On the Sunny Side of the Street

Jimmy McHugh was a successful New York City-based songwriter in the 1920s. He wrote for the best of the best and was living the good life. Then, as happened to so many, the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression changed the direction of his life. McHugh found himself penniless. He sold all of his worldly possessions, including the piano he composed his work on, just to keep a roof over his head.

Walking down the street without much hope, he bumped into his friend, famed composer George Gershwin. Gershwin could tell he was down on his luck and asked if there was anything he needed. A downtrodden McHugh lamented that he didn’t even have a piano to write songs on anymore.  

A few days later an upright piano arrived at McHugh’s apartment. Things were about to change. While walking down the Manhattan sidewalk, inspiration struck. Because of the skyscrapers, it’s common to have both a shady and a sunny side of the street. Getting that piano made him feel like he had crossed over to the sunny side. He had his song.

“On the Sunny Side of the Street” found its start on Broadway before later becoming a jazz standard. Many other hits followed, but that song was always special to McHugh. It was the combination and culmination of the physical gift of the piano and the creative gift of the song that turned his life around. 

Cal Fussman recently retold this story with one of McHugh’s living family members, sitting at that storied piano. It serves as a reminder that there is so much we can do for others when we just listen and show we care. 

There are two analogies we can learn from this story. First, there’s the clear power of networking – if we’re a McHugh we need to know who our Gershwin’s are, and if we’re a Gershwin we should be looking out for our McHugh’s. Second, we should never underestimate the power of giving people something they can actually use. Notice that Gershwin gave him a piano and not a kazoo. If we’re crafting a plan for a musician, we should show them how the plan begins and ends. We should show them how the tempo (the pace of activity) can change along the way. We should point out the expected ranges of highs and lows. We don’t just use tools, we give people tools for how to interact with their world. 

We don’t have to create a forced analogy to their lives, we just have to tee it up in a way that says, “I heard you, and I think I see what you need. Try this because I think it will help.” Our goal should be to provide our work as a gift, delivered with real empathy for our client’s unique situations. If we do that every time, we are providing an incredibly valuable service. That’s how we keep our clients on the sunny side of the street.

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