John Herndon "Johnny" Mercer (November 18, 1909 – June 25, 1976) was an American lyricist, songwriter and singer. Mercer was also a co-founder of Capitol Records.
He is best known as a lyricist, but he also composed music. He was also a popular singer who recorded his own songs as well as those written by others. From the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, many of the songs Mercer wrote and performed were among the most popular hits of the time. He wrote the lyrics to more than fifteen hundred songs, including compositions for movies and Broadway shows. He received nineteen Academy Award nominations, and won four.
Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia. His father, George Anderson Mercer, was a prominent attorney and real estate developer, and his mother, Lillian Elizabeth (née Ciucevich), George Mercer’s secretary and then second wife, was the daughter of Croatian and Irish immigrants who came to America in the 1850s. Lillian's father was a merchant seaman who ran the Union blockade during the U.S. Civil War. Mercer was George's fourth son, first by Lillian. His great-grandfather was Confederate General Hugh Weedon Mercer and he was a direct descendant of American Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer, a Scottish soldier-physician who died at the Battle of Princeton. Mercer was also a distant cousin of General George S. Patton. The construction of Mercer House in Savannah was started by General Hugh Weedon Mercer in 1860 (although never finished by him; the next owners of the house finished it), later the home of Jim Williams, whose trial for murder was the centerpiece of John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, although neither the General nor Johnny ever lived there.
Mercer liked music as a small child and attributed his musical talent to his mother, who would sing sentimental ballads. Mercer's father also sang, mostly old Scottish songs. His aunt told him he was humming music when he was six months old and later she took him to see minstrel and vaudeville shows where he heard “coon songs” and ragtime. The family’s summer home “Vernon View” was on the tidal waters and Mercer’s long summers there among mossy trees, saltwater marshes, and soft, starry nights inspired him years later.
Mercer’s exposure to black music was perhaps unique among the white songwriters of his generation. As a child, Mercer had African-American playmates and servants, and he listened to the fishermen and vendors about him, who spoke and sang in the dialect known as “Geechee”. He was also attracted to black church services. Mercer later stated, “Songs always fascinated me more than anything”. He never had formal musical training but was singing in a choir by six and at eleven or twelve he had memorized almost all of the songs he had heard and he had become curious about who had written them. He once asked his brother who the best songwriter was, and his brother said Irving Berlin, among the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Despite Mercer's early exposure to music, his talent was clearly in creating the words and singing, not in playing music, though early on he had hoped to become a composer. In addition to the lyrics that Mercer memorized, he was an avid reader and wrote adventure stories. However, his attempts to play the trumpet and piano were not successful, and he never could read musical scores with any facility, relying instead on his own notation system.
As a teenager in the Jazz Era, he was a product of his age. He hunted for records in the black section of Savannah and played such early black jazz greats as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. His father owned the first car in town, and Mercer’s teenage social life was enhanced by his driving privilege, which sometimes verged on recklessness. The family would motor to the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina to escape the Savannah heat and there Mercer learned to dance (from Arthur Murray himself) and to flirt with Southern belles, his natural sense of rhythm helping him on both accounts. Later, Mercer wrote a humorous song called "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In a Hurry."
Mercer attended exclusive Woodberry Forest boys prep school in Virginia until 1927. Though not a top student, he was active in literary and poetry societies and as a humor writer for the school’s publications. In addition, his exposure to classic literature augmented his already rich store of vocabulary and phraseology. He began to scribble ingenious, sometimes strained rhymed phrases for later use. Mercer was also the class clown and a prankster, and member of the “hop” committee that booked musical entertainment on campus.
Mercer was already somewhat of an authority on jazz at an early age. His yearbook stated, “No orchestra or new production can be authoritatively termed ‘good’ until Johnny’s stamp of approval has been placed upon it. His ability to ‘get hot’ under all conditions and at all times is uncanny”. Mercer began to write songs, an early effort being ‘’Sister Susie, Strut Your Stuff.” and quickly learned the powerful effect songs had on girls.
Given his family’s proud history and association with Princeton, New Jersey, and Princeton University, Mercer was destined for school there until his father’s financial setbacks in the late 1920s changed those plans. He went to work in his father’s recovering business, collecting rent and running errands, but soon grew bored with the routine and with Savannah, and looked to escape.
Mercer moved to New York in 1928, when he was 19. The music he loved, jazz and blues, was booming in Harlem and Broadway was bursting with musicals and revues from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. Vaudeville, though beginning to fade, was still a strong musical presence. Mercer’s first few jobs were as a bit actor (billed as John Mercer). Holed up in a Greenwich Village apartment with plenty of time on his hands and a beat-up piano to play, Mercer soon returned to singing and lyric writing. He secured a day job at a brokerage house and sang at night. Pooling his meager income with that of his roommates, Mercer managed to keep going, sometimes on little more than oatmeal. One night he dropped in on Eddie Cantor backstage to offer a comic song, but although Cantor didn’t use the song, he began encouraging Mercer’s career. Mercer's first lyric, for the song "Out of Breath (and Scared to Death of You)", composed by friend Everett Miller, appeared in a musical revue The Garrick Gaieties in 1930. Mercer met his future wife at the show, chorus girl Ginger Meehan. Meehan had earlier been one of the many chorus girls pursued by the young crooner Bing Crosby. Through Miller’s father, an executive at the famous publisher T. B. Harms, Mercer's first song was published. It was recorded by Joe Venuti and his New Yorkers.
