Johnny Mercer Biography

John Herndon Mercer, 18 November 1909, Savannah, Georgia, USA, d. 25 June 1976, Los Angeles, California, USA. A distinguished lyricist, composer and singer, Mercer was an important link with the first generation of composers of indigenous American popular music such as Jerome Kern and Harry Warren, through to post-World War II writers like Henry Mancini. Along the way, he collaborated with several others, including Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Gene De Paul, Rube Bloom, Richard Whiting, Victor Schertzinger, Gordon Jenkins, Jimmy Van Heusen, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Arthur Schwartz and Matty Malneck. Most of the time, Mercer wrote the literate and witty lyrics, but occasionally the melody as well.

Mercer moved to New York in the late 20s and worked in a variety of jobs before placing one of his first songs, ‘Out Of Breath And Scared To Death Of You’, (written with Everett Miller), in The Garrick Gaieties Of 1930. During the 30s, Mercer contributed the lyrics to several movie songs, including ‘If You Were Mine’ from To Beat The Band, a record hit for Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson, ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’ (words and music) (Rhythm On The Range), ‘Too Marvelous For Words’ (co-written with Richard Whiting for Ready, Willing And Able), ‘Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?’ (Varsity Show), ‘Hooray For Hollywood’ (Hollywood Hotel), ‘Jeepers Creepers’ (Going Places) and ‘Love Is Where You Find It’ (Garden Of The Moon). Mercer’s other songs during the decade included ‘Fare-Thee-Well To Harlem’, ‘Moon Country’, ‘When A Woman Loves A Man’ (with Gordon Jenkins and Bernard Hanighan), ‘P.S. I Love You’, ‘Goody Goody’, ‘You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby’, ‘And The Angels Sing’, ‘Cuckoo In The Clock’, ‘Day In-Day Out’ and ‘I Thought About You’. In the 30s he appeared frequently on radio, as MC and singer with Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Bob Crosby. With his southern drawl and warm, good-natured style, he was a natural for the medium, and, in the early 40s, had his own show, Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop. During this period, Mercer became a director of the songwriter’s copyright organization, ASCAP. Also, in 1942, he combined with songwriter-turned-film-producer, Buddy De Sylva, and businessman, Glen Wallichs, to form Capitol Records, which was, in its original form, dedicated to musical excellence, a policy which reflected Mercer’s approach to all his work.

He had previously had record hits with other writers’ songs, such as ‘Mr Gallagher And Mr Sheen’ and ‘Small Fry’, along with his own ‘Mr. Meadowlark’ (a duet with Bing Crosby), and ‘Strip Polka’. For Capitol, he continued to register in the US Hit Parade with popular favourites such as ‘Personality’, ‘Candy’; and some of his own numbers such as ‘G.I. Jive’, ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive’, ‘Glow Worm’; and ‘On The Atchison, Topeka, And The Santa Fe’, which was also sung by Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls (1946), and gained Mercer his first Academy Award. His other 40s song successes, many of them from movies, included ‘The Waiter And The Porter And The Upstairs Maid’ (from Birth Of The Blues); ‘Blues In The Night’ and ‘This Time’s The Dream’s On Me’ (Blues In The Night); ‘Tangerine’, ‘I Remember You’ and ‘Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry’ (The Fleet’s In), ‘Dearly Beloved’ and ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ (You Were Never Lovelier) (Kern); ‘Hit The Road To Dreamland’ and ‘That Old Black Magic’, Billy Daniels’ identity song, (Star Spangled Rhythm), ‘My Shining Hour’ (The Sky’s The Limit) and ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’, ‘Legalize My Name’ and ‘Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home’, from the stage show St. Louis Woman (Arlen).

Two particularly attractive compositions were ‘Fools Rush In’ (with Rube Bloom), which was a big hit for Glenn Miller (and later Ricky Nelson), and the movie title song ‘Laura’, with Mercer’s lyric complementing a haunting tune by David Raksin. Mercer’s collaboration with Hoagy Carmichael produced some of his most memorable songs, such as ‘Lazybones’, ‘The Old Music Master’, ‘Skylark’, ‘How Little We Know’ and the Oscar-winning ‘In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening’, sung by Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman in Here Comes The Groom (1951). In the same year, Mercer provided both the music and lyrics for the Broadway show, Top Banana, a ‘burlesque musical’ starring Phil Silvers and a host of mature funny men. The entertaining score included the witty ‘A Word A Day’.

