By Stanley Booth
bear the stamp of his assured lyrical hand and four Academy Awards testify to his place in Hollywood’s firmament of stars. But while Johnny Mercer’s songs remain well known, the man behind them often remains in the peripheral vision of near-obscurity. So who was Johnny Mercer, the erstwhile son of Savannah aristocracy?
In old Savannah witticism inquires why people from Savannah are like the Chinese—the answer is, they eat rice and worship their ancestors. This was, in the case of lyricist, composer, and singer Johnny Mercer, no joke.
First of all, as you’ll see, he was one of those Mercers, one of Savannah’s first families, with two generals and two colonels, evenly divided between the Union and the Confederacy, in the previous five generations. A Mercer boy, at least one as sensitive as Johnny, knew he was expected—by himself and God, if no one else—to be heroic. Secondly, his father was a financial failure. Johnny had to rescue the family’s name and fortune. All his comedy, his wit, his passion, his ability with words and music—a fine composer, his only peers among lyricists are Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart—were part of a desperate attempt to reconstruct a world that can be glimpsed in Walt Disney’s Song of the South, an idyllic world of love and warm apple pies.
When he died, it may have been simply because he couldn’t bring himself to seek help soon enough for a brain tumor that turned out to be fatal. Caught in time, it might never have caused him permanent harm. He was a brave boy and a man of heroic achievement, but the weight of his history and his mission was heavy, and he caused those around him to feel its weight, especially when he was drinking. His friend Gene Lees wrote, “he could become suddenly and sullenly—and articulately—nasty.” Like his friend Alec Wilder, Johnny became well known for sending people he’d wrongly offended roses in the morning. He was one of the great American originals, and his work will outlive the likes of us. What the anthropologist Robert Ardrey told Wilder was equally true of Mercer: “You and I were part of a wonderful time when people like us were possible.”
On September 11, 1996, the United States Postal Service issued in its American Commemoratives series four stamps depicting songwriters Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen, and Johnny Mercer. The grouping was well chosen, since lyricist Fields collaborated with composer Arlen and Mercer provided words for melodies by both Arlen and Carmichael. The $7.95 panel, which includes each of the four stamps and a brief essay (illuminated with 19th-century steel engravings of a capital S draped in a laurel wreath, a tiny grand piano and a neoclassical bimbo zither player) informs the unsuspecting postal customer that “Composer Hoagy Carmichael teamed up with Johnny Mercer for numerous hits, including ‘In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening’ and ‘Stardust.’” Carmichael and Mercer did indeed write the former, winning a Motion Picture Academy Award for it in 1951 (Mercer’s second, Carmichael’s first), but the lyrics to Carmichael’s “Stardust” were written by Mitchell Parish—”Deep Purple,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” et al.—about the time something happened in Savannah that would change the rest of Johnny Mercer’s life. Though perhaps his dark Scottish heritage would have colored his destiny no matter what.
The man behind the music
“People know his songs, or some of his songs, but they don’t know much about him,” Julia Young, formerly one of the librarians who administer the Johnny Mercer Collection at Georgia State University, told me. People know his songs because to avoid them one would have to eschew all music created before 1975. Mercer didn’t write all of it, of course, but every radio station or other entertainment source that features movie music, jazz and show tunes includes Johnny Mercer songs for the same reason that symphony orchestras perform the works of Mozart and Beethoven: because they’re there.
In Alec Wilder’s classic text, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, there are 34 references to Mercer, more than to any other lyricist, and none of them contains a disparaging word. Several times the notoriously hard-to-please Wilder refers to a “perfect Mercer lyric.” In his discussion of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer collaboration, “Blues in the Night,” Wilder singles out the phrase “worrisome thing”: “Where, oh where, did Mr. Mercer find that phrase? Or ‘when I was in knee pants,’ or ‘a woman’ll sweet talk,’ or any of his indigenous, salty, earthy, regional, place-name lines?”
One may well ask. In fact, Mercer’s father did ask him once, and Johnny, a one-finger piano player who couldn’t read music, said, “Pop, to tell you the truth I simply get to thinking over the song, pondering over it in my mind and all of a sudden, I get in tune with the Infinite.” Mercer’s father, relating the story in writing “TO MY FRIENDS AND ALL INTERESTED,” added, “I believe that he then stated the real truth about his inspiration for his song writing. It comes from the infinite and very high sources. That is why I believe that John’s talent is from above and that he is a musical genius.”
