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THE JOHNNY MERCER CENTENARY: LYRICAL SPLENDOR

By C. Davis Remignanti

LOS ANGELES, 10 NOVEMBER 2009 — John Herndon (Johnny) Mercer, born one hundred years ago this month in Savannah, Georgia, was a not-so-great actor, no slouch as a composer, a legitimate star as a vocalist, and undeniably one of the few great lyricists of the twentieth century. His contributions to the Great American Songbook are almost too numerous and too stellar to allow for the standard brief listing of highlights that should come as part of this second sentence. How can one list "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Laura," "Too Marvelous for Words" and "Blues in the Night" and not be compelled to continue (oh, and "Hooray for Hollywood" and "Moon River" and "Jeepers Creepers") and continue (not to mention "That Old Black Magic" and "One for My Baby" and "The Days of Wine and Roses") seemingly ad infinitum (and don't forget "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" and "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" and "Autumn Leaves" and "Something's Gotta Give" and...well, see my point?).


Johnny Mercer: 18 November 1909 - 25 June 1976

That Mercer walks cheek by jowl with the best American lyricists — from Stephen Foster to Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart to E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim — is undeniable. But, it's my opinion, there are three niche areas where he should be recognized as the first among equals.

Authentic Southern Regionalism

At a time when most writers of "southern" lyrics were New Yorkers more familiar with corned beef than cornpone, Mercer brought a naturally mellifluous authenticity to the genre. Few northerners could drop a "g" so often and with such casual aplomb, or could legitimately pull off a phrase like "my huckleberry friend" without it seeming a self-conscious affectation. A few favorite examples:

From "There's Nothing Like a College Education" from the 1935 film Old Man Rhythm, wherein Mercer himself, sending up his own experience as a southern boy among the Yanks, sings —

Oh, I left my ol' plantation in the South-a
With my southern accent drippin' from my mouth-a
Just to hear you Yankees talk to one a-nouth-a
But I can't understand a word.
When my German teacher tried to make me sprechen,
And it's time to give the class a final check-in,
I got ever'body sayin' "Well, I reckon!"
It's the darndest thing I ever heard!

Or from "If I Had My Druthers" from the 1953 stage show Li'l Abner

If I had my druthers
I'd druther have my druthers
Than anythin' else I know.
While you'd druther hustle
Accumulatin' muscle
I'd druther watch daisies grow.
While they're growin' slow 'n'
The summer breeze is blowin'
My heart is overflowin', 'n' so
If I had my druthers
I'd druther have my druthers
Than anythin' else I know.

Wistful Longing

Sure, Yip Harburg hit a bullseye with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," but to my mind no one could so consistently capture the poignant, sometimes heart-breaking desire for better times ahead than Mercer. Consider:

From "This Time the Dream's on Me" (1941) —

Somewhere, someday,
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.

Or in the spellbinding "Skylark" (1942), with a likely assist from the composer, Hoagy Carmichael —

And in your lonely flight
Haven't you heard the music in the night?
Wonderful music, faint as a will-o'-the-wisp,
Crazy as a loon,
Sad as a Gypsy serenading the moon.
Oh, Skylark, I don't know if you can find these things
But my heart is riding on your wings,
So if you see them anywhere,
Won't you lead me there?

Regret

For a man as seemingly affable, successful, highly regarded and well liked as Mercer, he could channel the demons of regret with such terrible clarity and such piercing economy of words, it gives one pause. I leave it to the biographers to explain it. But Mercer, who was known (to those around him and to himself) as a "mean drunk," often followed a night's excesses with copious bouquets of flowers and equally copious apologies. Perhaps in a moment of self-reflection he wrote:

"Drinking Again" (1962) —

Drinking again,
And thinking of when you loved me.
Having a few and wishing you were here.
Making the rounds,
Accepting a round from strangers.
Being a fool just hoping that you'll appear...
Drinking again,
And thinking of when you left me,
Making it home
With just a memory.

Or consider "When October Goes," a lyric unpublished during Mercer's lifetime, set to music in 1984 by Barry Manilow and subsequently recorded by the likes of Nancy Wilson, Christine Lavin and Rosemary Clooney —

And when October goes,
The same old dream appears,
And you are in my arms to share the happy years.
I turn my head away to hide the helpless tears.
Oh, how I hate to see October go.
I should be over it now, I know.
It doesn't matter much how old I grow,
I hate to see October go.

__________________________

Among the events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Johnny Mercer, the cable network Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will present the film Johnny Mercer: The Dream's on Me, directed by Bruce Ricker and executive-produced by Clint Eastwood. Snippets of dozens of Mercers hits — performed by the likes of Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Fred Astaire, Barbra Streisand, Michael Feinstein and Ella Fitzgerald — are interspersed with archival clips and film excerpts. (See local listings for dates and times.) In addition, each Wednesday during the month of November, TCM will feature classic films to which Mercer contributed, including The Harvey Girls (1946), Hollywood Hotel (1937), Blues in the Night (1941) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).

Also in time for the centenary is The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (Alfred A. Knopf, $65). This seventh installment in Knopf's "The Complete Lyrics of..." series is as exhaustive a tome as one could possibly desire, with song lyrics arranged sequentially starting in 1930 and continuing past Mercer's death to include those lyrics set to music posthumously well into the 1980s. Gorgeous to look at and a hoot to thumb through, the book contains alternate and discarded versions of lyrics, historical anecdotes, some (too few!) splendid photos, and a thorough listing of Mercer's collaborators (ten pages worth — the man was productive).

__________________________

Oh, and by the bye. That list of songs at the top of this piece? Add to it "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)" and "Satin Doll" and "I'm Old Fashioned."

And "I Wanna Be Around" and "Dream."

Oh, and "Glow Worm."

The song lyrics quotations above are from The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, copyright 2009 by Alfred A. Knopf. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

C. Davis Remignanti writes on design and the visual and decorative arts for Culturekiosque.com. He last reviewed Made in Cassina, Skira's new book about the superstar Italian furniture manufacturer.

 

CALENDAR TIPS FOR THE JOHNNY MERCER CENTENARY:
chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Atlanta, Georgia

Clint Eastwood presents Johnny Mercer: The Dream's On Me
Documentary Film
Georgia State University Library
13 November 2009

Johnny Mercer Centennial Celebration Concert featuring Johnny Mercer's music with Lizz Wright, Joe Gransden and the Georgia State University Jazz Band.
Georgia State University
14 November 2009

Popular Music in the Mercer Era, 1910-1970
Academic Conference
Georgia State University Library
13 - 14 November 2009

Savannah, Georgia

Johnny Mercer Statue Unveiling
Ellis Square near City Market
18 November 2009

New York

I Remember You: A Lyrics & Lyricists Centennial Tribute to Johnny Mercer
92nd Street Y
18 November 2009

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