Bob Dylan is currently doing it in a big way, and Rod Stewart did it – maybe overdid it – earlier in this millennium. But more than 30 years ago Linda Ronstadt, purportedly against the advice and wishes of much of her camp, recorded a trilogy of albums that featured some of the most memorable jazz, big band and Great American Songbook compositions. Among the songs on the second of those albums, Lush Life, was the classic by Tin Pan Alley writers Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, “Skylark.”
Ronstadt’s instincts were obviously correct when she felt that a switch from her rock and country leanings might do well with the public, maybe believing that a good song was a good song, period. When asked about the recording by DownBeat magazine in 1985, she said, “’Skylark’ is just an incredible adventure to sing – I just love it.” The three albums of standards (the other two were What’s New and For Sentimental Reasons) sold in the millions, with exceptional performances by Ronstadt and arrangements by the great Sinatra orchestrator Nelson Riddle.
“Skylark” was first recorded in 1941 by three different female big band vocalists. With lyrics by Mercer and music by Carmichael, the song was about the universal search for love, with the singer asking the titular bird if it has any idea where the man or woman of one’s dreams can be found:
Have you anything to say to me?
Won’t you tell me where my love can be?
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone’s waiting to be kissed?
By many accounts, the song was inspired by Mercer’s ill-fated affair with the much younger actress/singer Judy Garland. It also may have had something to do with his love of birds, or at least a love of writing about them. In addition to “Skylark,” Mercer was known for such songs as “Little Birds” (performed by Julie Andrews) and “Bob White,” which name-checks more than a dozen birds in a duet he sang with Bobby Darin. It had been thought by some that the song was really inspired by a poem called “To a Skylark” by the 19th century English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. This was denied by Mercer in the book Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World. The music to “Skylark” was written by Carmichael in a nod to the late jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, but it supposedly took Mercer a year to write lyrics he was happy with. The song has been recorded by dozens of artists, including Dylan on his 2015 album Fallen Angels.
By recording “Skylark” and other classics, Ronstadt introduced a new generation to some of the finest songs ever written in America. Sadly, she was forced to retire a few years ago, her singing voice silenced by Parkinson’s disease.
Mercer wrote lyrics to hundreds of recorded songs for some of the most iconic artists in the world from the 1930s through the 1960s. He died in 1976. But even if he’d only been mildly successful as a writer or singer, he wouldn’t have needed to worry much about money, as he was one of the three founders of Capitol Records.