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My Melancholy Baby (1911)

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Origin and Chart Information
“...well-written melody, highly unusual for the time, and certainly not a piece of hack work.”

- Alec Wilder

Rank 164
Music Ernie Burnett
Lyrics George A. Norton

This song was likely introduced by vaudeville performer Jack O’Leary, known as “That Singer,” who is pictured on the original sheet music. A 1915 recording by vaudeville stage actor/vocalist Walter Van Brunt became a popular hit. The song has charted several times over the years:


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

The original title for “My Melancholy Baby” was “Melancholy.” It was copyrighted in 1911 with music by Ernie Burnett and lyrics by Maybelle Watson, Burnett’s wife. Burnett sold the piece to Theron C. Bennett, music publishers who liked the song but not the lyrics. George A. Norton, a composer and lyricist, wrote new lyrics, and the song was published in 1912 with a dedication to “Miss Maybelle Watson of Berkeley, California.” That same year, the copyright was transferred to Joe Morris Music using the title “My Melancholy Baby.” During the 1930s, Miss Watson’s name found its way onto the music as co-lyricist, but the ASCAP website now lists only Burnett and Norton.

To add even more intrigue, Ben Light, a pianist who recorded a number of successful albums in the 1950s, claimed he had written the music, although he would have been a teenager in 1911. Composer Burnett wrote a follow-up in 1938 entitled “I Married My Melancholy Baby.”


More on George A. Norton at JazzBiographies.com

More on Ernie Burnett at JazzBiographies.com

Alec Wilder, author of American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950, expresses how impressed he was with the “well-written melody, highly unusual for the time, and certainly not a piece of hack work.”

Vocalist/composer Tommy Lyman, a cabaret and radio artist of the 1920s and ‘30s, is credited with first using the term “torch song” when introducing his version of “My Melancholy Baby.” The tune had a brisk comeback in 1927 with a hit recording by vocalist Gene Austin and recordings by groups such as Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, the Charleston Chasers, the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, and clarinetist Jimmie Noone.

Bandleader Isham Jones brought the tune back in 1934, and English vocalist Al Bowlly had success on both sides of the Atlantic with his version from 1935. Since that time the tune has been recorded by a significant number of artists from Steve Allen to Ray Charles, Bill Evans to Burl Ives, and Thelonious Monk to Jerry Vale.

More information on this tune...

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages

(In his encyclopedia Hischak discusses the style and history of the song and lists its performers and the films in which it has appeared.)

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

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