The Music of a Sentimental Gentlement
Pop Culture Released - Jul 04, 2020
If you were a tunesmith, and needed lyrics, Johnny Mercer was your man. Known as the Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia, Mercer made a career of working with some of the best tunesmiths in the business, and contributed some of the best and most memorable lyrics in the Great American Songbook. Among songs bearing his lyrics are: "Moon River", "Fools Rush In", "On the Aitchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe", "Come Rain or Come Shine", "That Old Black Magic", "My Shining Hour", "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive", "Charade", "The Days of Wine and Roses", "I Remember You", "One for my Baby", "Blues in the Night", "Laura", "Autumn Leaves", "I Wanna Be Around", "Skylark", "Satin Doll", and, most famously, "Hooray for Hollywood". On occasion Mercer would write both words and music, as he did with "Dream" and "Something's Gotta Give". In all, he wrote lyrics for 1,500 songs, 19 of which were nominated for Academy Awards; four went on to win Oscars for best original song.
In the world of popular song, Mercer's was the voice of the South, as opposed to the New York voices of lyricists' Larry Hart (of Rodgers and Hart), Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Ira Gershwin. Make no mistake, his wit and artistry were every bit as sophisticated as his northern counterparts.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1909, Mercer was humming music when he was six-months old. He attributed his musical talent to his mother, who would sing sentimental ballads, and to his father, who sang mostly old Scottish folk tunes. Mercer was an avid reader who, as a youth, wrote adventure stories. As a teen, he attended the exclusive Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. While not a top student, he was active in literary and poetry societies, and was something of the class clown. Early on he showed a propensity for writing cleverly rhymed verses, most of which he kept and later drew upon for song lyrics. While he loved to sing, he couldn't read music.
Southerner or not, at age 19, Mercer moved to New York City to get his start in the music business. Through a combination of luck and determination, he managed to hook up early with Hoagy Carmichael who, having scored big with "Stardust,", was in need of a lyricist to help with composing a follow-up song. The pair spent a year composing "Lazybones." One week after debuting on radio, the song became a hit, earning Mercer his first royalty check. It was during this time that he met a chorus girl named Elizabeth "Ginger" Mehan, whom he fell madly in love with, and married in 1931.
Having established himself as a successful lyricist, Mercer began working with songwriters on both coasts, particularly with Harold Arlen in Hollywood, who was already famous for having composed the music for "The Wizard of Oz". Among their successful collaborations were: "Come Rain or Come Shine", "That Old Black Magic", "My Shining Hour" (for a Fred Astaire musical), and "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive." Mercer's brief affair with Judy Garland proved to be the inspiration for two of their more famous songs: "Blues in the Night", and "One For My Baby"; both of which Frank Sinatra later recorded for his landmark saloon album, "For Only the Lonely."
BLUES IN THE NIGHT
Harold Arlen had said this about composing "Blues in the Night": "The whole thing just poured out. And I knew in my guts, without even thinking what Johnny would write for a lyric, that this was strong, strong, strong! . . . I went over his lyrics and I started to hum it over his desk. It sounded marvelous once I got to the second stanza but that first twelve was weak tea. On the third or fourth page of his work sheets I saw some lines—one of them was "My momma done tol' me, when I was in knee pants." I said, "Why don't you try that?" It was one of the very few times I've ever suggested anything like that to John."
When they finished the song, Mercer called singer Margaret Whiting, and asked if they could come over and play it for her. She suggested they come later because she had dinner guests (Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Mel Torme and Martha Raye). Instead, Arlen and Mercer went right over. Margaret Whiting remembered what happened next:
"They came in the back door, sat down at the piano and played the score. I remember forever the reaction. Mel got up and said, 'I can't believe it.' Martha didn't say a word. Mickey Rooney said, 'That's the greatest thing I've ever heard.' Judy Garland said, 'Play it again.' We had them play it seven times. Judy and I ran to the piano to see who was going to learn it first. It was a lovely night."