Hard to argue with that, considering the facts. What else but genius do you call the sheer vividness of “I can see the judges’ eyes as they handed you the prize, I bet you made the cutest bow/Oh! You must have been a beautiful baby, ‘cause baby, look at you now.” And speaking of vivid, what about these lyrics—written, amazingly, after the tune was being heard on the country’s movie screens:
And you see Laura on a train that is passing through
Those eyes—how familiar they seem
She gave your very first kiss to you
That was Laura—but she’s only a dream*
Sheer eerie beauty. But the same man who wrote “Laura” wrote “Accentuate the Positive,” which opens with a broad parody of a country preacher:
Feel a sermon comin’ on me.
The topic will be sin
And that’s what I’m agin.
Eight bars later we get the meat of the message:
You’ve got to
Accent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-my-nate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative,
Don’t mess with Mr. In-between
You’ve got to spread joy
Up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith, or pandemonium
Li’ble to walk upon the scene
So far, so good. Then, in the midst of this wordplay, the tone changes, returning to the mock-solemn preaching of the song’s opening lines:
To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do
Just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said you better
And back to the title, neatly and sweetly.
“My father never understood how I became interested in jazz or in writing songs and he called me ‘a product of the age,’” Mercer wrote in the early ’70s. “But he had probably forgotten how, when I was tiny, three or four maybe, he would sit in front of the fireplace in his rocking chair and sing me songs from an old songbook, written, I think, by Charles Wakefield Cadman, among which were his favorites—‘Oh, Genievieve, Sweet Genivieve’, ‘In the Gloaming’, and ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie’. Maybe I was a product of the roaring ’20s but I know that a lot of songs that I have written over the intervening years were probably due to those peaceful moments in his arms. Secure and warm, I would drift off to dreams, just as later on, out on the starlit veranda, I would lie in the hammock and, lulled by the night sounds, the cricket sounds, safe in the buzz of grown-up talk and laughter, or the sounds of far-off singing in the distance, my eyelids would grow heavy and the sandman, Japanese or local, was not someone to steal you away, but a friend to take you to the ‘land of dreams’ and another day. There to find another glorious adventure to be lived, experienced and cherished, and—maybe someday—put into a song.”
Mercer was at the heart of the golden era of American popular music, when it was informed by classic and contemporary jazz. “John Mercer,” Wilder says, “known best for his lyrics but a good melodist, has always been hip-deep in the jazz world.”
Long about nineteen seventeen
Jazz will come upon the scene
Then about nineteen thirty-five
You’ll begin to hear swing,
Boogie-woogie and jive.
Not bad, considering Mercer and Carmichael wrote “The Old Music Master” in 1933. In fact, any division in the music business between popular and jazz artists was in the next couple of decades more apparent than real. Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer, Frank Sinatra and all their friends were jazz fans. Frank Sinatra was Lester Young’s favorite singer. Louis Armstrong sent Mercer a picture of himself and his wife with Mercer. “Man,” Armstrong’s inscription read, “More Spades love you than you have no Idea.”
Augmenting the American lexicon
Mercer died only 40 years ago, but his lifetime already seems to exist in a kind of glow compared to the present. Much of that glow, of course, was created by Mercer himself. The radiant exuberance of such Mercer songs as “Accentuate the Positive,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evenin’“ and “Hooray for Hollywood” were part of the period that witnessed what may have been America’s greatest unity. “Hollywood”—“where you’re terrific if you’re even good” —written in 1938 with Margaret Whiting’s father Richard, has no weak lines, but it’s the third stanza that kicks the ceiling:
Hooray for Hollywood!
That phoney super Coney Hollywood
They come from Chillicothes and Paducahs
With their bazookas
To get their names up in lights
All armed with photos from local rotos,
With their hair in ribbons and legs in tights
Mercer had lost none of his verbal brilliance by 1951, when he and Hoagy wrote “Cool.” The song’s introduction is set with many sparkling jewel-like rhymes:
Sue wants a barbecue
Sam wants to boil a ham
Grace votes for bouillabaisse stew.
Jake wants a weeny bake,
Steak and a layer cake,
He’ll get a tummyache too
It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s folksy, and here’s how it ends:
In the cool, cool, cool of the evenin’,
Tell ’em I’ll be there.
In the cool, cool, cool of the evenin’,
Slickum on my hair.
When the party’s gettin’ a glow on
And singin’ fills the air,
If I ain’t in the clink
And there’s sumpin’ to drink
You can tell ‘em I’ll be there.
If you or I had written that song, we might have taken the rest of the year off, but Mercer, among other things, wrote English lyrics for the Bloch-Gerard tune that became known as “When the World Was Young”:
Ah, the apple trees,
Where the hammock swung,
On our backs we’d lie
Looking at the sky,
Till the stars were strung,
Only last July
When the world was young.
