John M. Blackburn
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John Blackburn was born in Massilon, Ohio, and grew up in Shaker Heights in a family that loved music and poetry. His mother, a Christian Science reader, wrote music, and her two sisters were writers. He was educated at Western Reserve University, was a director at the Cleveland Playhouse, and traveled with a puppet theater. For two years he had a teaching fellowship in the drama department at Bennington College in Vermont, the state that inspired his evocative lyrics for “Moonlight in Vermont,” with music composed by Karl Suessdorf. The song was introduced by Margaret Whiting in 1944 and became her signature tune.
In the early ‘40s Blackburn moved to southern California where he worked at Lockheed. He and his wife, a classically trained pianist, were active in the Pasadena Playhouse where he was an actor and director for three years. After the war, they established Selective Records, recording and managing R&B musicians and distributing what at the time was referred to as “race records.” Their independent label was the first to record The Flames in 1949, but success was short-lived and by 1950 the label was defunct.
Blackburn worked for Rockwell International in the space division through the Gemini and Apollo space shuttle years. During that time he established the Downey Marionette Theatre in conjunction with the theatre in Downey, California. He also acted and directed for the stage at the Downey Theatre and the Ana-Majeska Theatre in Anaheim, California. He retired from Rockwell in 1976 but continued to write, collaborating with Burt Carroll in the ‘80s.
Although “Moonlight in Vermont” was by far Blackburn’s greatest hit, “Need You,” (written in 1949 with Teepee Mitchell and Lou Porter) was recorded by Jo Stafford and Gordon McRae. The song remained on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks, peaking at number four, and was also picked up by several country singers. In 1957 Oscar Peterson recorded Blackburn’s “Susquehanna” which was reissued in 2005 on the CD Soft Sands.
In the mid-1990s, Blackburn moved to the Oregon Coast where he continued to write songs until his death on November 15, 2006.
We wish to thank Blackburn’s son Jack Blackburn and stepson Johnny Wareham for help in compiling this biography and for supplying the above photo of Blackburn with Margaret Whiting.
- Sandra Burlingame
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