Johnny Mercer liked to say, “Writing music takes more talent, but writing lyrics takes more courage.” If this is true, then Johnny Mercer’s body of work—some 1,000 songs—is pure heroism.
This week, vocalists Carol Woods, Stephanie Nakasian and Rebecca Kilgore join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on stage at The Landing in San Antonio to salute Johnny Mercer in song.
Thanks to the Mercer archive at Georgia State University, Johnny Mercer is heard in clips from a rare interview recorded in 1970, with his old friend, radio host Willis Conover. Mercer talks about his favorite songwriters, what inspired hit songs like “Jeeper Creepers” and “Lazy Bones,” and what being a ‘Southerner’ means to him.
TO LISTEN TO EXTENDED INTERVIEWS CLICK HERE
From his early collaboration in the 1930s with tunesmith Hoagy Carmichael to his work with Henry Mancini in the 1960s, Johnny Mercer earned four Academy Awards and nineteen nominations. Philip Furia in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley writes, “What gives Mercer’s best songs their distinctive character is their blend of urbanity and earthiness…”
Mercer’s ability to pick just the right slangy phrase and combine it with his lyrical sense of poetry made his songs popular with jazz artists from Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington. Mercer wrote “Trav’lin’ Light” for Holiday and composed lyrics to Ellington’s “Satin Doll.” A child of the Jazz Age, Mercer had discovered ‘hot jazz’ in dorm room listening sessions at his prep school, and wrote some of his most syncopated songs, including “Accentuate the Positive” with Harold Arlen.
At times, Johnny Mercer said he liked to think he was composing his lyrics to the sound of crickets humming on a summer evening or to the rhythm of a distant train. Mercer enjoyed transporting listeners to the lazy days of his carefree childhood in Savannah, Georgia. Of his hit song “Blues in the Night,” Mercer said, “It’s right out of Savannah, my background, and all the things I heard and experienced when I was a boy.”
Unlike most of his songwriting colleagues, Johnny Mercer had a public side to his persona. His boyish charm made him popular on national radio shows in the 30s, including the Camel Caravan with Benny Goodman, and his own series, Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop, where he sang with the band, told jokes and appeared in skits. As a young man, making his way in New York City, Mercer had his heart set on being a theater actor. Songwriting was a second career choice and he welcomed the opportunity to “ham it up” whenever he could.
Johnny Mercer collaborated with many great composers of American popular song, such as Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Richard Whiting, Rube Bloom, Jimmy McHugh, Jimmy Van Heusen and Arthur Schwartz. But some of Mercer’s most successful songs came out of the 60s, at a time when many of his contemporaries had been put out of work by the rock and roll revolution. Mercer managed to keep the hits coming in his collaboration with Henry Mancini: “Moon River,” “Charade” and “The Days of Wine and Roses.”
In his relatively short life—he died at the age of 67—Johnny Mercer achieved more than his enormously successful career as a songwriter and his life as a popular singer and radio personality.
As co-founder of Capitol Records, he put stars like Nat ‘King’ Cole and Peggy Lee on the map. Along the way, he helped launch the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
We remember him for his timeless songs—title after title of Golden Age classics. Many years, he had a hit song in the Top Ten of Your Hit Parade every week of the year. More than half a century later, we are still singing Johnny Mercer songs.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Johnny Mercer. Photo courtesy johnnymercer.com
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick © 2012