Before I drift too far from the point, a look at his first Oscar winner. It begins, like To Have and Have Not, with a question: “Do ya hear that whistle down the line?” The speaker (it doesn’t hurt that it was originally Judy Garland) continues, “I figure that it’s engine number forty-nine.” By a commodius vicus of dotted eighths and sixteenths, we find ourselves in Mark Twain’s America.
Back in Ohio where I come from
I done a lot o’ dreamin’ and I’ve traveled some
But I never thought I’d see the day
When I ever took a ride on the Santa Fe
I would lean across my windowsill
And hear the whistle echoin’ across the hill
Then I’d watch the lights till they’d fade away
On the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe
This is now, of course, like Mark Twain, part of the American language and national character. Only Mercer, though saddened by the deteriorations of history, never became bitter as did Twain. The conventional love song of Mercer’s day held as its mission the (re)delivery of the message that the object of the singer’s affection represented all that was desirable in the world and that if said object will (just) Be Mine, all will be heavenly. Mercer wrote that song many times. “Dearly Beloved,” written with Jerome Kern, is a good example; they sing it at weddings, or used to. But even there Mercer’s humor is present:
Dearly beloved, how clearly I see,
Somewhere in Heaven you were fashioned for me,
Angel eyes knew you,
Angel voices led me to you
But then—just as we’re inhaling for the big embrace—Mercer says, “Nothing could save me.” As if Heaven and the angels were all involved in some fiendish conspiracy:
Fate gave me a sign
I know that I’ll be yours come shower or shine
So I say merely,
Dearly beloved, be mine.
Here we are in the England of P.G. Wodehouse, or nearby environs. Mercer was like the other great English writers a master of understatement. “I’m Old Fashioned,” also written with Kern, masks its deep emotional appeal in self-deprecation. Perhaps his most romantic song, “My Shining Hour,” written with Harold Arlen, expresses a poetic awareness not essentially different from Blake’s “infinity in a grain of sand.” “I Thought About You” also says much by limiting its scope to intensify its emotional impact: “I took a trip on a train, and I thought about you.” So simple but so powerful.
I peeked out a crack
And looked at the track
The one goin’ back to you
And what did I do?
I thought about you.
He was undoubtedly what his father called him, a musical genius. But what about the man that, as Julia Young said, people don’t know?
“Men from Savannah’s good families are born into a pecking order they can never get out of,” says Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, “unless they leave town forever. They’ve got to go to a proper secondary school—Savannah Country Day or Woodberry Forest—then to a good enough college, and then come back home and join the team.”
Events within as well as beyond his control made it impossible for Johnny Mercer of the Savannah Mercers to fit into Savannah’s pecking order, so he had to find his own way to transcend the pecking order, to rise above his family’s elevated and troubled history, not to join the team. Along that way, among other things, he wrote 18 songs that were nominated for Motion Picture Academy Awards, four of them winners; started, with a couple of friends, Capitol Records; became by far the most famous Savannahian, and left his permanent stamp on the American language. All of this while appearing, from this distance, to fulfill some mystic Scottish-American destiny, not altogether unlike that of his distant kinsman, General George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton.
Johnny’s three brothers, the youngest nine years older than Johnny, had graduated from Woodberry Forest Preparatory School, in Orange, Virginia, and Johnny started there in 1923. By 1927, on the verge of being dismissed for substandard work, Johnny had to leave school because his father’s real estate business had suffered severe reverses and his father could no longer afford to pay Johnny’s tuition. Johnny came home and went to work in his father’s office.
“Don’t you worry,” the 17-year-old Johnny told his father, then nearly 60 and deeply in debt. “I’ll pay back those people.”
“Son, you don’t realize how much it is,” George Mercer said. “You’ll never have that much money.”
‘Don’t give up hope, dope!’
Mercer’s romanticism was tempered always with an awareness of the dark side of fate. The boy whose father’s business had failed ran a multi-million-dollar recording empire, but quit when it stopped being fun. Sounds suspiciously like a man who had learned how to live. Mercer never, or seldom, forgot his advice in an early song: “Don’t give up hope, dope!” In spite of pain, of loss,
We’ll be close together, wait and see.
Oh, by the way,
This time the dream’s on me
You’ll take my hand
And you’ll look at me adoringly
But as things stand,
This time the dream’s on me.
But it hasn’t happened, it’s still a dream and may always be. Another song that demonstrates Mercer’s light-out-of-darkness stone blues awareness is “One for My Baby,” one more Mercer/Arlen masterpiece. Did anybody ever write as many great first lines as Mercer?
It’s quarter to three
There’s no one in the place except you and me
So set ‘em up, Joe,
I got a little story you oughta know
The barfly never tells the story; everything is implied. “Could tell you a lot—but you gotta be true to your code.” There’s something faintly ridiculous, overwrought, Hemingwayan, about the whole thing, but the guy at the bar is deadly serious, so serious he’s a little funny. How does a writer conceive, much less achieve, such a delicate balance of the absurd and the poignant?
