Snapshot in Prose: Ernest Burnett

“My Melancholy Baby” is one of those standards that most folks over a certain age have heard of, but few could, if pressed, sing (we can, we’re proud to say, if only in our atonal, pitchy way). It’s a familiar song title, in other words, but no longer such a familiar song.

We’re guessing even fewer people could name the song’s composer.

But as we learn in today’s Snapshot in Prose, originally published in 1935, “My Melancholy Baby” was a recurring hit for three decades running in the early years of the last century, the greatest claim to fame for songwriter Ernest Burnett. Burnett, who served in World War I, was once thought to have died in that conflict—no less a figure than Paul Whiteman even announced as much over the radio, as Burnett lay recuperating from tuberculosis in a government-run sanatorium in Arizona—but he came storming back to Broadway to resume his career, and not without success.

But “My Melancholy Baby” remains, to this day, his crowning achievement.

Read to the bottom of the profile, and you’ll find a couple of renditions of the song for your dancing pleasure.

ERNIE BURNETT, a soldier in the World War, composer of the famous song, “My Melancholy Baby,” was lying on his cot in a government sanatorium, out in the hot desert country of Arizona, where the cacti bloom. His thoughts were of New York, Tin-Pan Alley, Success, Romance—his broken dreams.
Hoping to cheer up his spirits with some lively music, he tuned in his radio. Suddenly—
But listen! Paul Whiteman is speaking. He is saying—that he and his band are now going to play one of the greatest of all popular songs. A song that is destined to become immortal—to be incorporated some day into an American opera—“My Melancholy Baby.”
Paul’s voice grows a little pensive: “And,” he adds, “the composer of the song, a soldier, died of tuberculosis.”
The wan, sick man leaned toward his radio, and said, “No! No! I—Ernie Burnett—am not dead! Not by a long shot!”
The amazing statement that had just come over the radio, under the circumstances, might have made some of us feel pretty sorry for ourselves—but not Ernie Burnett.
It had been such a long time since he had enjoyed the plaudits of Broadway, that at first, he tried to kid himself into believing that he was accustomed to being forgotten.

Then, his pale face gradually took on that same expression that “our boys” wore when they went “Over There.” That grin of determination that is mightier than the sword.
Ernie Burnett gritted his teeth, and told himself that he wsa going to war again—and over the top. This time, in Tin-Pan Alley.

For, those words of Paul Whiteman had brought him two very startling, dramatic surprises! Had literally started Ernie on the road from the “dead,” to life. Finally, they were to bring him from the burning sunshine of the lonely plains in Arizona, to the blazing lights and crowded theatres of Broadway.
In 1918, the name of Ernest Burnett had been put upon the list of those “missing in action.” Later, the ill, ex-service man had been, unofficially, reported dead. But, this fantastic new had never reached him.
However, the question of whether he was alive or dead did not disturb Burnett so much as his puzzlement, inspired by Paul Whiteman’s rendition of his song, “My Melancholy Baby.”
Fortunately, he could not see the long, trying stretch before him. He could not know that it would take four more years of patient, courageous curing; of obedience, more difficult than that of the army; of long hours, more lonely than those on the battlefield.
But, he found kindness in the sweet Arizona air, unspeakable beauty in the skies, peace in the gentle natives. So, in 1932, Ernie Burnett, a well man, a generous, brave man returned to the Tin-Pan Alley. Ernie Burnett, the soldier, came back from the “dead.”
But, let us cut back and trace our songster’s fascinating life from the beginning. Ernest Burnett was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was French-Italian, and his mother was Hungarian. Music danced in his blood.
When he was 12 years old, the dark-eyed little boy was sent to Italy, where he had relatives, to study piano and organ.
He returned to America, at 17, and enrolled in the University of Missouri.
After two semesters at the University, the youth, enthusiastic to begin working at his music, was on the wing for San Francisco. Soon after the earthquake, he left there and went to Denver, Colorado.
“Now I’ll tell you a story,” Ernie said, “to show you how green I was, when I first began to write songs professionally. I was collaborating with two song-writers. They told me that I has to compose five songs, without my name appearing on the music, before I could be eligible for real recognition.
These boys could me $25 dollars each for the five numbers. Then, they sold them on a royalty basis. One of the songs turned out to be a tremendous hit. Just one of those little pleasantries, we cut our wisdom teeth on, you know,” he grinned.
“I woke up the day that Fred Belcher, of Remick’s, asked me: ‘Ernie, how do you expect to get recognition when your name isn’t on the music?
However, that same year he wrote that very popular song, “Sing Me a Song of the South.” A few years later, when the young boy composed “Texas Tommy Glide,” he started a veritable Texas Tommy dance rage , all over the country.
“That’s Gratitude,” written for Bert Williams to sing in the “Ziegfeld Follies” of 1907, is the number that Ernie considers made him.
Then, in 1910, along came “My Melancholy Baby,” the song which has played the role of a major character in the drama of Ernie Burnett’s life. It enjoyed a revival in 1916, again in 1928, and still again in 1934. It has had the honor of being included in that precious list of “the ten popular songs that will live forever.” It is perhaps the “song of songs” for him, thinks its author.
“Melancholy” (as the number was called until 1912) was written in Denver, Colorado.
“I was expecting some one very dear to me,” said the composer, “to come in at the Union Depot. The train was late. One announcement after another came, each time the train was later—late—eight hours late!”
“I lived too far from the Depot to go home and return. I simply had to wait Well, how would you feel waiting eight hours for a train? I did, too,” he laughed.
“So, in that mood, during those dreary thousand moons, I wrote the two verses and chorus words and music of ‘My Melancholy Baby.’
“Three weeks later, George Norton happened to come to Denver. He polished the lyrics up. Then, the melancholy lament was ready to start out upon its exciting career.
“The Theron Bennett Co. of Denver, Colorado took the number in 1911. Three years later, the firm went into bankruptcy.
“Then, I thought that the song was dormant. That explains my keen surprise when I heard Whiteman and his band playing it over the radio.”
Once back in New York, again, I started suit for full royalty, accounting damages, and interest to the amount of $100,000 against the new publishers,” declared Burnett.
So far, the results of this law suit could be appropriately called, by Burnett, “melancholy,” but Ernie is a fighter.
To Burnett is given the credit for having started two song cycles or “styles.” His “Tomorrow” written in 1914 was the first of the “Tomorrow” songs; and you will all remember the deluge of wailings and moaning that followed, “Love Me Or Leave Me Alone.”
He is still single, and he says he is going to remain in that tranquil state. It is about the only thing that is tranquil about his life story. Imagine how disturbing it would be for a wife to be continually hearing her husband asked; “Oh! Aren’t you dead?”
Ernie tells us that Ernest Brewer, an old friend (and himself a songwriter of note) with whom Ernie had worked on songs in the early days met the “ghost” face to face, on Broadway, and fainted!
The Elks of Denver, put Ernest Burnett on their memorial in gold letters. “I don’t tell them any better—for fear they might not put it up again,” said Ernie humorously.
So frequently does he meet with the started gaze of old acquaintances, along the great gay way—so frequently does the weird thing happen—their telling him that he can not be himself, that he says there are times when almost wonders whether he is dead, or alive.
In a couple of short years “My Melancholy Baby,” through the copyright laws, will again become the sole property of the composer.

Chick Bullock — “My Melancholy Baby”

Bernie Cummins and His Orchestra — “My Melancholy Baby”

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