One of Mercer's most successful songs was "Laura", the title song for the motion picture of the same name. It was a song so beautiful that both Cole Porter and Irving Berlin said they'd wished they'd written it. The music itself was composed by David Raskin, with lyrics by Irving Caesar, which Raskin rejected. Mercer was then invited to write the words. Said Mercer: "If a fellow plays me a melody that sounds like something, well, I try to fit the words to the sound of the melody. It has a mood, and if I can capture that mood, that's the way we go about it. 'Laura' was that kind of picture. It was predesigned, because 'Laura' was a mystery. So I had to write 'Laura' with a kind of a misterioso theme. That's hard, because there are so few notes. And because the intervals are tough, and the key changes are strange. And at the time it came out it was strange. But since it has become so popular, it's easier now. That kind of song is always difficult because you have to write a lyric that's going to be a hit, and you don't have many notes to work with."
"Laura" was yet another song Sinatra selected for another saloon album, this one was, "Where Are You?" Mercer and Sinatra became friends, and, in 1965, Mercer wrote both words and music for a song that was intended for Frank's next saloon album; the song was "Drinking Again". Sinatra duly recorded the song, but the album never materialized.
Mercer was a sucker for a good melody. Having fallen in love with a German song, "Der Sommerwind", he rewrote the lyrics, and the song became the "Summer Wind". Sinatra recorded the song for his next swing album, "Strangers in the Night."
Mercer did the same thing with "Le Chevalier de Paris" a popular french song composed by Philippe-Gerard and Angele Vannier. With some retooling to the lyrics, the song became "When the World Was Young," yet another hit for Frank Sinatra.
Mercer did more than just provide great songs for Sinatra to record. In the early 1950s, when Sinatra's singing career was on the rocks and he was without a recording contract, Mercer helped him get signed with Capitol Records, a label Mercer had helped create in the 1940s.
The 1940s was a particularly fruitful period for Mr. Mercer, where he wrote both pop tunes and songs for films, published more than 250 songs, sixty of which became bona fide hits. He also began a second career as a recording artist, and racked up 27 hit records.
In the 1960s, composer Henry Mancini tapped Johnny Mercer to write the lyrics for three songs for various movie soundtracks. The songs were: "Moon River", "The Days of Wine and Roses" and "Charade." The first two won Oscars for best original song.
The lyrics for "Moon River" are reminiscent of Mercer's childhood in Savannah, with the moon reflected on its waters. In summer, Mercer had picked huckleberries, and in the song connected them with his carefree childhood and with Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn."
The timelessness of Mercer's compositions was demonstrated with two of his songs from the 1940s, that were resurrected in the 1960s, and for a second time become hits. The songs were "Fools Rush In", which became a top 40 hit for Rick Nelson, and "I Remember You", by Australian Frank Ifield, that topped the charts in the U.K. and in the U.S. reached number two on Billboard's Hot 100.
Mercer died June 25, 1976, and was buried in Savannah's historic Bonaventure Cemetery.
DISCOGRAPHY–below is a sampling of Mercer's best songs.
FRANK SINATRA SINGS THE SELECT JOHNNY MERCER
Sinatra scored a number of hits with Mercer's songs on Capitol Records, which are all collected in "Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Johnny Mercer." Songs included "Too Marvelous for Words", "Laura", "Fools Rush In", "When The World Was Young", "That Old Black Magic", "Autumn Leaves", "Dream", and, of course, his two saloon classics, "Blues in the Night" and "One For My Baby (And One For the Road)". 15 songs in all; sung in Sinatra's inimical style.
ELLA FITZGERALD SINGS THE JOHNNY MERCER SONG BOOK
Another of Lady Ella's Classic Song Books, and the only one of the series strictly dedicated to a lyricist; 12 songs in all, arranged by Nelson Riddle. Songs include "Something's Gotta Give", "Laura", "Early Autumn" and "I Remember You"; amply displays Ella's purity of voice, over Riddle's subtle yet jazzy arrangements.
ELLA FITZGERAL SINGS THE HAROLD ARLEN SONGBOOK
Harold Arlen worked with a number of lyricists; this set features his music with lyrics mostly by Johnny Mercer, Ted Koehler and Yip Harburg, including several of the classic songs from "The Wizard of Oz", as well as the famed saloon songs, including "Blues in the Night" and "One For My Baby (And One For the Road)". Other standouts include "Get Happy", "I Gotta a right to sing the blues", "Ill Wind", "It's Only a Paper Moon", "My Shining Hour", "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive"; 28 songs in all, arranged by swingin' Billy May.
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