Analysis of the nature of Mercer’s talent is rewarding, not to mention fun, but there’s more to Mercer than song lyrics. Aside from being a great writer and composer, Mercer was a good man, kind and possessed of ultimate integrity. In 1959 a grandmother from Youngstown, Ohio named Sadie Vimmerstedt, who worked at a cosmetics counter, wrote a letter (on sheets from a 1955 desk calendar) to Mr. Johnny Mercer, Song Writer, New York City. Of course Johnny received it.
“Dear Johnnie,” Sadie wrote, “I want you to write a song for me. The title ‘When Somebody Breaks Your Heart.’ Based on ‘I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.’ I always felt that is the way Nancy Sinatra feels about Frankie boy. I know you could add a little story to the title and please me. Thank you.”
It took him two years, but Mercer answered the letter, apologizing for his tardiness. Another two years passed before Sadie heard from Mercer again. This time he called to say that Tony Bennett was recording the song. “He said he didn’t want to record the song until he got the best singer,” Sadie told William Leffler of UPI. The record sold 15,000 copies the day it was released. Mercer gave her credit as co-composer and split the royalties 50/50, netting Sadie about fifty grand in the first six months. “He is a most unselfish man,” she said.
“She’s the cutest thing,” Mercer said a few years later. “She writes me letters all the time—she says, ‘You’ve changed my life, Mr. Mercer, you just don’t know. People are coming in the store asking for my autograph, next week I have to go on the radio in Cleveland, and two weeks later, I’m going to Cincinnati. I’m getting to be so famous.’ Finally, she came to New York and she was on ‘To Tell the Truth’ or something and then she goes to Europe and she says, ‘Mr. Mercer, I gotta work every day next week—I’m tired, I’m going to get out of show business.’”
Duty and responsibility
Mercer, like George S. Patton, traced his lineage back to Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer, a genuine hero who served as a surgeon in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army at the Battle of Culloden, fought and survived being wounded in the French and Indian War, and, leading troops as a brigadier general in the army of his friend George Washington, died of wounds received at the Battle of Princeton in 1777. Selfless devotion to duty motivated both Mercers. In Johnny’s case, his immediate family’s experiences must have heightened the genetic predisposition toward responsibility, despite Johnny’s poetic nature. (Patton was also a complex mixture of poetry and pragmatic realism.)
George Mercer, Johnny’s father, studied law at the University of Georgia, practiced with Johnny’s Princeton-and-University of Virginia-law-school-educated grandfather, then went into real estate and investment business for himself. About the time Johnny was born, his father and a friend, Ward Motte, bought the wooded island of Vernon View, about 15 miles from Savannah. They built a causeway across the water and marsh and sold waterfront lots. The Mercers were the first to build, and it was here that Johnny and his sister Juliana spent every summer. As Johnny wrote:
We lived in the country in the summer. The roads were still unpaved, made of crushed oyster shell, and as they wound their way under the trees covered with Spanish moss, it was a sweet, indolent background for a boy to grow up in. Savannah was smaller then and sleepy, full of trees and azaleas that filled the parks which make it so beautiful and as we drove out to our “place in the country” at Vernon View there was hardly a scene without vistas of marsh grass and long stretches of salt water.
Owning land in Florida and coastal Georgia in the early 1920s was like having a license to print money, but in 1926, the boom came to an end. By the next year, George Mercer’s business had failed, and as has been told, Johnny had to come home. Johnny’s father owed 700 people more than a million dollars. He spent the rest of his life reducing the debt and paid back over two-thirds of it before he died on November 14, 1940.
Fifteen years later, 27 years after George Mercer’s business failed, Johnny Mercer wrote a check to a Savannah bank for $300,000 in full payment of all his father’s debts. By that time Johnny had written two Oscar-winning songs, started and sold his portion of Capitol Records, and had one song on the
radio show “Your Hit Parade” for 221 weeks, two songs for 55 weeks, three songs for six weeks, and at one point in 1943 had four songs on the same week’s show, something nobody else
The note Johnny enclosed with his check said, “It has been my ambition since boyhood to pay off my father’s debt in this venture, and I have thought that this would be appreciated by the certificate holders and would in effect clear the name of the company.” He was under no obligation, except to himself and the good name of the Mercer family.
Johnny is gone—the brain tumor ended his life in 1976—but his music will be with us for a long time to come.
*All quotations from Mercer songs come from The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (Albert A. Knopf 2009). A long overdue and much welcome book that, to use Mercer’s own words “’s wonderful, ‘s marvelous.”