Like most writers I am fascinated by the innovative use of words. But writers of articles cannot use words as creatively as a writer of a novel can. And a novelist is more restricted in the use of words than poets and song writers are. Sir Kenneth Clark put it this way in his discussion of opera in his Civilization series: "What is too silly to be said may be sung."
But when song lyrics are crafted by talented musicians, they don’t sound silly. And from the early 1900s to the time when Rock and Roll altered the musical landscape, American popular music was blessed with numerous talented lyricists. People like Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg and Oscar Hammerstein. But, for me, at the head of the class in terms of the novel use of words and phrases was Savannah’s favorite son, Johnny Mercer.
Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1909, Johnny was a member of the prestigious Mercer family; his earliest American ancestor being Hugh Mercer who emigrated from Scotland, settling in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A statue of Hugh Mercer stands today in Fredericksburg, celebrating his heroics as a famous general in the Revolutionary War. Hugh’s grandson, and Johnny’s great-grandfather, Hugh Weedon Mercer relocated to Savannah and became a general in the Confederate army. General Mercer loved his adopted city and imported a famous architect from New York to design his home, Mercer House, an ornate Italianate structure located on Savannah’s Monterey Square.
In the 1980s, Mercer House gained notoriety when its current owner, antique dealer Jim Williams shot and killed his homosexual lover. The shooting and the succeeding trials were recounted in John Berendt’s best seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In his film version of the book, Clint Eastwood opens with his cameras sweeping across the Wilmington River and into Savannah’s historic Bonaventure Cemetery. With Johnny Mercer’s Skylark as background music, Eastwood’s cameras weave through the cemetery, finally coming to rest on the graves of Johnny and his wife Ginger. Ginger’s grave contains the inscription, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby and Johnny’s grave bears the image of a piano and the title of another Mercer song: And the Angels Sing.
In the late 1920s, without prospects or financial wherewithal, Johnny Mercer took his song writing and singing skills to New York City. His hustling and struggling in the big city finally paid off when he was hired for one year to emcee, write songs, and sing for the famous Paul Whiteman band. Soon after, Johnny and another struggling song writer, Hoagy Carmichael, wrote Lazybones. It was an instant hit and Johnny was on his way.
One of Mercer’s most impressive talents is his ability to fit difficult or uncommon words into his lyrics; words that other lyricists would shy away from. When Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke asked Johnny to compose lyrics for their already popular song, Midnight Sun, Mercer’s research led him to "Aurora Borealis" — a nocturnal phenomenon associated with the Northern Lights — not a term you’d expect to find in a popular song but Johnny was undaunted.
Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice Warmer than the summer night The clouds were like an alabaster palace Rising to a snowy height Each star its own Aurora Borealis Suddenly you held me tight I could see the Midnight Sun.
In Summer Wind, Mercer includes a "piper man," a profession we haven’t heard much about since the poetry of William Blake in the 1700s.
Like painted kites, the days and nights went flying by The world was new, beneath a blue umbrella sky Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you I lost you to the summer wind.
Johnny again goes to the 1700s for the lyrics of Fools Rush In. This time he comes across a line from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism: "No place so sacred from such fops is barr’d …Nay, fly to altars; there they’ll talk you dead; For fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
Four of Mr. Mercer’s songs won Academy Awards for best song, the first being On The Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe (1946). That’s a mouthful to put into a song’s lyrics but he managed it.
Do you hear that whistle down the line I figure that it’s engine number forty-nine She’s the only one that’ll sound that way On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
The song was written for The Harvey Girls, a Judy Garland film involving an interesting bit of trivia. The first trains traveling west did not serve meals, so an enterprising businessman, Fred Harvey, opened restaurants at railroad stations along the way. These were upscale restaurants and Harvey recruited well-bred young ladies from across the country who traveled from location to location by train, to serve as waitresses.
Mercer also won an Academy Award for In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening (1951), a song that was used in Here Comes the Groom. In 1962, the poignant song, Days of Wine and Roses, written for the film by the same name, won the award for Johnny Mercer and his partner Henry Mancini. The year before, these two also won the award for the song that many consider to be Johnny’s best: Moon River.
The head of Paramount insisted that Moon River be deleted from the film version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but its star, Audrey Hepburn furiously demanded that it remain. And Johnny’s lyrics do indeed fit the story line. Lulu Mae Golightly, a young girl from somewhere in the rural South, leaves her husband and eventually makes her way to New York City, in much the same way that Capote left Monroeville, Alabama for the same destination. Lulu Mae changes her name to Holly and creates a new life for herself. We can still recall that touching scene when Audrey Hepburn sits on her fire escape, strums her guitar and sings this distinctive song.
Two drifters, off to see the world There’s such a lot of world to see But we’re after the same rainbow’s end Waitin round the bend, my Huckleberry friend Moon River and me.
Johnny’s phrase "my Huckleberry friend" was a master stroke. When Audrey Hepburn died, Tiffany’s took a full-page ad paying tribute to the actress, referring to her as their Huckleberry friend.
