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Image courtesy of Babbie Green
Johnny Green, with his trademark white carnation and some of his musical works

In his early twenties, Johnny Green ’28 wrote the music for some two dozen hits, including “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Out of Nowhere,” “I Wanna Be Loved,” and above all the captivating ballad “Body and Soul.” His Depression-era songs touched millions with their passionate sense of longing and hope.

He “wrote with as much soul and emotion as anyone on the street,” remarked Wilfrid Sheed in his history of American popular music, The House That George Built. Green was also an exceptional pianist, conductor, arranger, and producer, combining musical talent with a showman’s flair and a corporate manager’s toughness. From 1949 to 1958, he was general music director and executive in charge of music at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, responsible for many of the studio’s landmark musicals and film scores. In a 1955 Variety interview, he argued for replacing the lush, formulaic “Hollywood sound” of the 1930s and 1940s with a “sparse and linear” music and a more individual style. Nominated 14 times for an Academy Award, he won for his orchestrations of Easter Parade, An American in Paris, West Side Story, and Oliver! Sporting his trademark white carnation, he served 17 years as orchestra conductor and music director for Oscar Night and introduced the practice of striking up the appropriate musical theme the instant a winner is announced. 

Green had magnetic charm and an exuberant sense of humor; he was a stylish dresser whose sartorial ideal was Fred Astaire and a raconteur who practiced his jokes in front of a mirror. But he also had an enormous need to be taken seriously. The suicides of an adoring mother and beloved younger brother—and the unbending expectations of a harsh father, a real-estate magnate and banker—created inner tensions for much of his life. He sought the prestige accorded classical composers and conductors, but his achievements remain rooted in Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. His failures hurt: he was devastated when his critically acclaimed original score for the 1957 film Raintree County failed to win an Oscar. 

Music influenced him early. Both parents, cultured New Yorkers, were proficient amateur pianists, and his mother took him to his first symphony concert when he was four. (He said afterwards that he wanted to spend his life not just making music but being the conductor.) At 14, he met George Gershwin and performed a Gershwin tune on the composer’s piano to show him how it ought to be played. When Harvard accepted Green at 15, his father pressured him to choose economics instead of music as a concentration, declaring, “There is no bum like a pretty good artist, and you’re a pretty good artist.” Even so, Green as a freshman organized the Cambridge Serenaders, an 11-piece band that later became the Harvard Gold Coast Orchestra. When band leader Guy Lombardo heard the orchestra, he hired Green to write arrangements for the newly formed Royal Canadians. “Coquette,” which Green composed for Lombardo the summer before his senior year, became an overnight sensation, but he was offended when Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club didn’t invite him to compose for its musical.

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After a year’s hiatus as a graduate student in English and a clerk on Wall Street, Green decided once and for all to pursue a career in music, forming a songwriting partnership with lyricist Edward Heyman only months before the stock market crashed. Desperately in need of work, he wrote four pieces for singer-comedienne Gertrude Lawrence, whom he had once invited to perform with the Serenaders at Harvard. She paid $250 for the lot, one of them “Body and Soul.” As recorded by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the song was number one on the charts for six weeks, but it was banned from the radio for nearly a year for its sexually suggestive lyrics, further enhancing its popularity. “Body and Soul” secured Green’s induction in 1972 into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame: “You don’t write ‘Body and Soul’ unless you’re some kind of genius,” a fellow songwriter remarked.

In the early 1930s, Green served as composer-conductor at Paramount’s film studios in Astoria, New York; later, “Johnny Green, His Piano and Orchestra” provided sophisticated swing music at posh hotels and on popular radio shows. New opportunities lured him to Hollywood in 1942; he worked as a composer and conductor for several studios before moving to MGM as music director. Meanwhile, he realized his childhood dream as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl for more than 20 seasons, and in appearances with other symphony orchestras, although these favored lighter “pops” programs over serious classical works. 

In 1978, after writing what he described as “so little original music of importance,” he received a commission from the Denver Symphony Orchestra to write a one-movement symphony for the dedication of a new performing arts center. Green, a secular Jew whose conversion to Christianity was inspired by his third wife, beauty queen Bonnie (Bunny) Waters, ascribed the breakthrough to divine intervention: “That’s got to be somebody trying to tell me something. And I happen to know who that Somebody is!” He titled the symphony “Mine Eyes Have Seen.” 

But the work’s successful completion was also a reminder of the road not taken. “It’s regrettable,” Green admitted to classmates toward the close of his career, “that I spent all those years (and, far from incidentally, made all that money!) slaving over other people’s music instead of creating my own.”