As witness Signature Theatre’s recent cabaret show “Out of This World,” Johnny Mercer had only one peer as a lyricist: Cole Porter. Among the 1,500 songs to which Mercer supplied words that gave the melodies wit, depth and staying power were “P.S. I Love You” and “Moon River,” “Goody Goody” and “Jeepers Creepers,” “Too Marvelous for Words” and “Hooray for Hollywood,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” and “Blues in the Night,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Satin Doll.” In this smart and meticulously researched biography, Georgia State University historian Glenn T. Eskew ac-cent-tchu-ates another of Mercer’s roles: architect of popular music during the late 1940s and the ’50s, which Eskew calls the Age of the Singer.
The period, as Eskew sees it, was the Jazz Age’s last act. “During the swing era,” he writes, “vocalists had performed with jazz orchestras as another form of instrumentation, appearing as crooners or girl singers just as an instrumentalist might stand and improvise, but by the postwar period during the transition into jazz combos and progressive jazz, the singers emerged as headlined vocalists accompanied by their own jazz bands.” Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting, Nat “King” Cole and Jo Stafford were among the performers who thrived in this format, and they all recorded for Capitol Records, which Mercer co-founded in 1942 and served as president of until 1947. As an executive who was also an artist (besides writing lyrics, he sang capably and occasionally gave birth to a whole song, fitting words to his own tune), Mercer became a guiding force in the music that topped the charts just before their takeover by rock and roll.
It’s an interesting thesis, well-argued by Eskew. Also, as his subtitle suggests, he places Mercer in the context of the early 20th-century Southern diaspora, in which blacks and whites moved north and west to pursue wider opportunities, taking along the music they’d grown up with.
Mercer himself joined the exodus. Born in Savannah in 1909, he came from a distinguished family. One ancestor is said to have been the adviser who urged George Washington to cross the Delaware, and another was a Confederate general. After attending Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, Mercer had to go to work because his father had lost his shirt in real estate transactions gone bad. (He lost other people’s shirts, too, and so strong was Johnny’s sense of honor that years later, after getting rich, he settled all the debts lingering from his father’s debacle.) Off Mercer went to New York, where at first he tried to make a living as an actor. It occurred to him that he might do better, though, by getting serious about the versifying he’d been dabbling in for years. He had his first hit song in 1931 with “While We Danced at the Mardi Gras.”
His was a scattergun career. He never went steady with a composer, as did Hammerstein with Rodgers, or Lerner with Loewe. Yet Mercer wrote for some of the best, including Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Henry Mancini. Mercer’s preferred way of working was to plunk down a catchy title first. “Then if someone else is going to do the music,” he explained, “I want him to fit the melody to the title and complete the music for the song. After that I tackle the rest of the lyrics.”
His talent flourished in Hollywood, where he wrote copiously for movie musicals and won four Oscars. It galled him, though, that he never made it big on Broadway. The closest he came was with “Li’l Abner,” a musical comedy based on the comic strip, which was a medium-sized hit in 1956. According to Askew, one of its best songs, “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” spoofs Mercer’s own lineage: The family’s Civil War general was best-known for having led a retreat.
In private life, Mercer was an alcoholic who often cheated on his wife, most notably with Judy Garland — their on-and-off affair lasted for 30 years. He owed his success not just to innate ability but to a lifelong habit of reading widely. At his best, he could hold his own with the erudite Porter. Here, for example, are a few lines from Mercer’s song about creatures stirring at the onset of spring, written for (but dropped from) the movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”:
To itself each amoeba
Softly croons, “Ach, du lieber,”
While the proud little termite
Feels as large as a worm might. . . .
See the gay little finches
In connubial clinches,
As each fleet little swallow
Finds a swallow to follow.
By the end of his life (he died in 1976, at the age of 66), Mercer had collaborated with and mentored so many of the greats that a critic could sum him up by saying, “Grab his lapel and you are buttonholing the pantheon of American songwriting.”
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
Southern Songwriter for the World
By Glenn T. Eskew
Univ. of Georgia. 521 pp. $34.95