Fourteen other Mercer songs were nominated for Academy Awards including: Accentuate the Positive, Blues in the Night, Charade, Jeepers Creepers, My Shining Hour, Something’s Gotta Give, and That Old Black Magic.
David Raskin’s haunting musical score for Otto Preminger’s classic film Laura became so popular that he decided to have lyrics composed for it. No easy task because "so complex a melody would be highly impractical to publish." Raskin naturally turned to Johnny Mercer. In choosing his immortal lyrics, Johnny captured the mysterious atmosphere of the story. A beautiful lady is erroneously thought to have been killed. But even in death she continues to exude an irresistible attraction to men; including the detective investigating her murder.
Laura, is the face in the misty light Footsteps that you hear down the hall The laugh that floats on a summer night That you can never quite recall.
Like Laura, Johnny wrote lyrics for other songs after the instrumental version had already become popular. Two such hits are Satin Doll and Autumn Leaves.
Mercer’s immense repertoire included much more than romantic ballads. The flavor of the South of his time, especially the Blues and the meter and idiom of Southern Blacks, saturates the mood of many of his songs. It was said that Mercer "could alternate between cornpone and ultra-sophistication." Consider his Save the Bones for Henry Jones (Cause Henry Don’t Eat No Meat.)
Today’s super sensitive censors might recoil at some of Johnny’s humorous works. Luckily he wrote them during a time when America still had a sense of humor. So his take-off (sorry) on strip poker, Strip Polka, would always generate a few laughs.
The thrill of the evening is when out Queenie skips And the band plays the polka while she strips.
And, of course, his popular and playful Huggin and Chalkin would have today’s politically correct police scrambling for their patrol cars. It is a song about a man who is love with a fat girl, and the first verse shows what the fun is all about.
Oh, gee, but ain’t it great to have a gal so big and fat That when you go to hug her you don’t know where you’re at So, you take a piece of chalk in your hand You hug a ways and chalk a mark to see where you began One day I was a’huggin and a’chalkin and beggin her to be my bride When I met another fella with some chalk in his hand Comin round the other side.
No article about Johnny Mercer would be complete without mentioning his classic; One For My Baby. Generation after generation has witnessed that incredible dance routine from the 1943 film, The Sky’s The Limit, where Fred Astaire dances while smashing cocktail glasses and anything else he can find — but only after singing this melancholy song.
I’m feelin so bad I wish you’d make the music dreamy and sad Could tell you a lot But that’s not in a gentleman’s code Make it one for my baby And one more for the road.
The tributes Johnny received during his long career too numerous to list; they include a postage stamp issued in his honor. And for years he had his own radio show. Paul McCartney described Mercer as: "The greatest lyricist on the planet." It is estimated that Johnny Mercer wrote over 700 songs and if you pick any one of them, you will discover his special touch in the lyrics.
In Too Marvelous for Words, we find:
You’re much too much and just too very, very To ever be in Webster’s dictionary.
And this Mercer flavor is found in Early Autumn. (Woody Herman wrote the music and his instrumental recording was the public’s first exposure to his young saxophonist, Stan Getz, who performs a short but unforgettable solo passage.)
There’s a dance pavilion in the rain all shuttered down A winding country lane all russet brown A frosty window pane shows me a town grown lonely.
In Hooray for Hollywood, Johnny tells it like is when he describes Hollywood in its halcyon days.
Hooray for Hollywood That screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood Where you’re terrific if you’re even good.
Johnny Mercer was not only a successful singer and songwriter but an astute businessman. In the early 1940s, he was part of the group that founded Capitol Records. With Johnny as President, Capitol became one of the most successful recording companies in the business. Mercer continued to write songs and recorded many of them for Capitol. Also, Johnny used Capitol Records to help promote the careers of some great newcomers including Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Stan Kenton, June Christy, the Nat King Cole Trio, and Dean Martin.
As the 1950s drew to a close, Johnny Mercer sold his interest in Capitol Records in order to spend more time with his family at his homes in Palm Springs and Savannah — the Savannah home was located on Savannah’s Black River, later renamed Moon River. Although he continued to write songs, a paradigm shift began occurring in American culture in the mid-1960s. The public’s taste in music moved away from romantic ballads with sophisticated lyrics to Rock and Roll and Motown. This shift signaled the end of the epoch of American popular music in which Johnny Mercer had thrived. And Mercer’s death in 1976 could be considered its symbolic end. But Savannah’s favorite son left us the legacy of his genius; wonderful songs that are still occasionally performed and recorded by today’s young musicians.
Anyone interested in the music of Johnny Mercer has a cornucopia of CDs to choose from. For the serious listener the CD to start with is Johnny Mercer: The Old Music Master. This has some of Johnny Mercer’s early songs with artists like Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine, and even Johnny himself.
An enjoyable collection of Mercer songs by contemporary artists is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Clint Eastwood’s companion CD for his film of the same name. It features such talented artists as Diana Krall, k.d. lang, Joe Williams, Cassandra Wilson, Tony Bennett, and Alison Krauss.