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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Than anythin' else I know.
While you'd druther
I'd druther watch daisies
While they're growin' slow 'n'
The summer breeze is
My heart is overflowin', 'n' so
If I had my
I'd druther have my druthers
Than anythin' else I know.
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
From "This Time the Dream's on Me" (1941)
We'll be close together, wait
Oh, by the way, this time the dream's on me.
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
Crazy as a loon,
Sad as a Gypsy serenading the
Oh, Skylark, I don't know if you can find these things
my heart is riding on your wings,
So if you see them
Won't you lead me there?
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)
And thinking of when you loved
Having a few and wishing you were here.
Accepting a round from strangers.
Being a fool just hoping
that you'll appear...
And thinking of when you
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
And when October goes,
The same old dream
And you are in my arms to share the happy years.
my head away to hide the helpless tears.
Oh, how I hate to see
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
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."
lyrics quotations above are from The Complete Lyrics of Johnny
Mercer, copyright 2009 by Alfred A. Knopf. Used by permission. All
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
chosen by the editors as being of interest to
Clint Eastwood presents Johnny Mercer:
The Dream's On Me
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.
14 November 2009
Popular Music in the Mercer Era,
State University Library
13 - 14 November 2009
Johnny Mercer Statue Unveiling
Ellis Square near City Market
18 November 2009
I Remember You: A
Lyrics & Lyricists Centennial Tribute to Johnny
92nd Street Y
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