Legends of Songwriting: The Huckleberry Verser, Johnny Mercer

“Mercer was no poet. Shakespeare was a poet. But Shakespeare was no Johnny Mercer!” – Sammy Cahn

Even the greatest songwriters tended to think of him in a whole other league. His name became shorthand for a standard of excellence in songwriting, as in, “Yeah, I’m a good songwriter. I’m no Johnny Mercer, but I’m good!” 

Some said he was more than a great lyricist, that he was a poet. Others, such as the great lyricist Sammy Cahn, disagreed.

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“Mercer was no poet,” Sammy said. “Shakespeare was a poet. But Shakespeare was no Johnny Mercer!”

Even songwriters who emerged in the lyrically expansive wake of Dylan and The Beatles pointed to Mercer as the master. When I asked Harry Nilsson who he felt was the greatest lyricist of all, his answer was immediate and absolute: 

“Johnny Mercer,” he said. “Anyone who can rhyme ‘aurora borealis’ with ‘red and ruby chalice’ is not bad!”

Like Mercer’s good friend and collaborator Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny knew that songwriting is an ephemeral process that’s not unlike catching fireflies. With diligence you might catch one occasionally, but most of them fly away before you can get them.

“As soon as you think about a song,” he said in 1965, “its vibration is already in the air. If you let it pass, someone else can pick it up and write it down before you do.”

He caught his first song at the age of 15, a little ditty called “Sister Susie Strut Your Stuff,” and went on to write or co-write more than 1500, including such standards as “Blues in the Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “One For My Baby,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Tangerine,” “On The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Lazy Bones,” “Too Marvelous For Words,” “Skylark,” and more.

Born in Savannah, Georgia on November 18, 1909, he was one of America’s first and most famous singer-songwriters. His songs became famous as performed by others, but also as performed by the songwriter himself. His lyrics were unique, reflecting the pastoral, sentimental South more than the peopled avenues and towers of Manhattan so often portrayed in popular songs. 

“What [Mercer] brought to his music was a sense of the whole country,” said music producer Matt Pierson. “His lyrics were every bit as sophisticated as the Tin Pan Alley writers, but they were full of mountains and meadows, mists and forests. His songs were inclusive; they celebrated the heartland and the common man in a way that no one had since Stephen Foster.”

Johnny Mercer. “As soon as you think about a song, its vibration is already in the air. If you let it pass, someone else can pick it up and write it down before you do.

Growing up, Johnny loved singing in the church choir, but was also interested in acting, a profession he decided to pursue after graduation from high school. In fact, it was because of one of his first failed pursuits at acting that he became a professional songwriter. Joining a local acting club, he went with them up north to New York, where he was instantly entranced by Broadway, and even won an acting competition.

Returning home to Savannah, he saw that the Depression had eroded any plans his family had to send him to college, so he decided to return to New York. Though he couldn’t afford train fare, his determination led him to stowaway on a ship bound for New York harbor. Though he was eventually caught, he ultimately made it to his destination, and within days was trying out for a popular stage revue called Garrick Gaities. He auditioned with a song he wrote himself called “Out Of Breath, And Scared To Death Of You.” Much to his dismay, the producers loved the song but didn’t love him.

“And so,” he related years later, “they put the song in the show instead of me.”

Asked how he was able to come up with a song so quickly, he answered, “When you’re young and when you’re hungry, you can accomplish an awful lot.”

He still saw songwriting as a sideline to acting, however, and continued to audition for acting roles, eventually landing small parts in such shows as Valpone, Marco Millions, and House Party. He also met his wife at this time, a New York native who danced with the Garrick troupe named Elizabeth “Ginger” Meehan.

It wasn’t easy to make ends meet on the income from his acting jobs alone, however, and so he took various day jobs, first as a Wall Street runner, and then as a clerk in a music publishing company. That ended in 1932 when bandleader Paul Whiteman staged a contest to find a new vocalist for his band and Mercer was the winner. Soon he was not only singing lead for this popular band, he was also writing new songs for them, emceeing their shows, and charming audiences with his dry, southern wit.

It was while working with Whiteman at the age of 23 that Mercer first met Hoagy Carmichael, who was ten years his senior. Hoagy wanted to write songs, and gave Mercer a melody he’d been toying with. Johnny quickly did what he did best—he wrote words for it that both accentuated and enriched the existing beauty and arc of the melody. Reflecting the southern heritage that both men shared, it was called “Lazybones,” and as recorded by the Whiteman Orchestra with Mercer in the lead, it became the first of many hits these two legends would write together.

Soon Mercer was writing words with a wide variety of composers, including Wizard of Oz tunesmith Harold Arlen, and the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman. With Jack Teagarden, a trombonist in Whiteman’s band, Mercer both wrote songs and recorded a few duet records, which did fairly well on the Hit Parade. Those records caught the attention of RKO Pictures, and they invited him to Hollywood to write songs for the movies, an assignment he happily accepted.

