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Music Memories: Johnny Mercer

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Songwriter, Johnny Mercer

Johnny Mercer was born on November 18, 1909. For a quarter-century, Mercer was one of America’s most successful songwriters, writing more than 1,200 songs; he was primarily a lyricist, but occasionally wrote the music as well. Unusually for his era, he was also a talented and popular singer and recording artist.

Mercer grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and was always interested in singing. By the age of 11 or 12, he had memorized dozens of songs and had begun to take note of who had written his favorites. He was not uniformly talented in all aspects of music. Piano and trumpet lessons went poorly, and Mercer never did learn to read music, relying instead of a personal notation system.

After high school, Mercer had hoped to attend Princeton, but family financial difficulties made that impossible. Instead, he went to work for his father’s real estate business. That didn’t hold his interest for long, and he moved to New York at the age of 19. He found a few jobs playing bit parts in plays and made connections with other songwriters. By 1930, he’d gotten his first song on Broadway, when “Out of Breath (and Scared to Death of You” (music by Everett Miller) appeared in the revue The Garrick Gaieties. (It’s not often heard these days.)

Mercer’s first hit came in 1933. “Lazy Bones” (music by Hoagy Carmichael) was written in Southern vernacular. Mercer didn’t care for a lot of the “southern” songs of the era; many of them were written by people who’d never been to the South, and he thought they didn’t get the language right, so he was happy to be successful with his own authentic version of Southern speech.

Mercer preferred to write free-standing songs, as opposed to writing songs that had to fit into a specific plot or story. But as Broadway shifted in the 1930s away from revues and towards more musicals with more integrated plots, he found it harder to place his songs on Broadway. If he was going to have to write for plotted musicals, Mercer found Hollywood more appealing than Broadway. Microphones hadn’t come to the stage yet, so songs for theatrical musicals had to be written to be sung loudly; movie singing was more intimate and conversational, a better fit for Mercer’s style.

3 album covers by Johnny Mercer

“Intimate and conversational” was Mercer’s style not only as a composer but as a singer. In addition to his career as a songwriter, he was a successful recording artist in the late 1930s and 1940s; he had a pleasant, relaxed voice, and an easy charm that suited his own songs very well. He hosted his own weekly show for a few years, with regular appearances by frequent recording partners Jo Stafford and vocal quartet The Pied Pipers.

There are several recordings available of most of the Mercer songs listed in this post; his own recordings of many of them are available on either the Capitol Collectors Series collection of his 30s-40s work, or on his 1974 album My Huckleberry Friend. For songs not included on either of those albums, I’ve linked to versions by a variety of singers.

By the mid-1930s, Mercer was much in demand, and writing one successful song after another. His hits from this era included “Goody Goody” (music by Matty Melnack), “Too Marvelous for Words” (Richard Whiting), and “Jeepers Creepers” (Harry Warren), which got him the first of nineteen Academy Award nominations. At one point, five of the top ten songs on the radio countdown show Your Hit Parade were written or co-written by Mercer.

Things only got better when he met composer, Harold Arlen. Arlen and Mercer had styles that meshed perfectly; within just a few years, they wrote “Blues in the Night,” “One for My Baby, and One More for the Road,” “Come Rain or Come, Shine,” and “That Old Black Magic.”

Mercer’s first Oscar win came in 1946, for “On the Atchinson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (music by Warren); he would win three more times, for “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (Carmichael), “Moon River” (Henry Mancini), and “Days of Wine and Roses” (Mancini again, the only time that a songwriting team has won consecutive Oscars).

Mercer collaborated on a few Broadway shows in the 1950s. They were generally not memorable, though 1956’s Li’l Abner is still popular with high school and community theater groups.

As rock and roll began to dominate the popular music landscape in the 1950s, Mercer was no longer at the center of American music. He did continue to have the occasional success throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with songs like “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Charade” (Mancini). And he continued to record, pairing with Bobby Darin in 1961 for the album Two of a Kind.

Mercer usually wrote to an existing tune, rather than write lyrics for a composer to set, or work side-by-side with a composer. That made him a frequent choice when lyrics were needed for tunes that were already popular as instrumentals—David Raksin’s “Laura,” or the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn “Satin Doll”—or as a writer of English lyrics for songs in other languages—Heinz Meier’s “Summer Wind,” or “The Glow-Worm,” which originally came from a 1902 German operetta by Paul Lincke.

Mercer died on June 25, 1976, of an inoperable brain tumor. He is buried in Savannah, and the memorial bench at his grave is illustrated with a caricature that Mercer drew himself.

In 1980, the Johnny Mercer Award was established as the highest award given by the Songwriters Hall of Fame (an organization that Mercer had helped to found in 1969); it is a lifetime achievement award for a songwriter who has already been inducted into the Hall. In 2015, Mercer’s recording of his song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (music by Arlen) was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry of historically significant recordings. And of course, Mercer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on Vine Street, just a block away from Capitol Records, a company he helped to found in 1942.

Mercer’s contribution to American song continued even after his death. In his final years, he had been a fan of singer Barry Manilow, and Mercer’s widow gave to Manilow some unused Mercer lyrics, hoping that he might turn them into songs. Manilow’s recording of “When October Goes” was a hit on adult contemporary radio in 1984, and Nancy Wilson recorded an album of the Manilow/Mercer collaborations.

With so large a body of work, it’s not surprising that there are many Mercer songbook albums; Hoopla has Mercer collections by Ella Fitzgerald, Monica Mancini, Sylvia Syms, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, and Beegee Adair.

Gene Lees’ biography of Mercer is called Portrait of Johnny (e-book | print); The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (print) was published in 2009.


 

 

 

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