[For those of you who are playing along… I posted a blog yesterday seeking advice as to who I should profile in today’s birthday post — song smith Johnny Mercer or Gilbert or Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Just about everyone picked Mercer, so put on your Breakfast at Tiffanys ’cause there’s some Moon River coming your way.]
“Days of wine and roses laugh and run away, like a child at play.”
John Herndon Mercer was born on this day in Savannah, Georgia, USA in 1909. Today is the 103rd anniversary of his birth.
He grew up in Savannah (though never in the Mercer House — made famous in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) He enjoyed music as a child and he could hum a tune before he could talk. He was singing in a choir by six and all the song memorized by 11. He tried to take lessons on various instruments but never made it very far. Even as an adult he could only play piano one finger at a time.
He wrote his first song, “Sister Susie, Strut Your Stuff,” at age 15 while a student at the exclusive boy’s school Woodbury Forest School in Orange Co, Virginia. After graduation he moved to New York to try his hand at acting. Although he was cast in bit roles in a few shows, it was his talent for writing songs (both the witty lyrics and the snappy melodies) that showcased his real talent.
In 1930, while … looking for an acting job … he was informed that (a) play was all cast, but that they could use some songs. In the show were two other future great writers — Vernon Duke and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who accepted Mercer’s “Out of Breath and Scared to Death of You.“ [Johnny Mercer.com]
The show, “Garrick Gaieties,” also featured a dancer named Ginger Meehan who Mercer fell in love with. The two married in 1931.
Mercer began to collaborate with Hoagy Carmichael in 1932. Their first hit was “Lazy Bones” which hit #1 for one artist, Ted Lewis, and broke the top ten for two other singers.
By 1938 he was recording duets with Bing Crosby for Decca and the following year, he was on Benny Goodman’s Camel Cavalcade radio program as a featured singer. [AllMusic]
His string of hit in 1934 included “You Have Taken My Heart”, “Pardon My Southern Accent” and “P.S. I Love You”
Heres a really sweet version of P.S. I Love You featuring Bridget Davis and Sam Petitti …
In 1935 he went to Hollywood to appear in and write some songs for a couple of RKO musicals. One was “To Beat the Band,” a movie that featured the songs “Eeny-Meeney-Miney-Mo, “If You Were Mine,” Meet Miss America” and “I saw her at Eight O’Clock.” Mercer played a member of the band.
He started Capitol Records in 1942 with Glenn Wallichs and Buddy DeSylva. There he produced “Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive” and “Personality.” The label attracted the talents of Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee.
Jaques Edmond of The Capitol News called Mercer “One of the greatest lyricists of all times.” He added that Mercer could have made it as a singer too.
Johnny Mercer epitomized the hip songwriter a hipness that was also reflected in his cool Southern accented singing. His voice was relaxed, swinging and bang on. One of the few writers who could have easily made it as a vocalist even if he had never written a lyric or a note of music. [Capitol News]
His smooth, upbeat story telling, southern style of singing made “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive“ a peppy anthem of hope during World War II. It was quickly snapped up by other, bigger named, singers, like Bing Crosby.
Here’s Mercer’s version…
He also worked with Crosby in 1936 with the song “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande.” In 1937 he wrote the iconic “Hooray For Hollywood”.
In ’37 he had a hit with “Too Marvelous for Words” from the film Ready, Willing and Able. Frank Sinatra made it a hit.
Here’s Old Blue Eyes being fabulous…
Among Mercer’s most durable lyrics — a highly abbreviated list — are those for “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” “Blues in the Night,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” [AllMusic] You can add to that “Jeepers Creepers,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Something’s Gotta Give, ” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “G.I. Jive,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Tangerine,” “Glow Worm,” “Autumn Leaves” and the unforgetable “Moon River.”
Here’s Audrey Hepburn singing Moon River in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffanys:
Of his writing style he said: “Usually a title or simple idea comes first, and then the rest of the words just seem to fall into place. … It’s all as easy as chopping up ten cords of wood per day.” [The Johnny Mercer Educational Archives]
in 1971 Mercer was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Mercer died on June 25, 1976 in Westwood, California.
- Johnny Mercer Week (bloggingtonybennett.com)