliacci, La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, and The Barber of Seville.

Green’s chief regret in life was that his own original music was relegated to second place at the expense of his conducting and arranging work–that is, contributions to the creations of others. He was crushed that his original score for the film Raintree County (MGM 1957, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift) did not win an Oscar; however, it was critically well received, as were his scores for Alvarez Kelly (Columbia 1966) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Palomar 1969). In addition to the musical Hi-ya Gentleman!, a comic operetta of undergraduate life, he composed an impressionistic suite entitled Nightclub and two symphonic works, Stars over the Pacific and Mine Eyes Have Seen, which saw major premieres. Today it is his jazz standards of the 1920s and ’30s that have entered the canon and are still consistently performed.

Married three times, Green had one daughter by his second wife, actress and consumer advocate Betty Furness, and two daughters by his third wife, swimming champion and philanthropist Bunny Waters. He was a longstanding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). A Hollywood fixture for some five decades, he was a scintillating master of ceremonies active in numerous capacities (he served as MC and conductor for the first televised Academy Awards in 1953) and an all-around bon vivant. He had a reputation for never appearing in public without a fresh carnation in his lapel.

Green was close friends with many of the major composers and songwriting teams of the twentieth century, such as George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Leonard Bernstein. By the time he died in 1989, he had left an indelible mark on movie music, not only for his own work but for mentoring such younger composers as John Williams and Marvin Hamlisch. One of his most cherished contributions was acting as conductor of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, where he was deeply involved in the education of the next generation of musicians.

Harvard’s collection of Johnny Green material consists of two groups of papers (MS Thr 542, MS Thr 569), which together comprise over 250 linear feet. Of this, the vast majority is made up of manuscript scores, i.e., original scores in Green’s hand and printed or otherwise reproduced scores with his notes. There is also a small amount of correspondence and subject files; these deal largely with the motion-picture industry, especially the Academy Awards. Of particular interest to researchers should be the fact that since the destruction of MGM’s former music library, some scores in the Green papers are the only copies in existence for certain films.


  • Well done, Michael!!!!

  • […] Houghton Library Manuscript Cataloger Michael Austin (left) holds the Academy Award presented to Johnny Green, Class of 1928, for his original composition The Merry Wives of Windsor Overture, a subject in MGM’s Concert Hall series. Austin recently completed a major project to catalog Houghton’s Johnny Green Collection, which consists of thousands of manuscript scores, printed scores with hand-written notes, and correspondence. For more information about the collection, visit the Houghton Library Blog. […]

  • An excellent, informative, and entertaining piece! (FWIW, I’ve posted this on Facebook.)

  • The only thing, Merry Wives of Windsor Overture was not composed by Green, but by Otto Nicolai. Mr Green was the conductor in the film