Bob Merrill, one of Tin Pan Alley’s most prolific tunesmiths who wrote music or lyrics or both for several popular Broadway musicals including “Funny Girl” and had the nation tapping its toes to such novelty hits as “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?,” was found dead in his car on Tuesday in Culver City, Calif. He was 74 and lived in Beverly Hills, Calif.
His wife, Suzanne, said he had taken his own life with a pistol after suffering prolonged depression linked to various ailments, none of them life-threatening. “He didn’t want to be in a wheelchair,” she said. “He wanted to be the master of his own fate.”
In the 1940s and ‘50s, the tall, copper-haired Merrill seemed to pump out hits as reliably as a jukebox, scoring with “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” “My Truly, Truly Fair,” “Sparrow in the Tree Top,” “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” and “Mambo Italiano.” He also wrote the lyrics to his first big hit, “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake.” In three years he had 17 hits.
In addition to writing the lyrics for “Funny Girl,” including the nowclassic songs “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” inaugurated by Barbra Streisand, he wrote the lyrics for the musicals “Sugar” and “Henry, Sweet Henry,” based on “The World of Henry Orient.” He also wrote the music and lyrics for the shows “Carnival,” based on the Leslie Caron movie “Lili,” “New Girl in Town,” based on Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie,” “Take Me Along,” based on O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness,” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which closed during previews. He assisted on “Hello, Dolly!”
In 1964, he won the New York Drama Critics award for his work on “Carnival” and “New Girl in Town.”
In 1984, 37 of Merrill’s songs were woven into a four-character musical called “We’re Home” that drew favorable notices Off-Broadway. In 1990, another of his musicals, “Hannah … 1939,” about a woman forced to work for the Nazis in Prague, played Off-Broadway with Julie Wilson in the title role.
He also wrote a number of screenplays, including “Mahogany” starring Diana Ross, “W.C. Fields and Me” with Rod Steiger, and “Chu Chu & the Philly Flash” with Alan Arkin and Carol Burnett.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he told Cue magazine in 1953. “I’m no Tchaikovsky. I can’t read or write a note. I compose all my songs on this toy xylophone I bought at the five-andten for $1.98.” He said he put numbers on the keys so he could easily transcribe the melody. “You can’t fool yourself with fancy arranging,” he said. “All my hits have a very simple, hummable melody.”
After his songs earned more than $250,000, he bought a more expensive xylophone. That cost him $6.98.
His hits had a common denominator, he said. “They are all about America, they are all wholesome, and they are all happy.” They made liberal use of cliches, as Merrill cheerfully admitted, telling how he filled notebooks with them. “Cliches make the best songs,” he said. “I put down every one I can find.”
They also had a way of sticking maddeningly in the brain. Merrill - who said he was sometimes confused with Robert Merrill of the Metropolitan Opera - once explained his sales by saying that for every customer who bought a hit record like his to play at home, two others bought it to smash it to bits.
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