The 20-year-old Mercer began to hang out with other songwriters and to learn the trade. He traveled to California to undertake a lyric writing assignment for the musical Paris in the Spring and met his idols Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. Mercer found the experience sobering and realized that he much preferred free-standing lyric writing to writing on demand for musicals. Upon his return, he got a job as staff lyricist for Miller Music for a $25 dollar-a-week draw which give him a base income and enough prospects to win over and marry Ginger in 1931. The new Mrs. Mercer quit the chorus line and became a seamstress, and to save money the newlyweds moved in with Ginger’s mother in Brooklyn. Johnny did not inform his own parents of his marriage until after the fact, perhaps in part because he knew that Ginger being Jewish would not sit comfortably with some members of his family, and he worried they would try to talk him out of marrying her.
In 1932, Mercer won a contest to sing with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, but it did not help his situation significantly. He made his recording debut, singing with Frank Trumbauer's Orchestra, on April 5 of that year. Mercer then apprenticed with Yip Harburg on the score for Americana, a Depression-flavored revue famous for "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (not a Mercer composition), which gave Mercer invaluable training. After several songs which didn’t catch fire, during his time with Whiteman, he wrote and sang "Pardon My Southern Accent". Mercer’s fortunes improved dramatically with a chance pairing with Indiana-born Hoagy Carmichael, already famous for the standard "Stardust", who was intrigued by the “young, bouncy butterball of a man from Georgia”. The two spent a year laboring over "Lazybones", which became a hit one week after its first radio broadcast, and each received a large royalty check of $1250. A regional song in pseudo-black dialect, it captured the mood of the times, especially in rural America. Mercer became a member of ASCAP and a recognized “brother” in the Tin Pan Alley fraternity, receiving congratulations from Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter among others. Paul Whiteman lured Mercer back to his orchestra (to sing, write comic skits and compose songs), temporarily breaking up the working team with Carmichael.
During the golden age of sophisticated popular song of the late Twenties and early Thirties, songs were put into revues with minimal regard for plot integration. During the 1930s, there was a shift from revues to stage and movie musicals using song to further the plot. Demand diminished accordingly for the pure stand-alone songs that Mercer preferred. Thus, although he had established himself in the New York music world, when Mercer was offered a job in Hollywood to compose songs and perform in low-budget musicals for RKO, he accepted and followed idol Bing Crosby west.
Well regarded also as a singer, with a folksy quality, Mercer was a natural for his own songs such as "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive", "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe", "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)", and "Lazybones". He was considered a first-rate performer of his own work.
It has been said that he penned "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)"—one of the great torch laments of all times—on a napkin while sitting at the bar at P. J. Clarke's when Tommy Joyce was the bartender. The next day Mercer called Joyce to apologize for the line "So, set 'em up, Joe," "I couldn't get your name to rhyme."
ATCO Records issued Two of a Kind in 1961, a duet album by Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer with Billy May and his Orchestra, produced by Ahmet Ertegün.
In his last year, Mercer became fond of pop singer Barry Manilow, in part because Manilow's first hit record was of a song titled "Mandy", which was also the name of Mercer's daughter Amanda. After Mercer's death in 1976 from a brain tumor, his widow, Ginger Mehan Mercer, arranged to give some unfinished lyrics he had written to Manilow to possibly develop into complete songs. Among these was a piece titled "When October Goes", a melancholy remembrance of lost love. Manilow applied his own melody to the lyric and issued it as a single in 1984, when it became a top 10 Adult Contemporary hit in the United States. The song has since become a jazz standard, with notable recordings by Rosemary Clooney, Nancy Wilson, and Megon McDonough, among other performers.
Mercer was honored by the United States Postal Service with his portrait placed on a stamp in 1996. Mercer's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1628 Vine Street is a block away from the Capitol Records building at 1750 Vine Street.
Mercer was given tribute in John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer song "Skylark", sung by K.D. Lang, features prominently in the movie and the movie soundtrack is a tribute album to Johnny Mercer, containing 14 Mercer songs performed by a variety of jazz and pop recording artists.
The Johnny Mercer Collections, including his papers and memorabilia, are preserved in the library of Georgia State University in Atlanta. GSU occasionally holds events showcasing Mercer's works.
In November 2009, a statue of Mercer was unveiled in Ellis Square in Savannah, Georgia, his hometown and birthplace.
The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer was published by Knopf in October 2009.The Complete Lyrics contains the texts to nearly 1,500 of his lyrics, several hundred of them appearing in print for the first time.
Johnny Mercer, ca. 1947
|Birth name||John Herndon Mercer|
|Born||November 18, 1909|
|Died||June 25, 1976 (aged 66)|
Hollywood, Los Angeles, California
|Associated acts||Harold Arlen,|