The 50s were extremely productive years for Mercer, with songs such as ‘Here’s To My Lady’, ‘I Wanna Be Around’ (later successful for Tony Bennett), and yet more movie songs, including ‘I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man’, ‘The Bachelor Dinner Song’ and ‘Seeing’s Believing’, sung by Fred Astaire in the movie The Belle Of New York; ‘I Like Men’ (covered by Peggy Lee), ‘I Got Out Of Bed On The Right Side’ and ‘Ain’t Nature Grand’ from Dangerous When Wet; and ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ and ‘Sluefoot’ (words and music by Mercer) from another Fred Astaire showcase, Daddy Long Legs. Mercer also provided additional lyrics to ‘When The World Was Young’ (‘Ah, The Apple Trees’), ‘Midnight Sun’, ‘Early Autumn’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’. The highlight of the decade was, perhaps, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954). Starring Howard Keel and Jane Powell, Mercer and Gene De Paul’s ‘pip of a score’ included ‘Spring, Spring, Spring’, ‘Bless Your Beautiful Hide’, ‘Sobbin’ Women’, ‘When You’re In Love’, and ‘Goin’ Courtin’, amongst others. Two years later Mercer and De Paul got together again for the stage show Li’l Abner, starring Stubby Kaye, and including such songs as ‘Namely You’, ‘Jubilation T. Cornpone’ and ‘The Country’s In The Very Best Of Hands’. It ran on Broadway for nearly 700 performances and was filmed in 1959.

The early 60s brought Mercer two further Academy Awards; one for ‘Moon River’ from Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), and the other, the title song to The Days Of Wine And Roses (1962). ‘Moon River’ was the song in which Mercer first coined the now- famous phrase, ‘my huckleberry friend’. Danny Williams took the former song to the UK number slot in 1961, while namesake Andy Williams and Mercer’s co-composer Henry Mancini both scored US Top 40 hits with the latter in 1963. Mancini also wrote other movie songs with Mercer, such as ‘Charade’, ‘The Sweetheart Tree’ (from The Great Race) and ‘Whistling Away The Dark’ (Darling Lili). In the early 70s, Mercer spent a great deal of time in Britain, and, in 1974, wrote the score, with André Previn, for the West End musical The Good Companions. He died, two years later, in 1976.

Several of his 1, 000-plus songs became an integral part of many a singer’s repertoire. In 1992, Frank Sinatra was still using ‘One For My Baby’ (music by Harold Arlen), ‘the greatest saloon song ever written’, as a moving set-piece in his concert performances. ‘Dream’ (words and music by Mercer), closed Sinatra’s radio and television shows for many years, and the singer also made impressive recordings of lesser-known Mercer items, such as ‘Talk To Me, Baby’ and ‘The Summer Wind’. Memories of his rapport with Bing Crosby in their early days were revived in 1961, when Mercer recorded Two Of A Kind with Bobby Darin, full of spontaneous asides, and featuring Mercer numbers such as ‘Bob White’ and ‘If I Had My Druthers’, plus other humorous oldies, like ‘Who Takes Care Of The Caretaker’s Daughter’ and ‘My Cutey’s Due At Two-To-Two Today’. Several artists, such as Marlene VerPlanck, Susannah McCorkle, and Nancy LaMott, have devoted complete albums to his work, and in 1992 Capitol Records celebrated its 50th anniversary by issuing Too Marvelous For Words: Capitol Sings Johnny Mercer, which comprised some of the label’s most eminent artists singing their co-founder’s popular song lyrics. Five years later, the soundtrack of the movie Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, starring Clint Eastwood and Kevin Spacey, featured a host of Johnny Mercer songs. In February 1999, Michael Feinstein hosted a concert ‘celebrating Johnny Mercer and his legacy’ at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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