And he thrived at it: With Richard Whiting he wrote classics such as “Hooray for Hollywood” for the movie Hollywood Hotel, starring Benny Goodman. He was concurrently becoming a regular guest performer on Goodman’s radio show Camel Caravan, and by the close of the ’30s he was one of America’s most famous and beloved songwriters.

In the early ’40s came the first of his own radio shows called Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop, on which he would tell funny stories, perform his own songs, and feature other singers. When he wasn’t on the air he was busy writing new songs, and with Hoagy Carmichael he wrote a short-lived Broadway musical called “Walk With Music.”

He was as enterprising as he was creative. Along with businessman Glen Wallachs, and his fellow songwriter Buddy DeSylva, Mercer co-founded Capitol Records in 1942. By doing some clever recycling of used and scrap discs, Capitol was able to do well even during World War II despite the shellac ration, which made the manufacture of new LPs impossible. 

Johnny was Capitol’s main artist at first, and his first single was his song “Strip Polka.” He was able to broadcast his own records on his radio show, as well as those by other Capitol artists such as Stan Kenton, Jo Stafford & The Pied Pipers, The Nat “King” Cole Trio, Margaret Whiting, and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, featuring a young vocalist by the name of Frank Sinatra. By 1946, Capitol was already one of the largest and most successful record companies in the country, selling more than 42 million records in a single year.

While busy with the business of running a record label, Johnny never stopped writing songs, and continued to collaborate through the ’40s and into the ’50s with Arlen, Carmichael, and Whiting and also with Jerome Kern, Vernon Duke, Jimmy McHugh, Jimmie Van Heusen, and others. 

He wrote both Broadway musicals, such as “St. Louis Woman” and “Free And Easy,” as well as movie scores for “Dangerous When Wet,” “Laura,” “Daddy Long Legs” and “Here Come The Waves.” 

In 1951 he won the Best Song Oscar for “In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening,” written with Hoagy. Throughout the ’50s he continued to be prolific, writing the songs for Top Banana, which starred Phil Silvers, and also Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Lil Abner. When being a working songwriter and a record company mogul became too much to do at once, he sold all his interests in Capitol so that he could write songs unburdened at last by business problems.

Mercer kept writing classic material even into the ’60s, and with Henry Mancini wrote two of his most timeless and touching songs, “Moon River” and “Days Of Wine And Roses.” They also wrote film scores for two movies, Darling Lili and The Great Race.

In the ’70s Mercer moved to England for a while, where he worked with the composer André Previn and wrote his last score, The Good Companions, in 1974.

He lived until 1976, when, like George Gershwin, he died in Los Angeles from a brain tumor while working on songs for the movies.

Unlike other famous songwriters known to be tight with a buck and a credit, Johnny was generous with both. When one of his fans, a cosmetician from Ohio named Sadie Vimmerstedt, sent him the fragment of a lyric, I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody’s breaking your heart, not only did he write a beautiful song around it called “I Wanna Be Around,” he also gave her complete credit as his collaborator. It made her a rich woman, earning her thousands of dollars annually after it became a hit by Tony Bennett in 1963.

The singer Paulette Attie, who hosted the radio show Musical Playbill on WNYC in New York, interviewed Mercer for her show in the ‘60s. 

“I had interviewed many songwriters for my show,” she recalled, “but none as congenial and engaging as Johnny Mercer. We spoke about the wide breadth and range of his songs, from ‘Dearly Beloved’ to ‘Ac-cent-tcu-ate the Positive’. He believed a well-rounded songwriter has to be able to write every kind of song. When I asked him about ‘That Old Black Magic’, (which he wrote with Harold Arlen), he generously credited Cole Porter, saying the Porter lyric, ‘Do do that voodoo that you do so well’, always appealed to him and was a source of inspiration for ‘That Old Black Magic’. Great source and great results, I’d say.”

A real bounty of Mercer music and words can fortunately be found on CDs, including Capitol Sings Johnny Mercer, a wonderful collection that brings together some of Mercer’s own renditions of his songs along with great versions of his songs as performed by Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Harold Arlen, and others.

There’s also many other great ones, including the classic Ella Fitzgerald: Sings The Johnny Mercer Songbook, which the great singer recorded in 1964 with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Many of Mercer’s own records are also on CD now, including Huckleberry Verser and Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop.

There’s also the soundtrack to the film Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, which is a veritable Mercer songbook, featuring classic renditions of his songs by Sinatra and others, as well as new versions by k.d. lang, Paula Cole, Alison Krauss, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Rosemary Clooney, and even Clint Eastwood, who sings “Accentuate The Positive.” It’s yet another testament to the vast and timeless magic of Mercer’s songs, which seem to have grown even more enchanting and inspiring as the decades pass.

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