From his early collaborations in the 1930s with Hoagy Carmichael to his work with Henry Mancini in the 1960s, Johnny Mercer earned four Academy Awards and nineteen nominations. Philip Furia in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley writes, “What gives Mercer’s best songs their distinctive character is their blend of urbanity and earthiness…”
Johnny Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1909. By the time he showed up in the songwriting business of the 1930s, the sentimental story songs of the early 1900s had all but disappeared. Jazz raised its head on the pop culture scene and song lyrics became infected with a flip, urbane wit. Mercer’s casual style set the tone.
And, Mercer’s ability to pick just the right slangy phrase and combine it with his innate lyricism made his songs popular with jazz artists from Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington. Mercer wrote “Trav’lin’ Light” for Holiday and composed lyrics to Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
On our show this week, singer/actress Carol Woods joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to celebrate Mercer's singular songwriting gift. Broadway’s Carol Woods interprets Mercer's evergreen classics: "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Hooray for Hollywood," "I Remember You," "Too Marvelous for Words" and others.
Johnny Mercer experienced the African-American songs and blues tonality of his native Savannah, Georgia first-hand. A child of the Jazz Age, he very early sought out classic blues recordings by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Of his hit song “Blues in the Night,” —also featured in our show this week— Mercer said, “It’s right out of Savannah, my background, and all the things I heard and experienced when I was a boy.”
Unlike most of his songwriting colleagues, Johnny Mercer had a public side to his persona. His boyish charm made him popular on national radio shows in the '30s, including the Camel Caravan with Benny Goodman, and his own series, Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop, where he sang with the band, told jokes and appeared in skits.
Johnny Mercer collaborated with many great composers of American popular song, such as Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Richard Whiting, Rube Bloom, Jimmy McHugh, Jimmy Van Heusen and Arthur Schwartz. But some of Mercer’s most successful songs came out of the '60s, at a time when many of his contemporaries had been put out of work by the rock and roll revolution. Mercer managed to keep the hits coming in his collaborations with Henry Mancini: “Moon River,” “Charade” and “The Days of Wine and Roses.”
In his relatively short life—he died at the age of 67—Johnny Mercer achieved more than his enormously successful career as a songwriter and his life as a popular singer and radio personality. As co-founder of Capitol Records, he put stars like Nat ‘King’ Cole and Peggy Lee on the map. Along the way, he helped launch the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
We remember him for his timeless songs—title after title of Golden Age classics. Many years, he had a hit song in the Top Ten of Your Hit Parade every week of the year. More than half a century later, we are still singing Johnny Mercer's songs.
Photo credit for Home Page teaser image: Johnny Mercer photo from the William Gottlieb Collection. Photo in public domain.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2012