John Herndon "Johnny" Mercer (November 18, 1909 – June 25, 1976) is regarded as one of America's greatest songwriters.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Mercer liked music as a small child. His aunt told him he was humming music when he was six-months old. He never had formal musical training but he listened to all the music he could and by the time he was 11 or 12 he had memorized almost all of the songs he had heard.
He once asked his brother who the best songwriters were, and his brother said Irving Berlin, among the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Mercer moved to New York in 1928. His first few jobs were as an actor but he soon gravitated toward singing and lyric writing. He was eventually hired as a singer and lyricist for Paul Whiteman's Band. His first lyric appeared in a musical revue in 1930 and after than he met many writers and composers, including Hoagy Carmichael. Later he quit working altogether to concentrate on writing songs exclusively. He met Siggie Nordstrom who was recently widowed and forming a sister act with her sister Dagmar and the pair used several of his songs in their routine in 1939 at the Ritz in London. But he felt confined by the Tin Pan Alley formula which had long relegated authentic southern vernacular to comedy songs. Mercer was a naturally casual lyricist, preferring to use regional colloquialisms. This was the golden age of the sophisticated popular song, like those of Cole Porter. Songs were put into revues without much regard for integrating the song into the plot.
Mercer was generally a lyricist; to him the song was the thing. During the 1930s there was a shift in musical theatre from musical revues to musicals that used the song to further the plot. There was less of a demand for the pure stand-alone song. After the success of Oklahomia!, Broadway began to shut out lyricists like Mercer who thought in terms of the song rather than its integration into the show.
When Mercer was offered a job in Hollywood to write songs and act in low-budget musicals for RKO, he took it.
It was only when Mercer moved to Hollywood in 1935 that his lyrics began to display the combination of sophisticated wit and southern regional venacular that characterize some of his best songs. His first big song "I'm an Old Cow Hand" was used by Bing Crosby in a film and from there his career as a lyicist took off. He found himself writing more and performing less.
In Hollywood he was able to collaborate with a remarkable number of composers, including Richard Whiting, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Jimmy Van Heusen, Henry Mancini, Dorothy Fields, and Hoagy Carmichael. He was adaptable in his style, listening carefully and absorbing a tune and then transforming it into his own style. He said he preferred to have the music first, taking it home and working on it. He claimed composers had no problem with this method as long as he came back with the lyrics.
After the death of his friend and collaborator, Paul Whiting, he began working with Harry Warren, one of the best composers in the film business. He also had an immensely productive collaborative relationship with Harold Arlen on and off starting in the late 1930s.
Mercer was often asked to write new lyrics to already popular tunes. The lyrics to "Laura," "Midnight Sun," and "Satin Doll" were all written after the melodies had become hits. He was also asked to write English lyrics to foreign songs, the most famous example being "Autumn Leaves," based on the French "Les Feuilles Mortes."
Occasionally, Mercer wrote both music and lyrics. "Something's Gotta Give" is probably the best-known song in this category.
Mercer wrote for some MGM films, which include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Merry Andrew (1958). He wrote the lyrics to "Moon River" for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. (Henry Mancini wrote the music.) In 1969, Mercer helped publishers Abe Olman and Howie Richmond found the National Academy of Popular Music's Songwriters Hall of Fame.
A good indication of Mercer's high esteem is the fact that, in 1964, he became the only lyricist to have his work recorded as a volume of Ella Fitzgerald's celebrated 'Songbook' albums for the Verve label. But he always remained humble about his work, attributing much to luck and timing. He was fond of telling the story of how he was offered the job of doing the lyrics for The Sandpiper on which he worked, only to have the producer turn his lyrics down. The producer got another lyricist and the result was "The Shadow of Your Smile" which became a huge hit.
Born in the South, Mercer grew up listening to records of Tin Pan Alley songs but also to so-called "race" records, marketed to blacks. His later songs merged his southern roots with his urban knowledge of sophisticated songwriters. It was his southern roots that enable him to be one of the few lyicists able to skillfully write lyrics set to the jazz melodies of composers such as Hoagy Carmichael. For years Mercer had to ignore those roots to fit the requirements of Tin Pan Alley standard terms.
"Moon River", with its remarkable phrase "my huckleberry friend" would never have passed muster in the Tin Pan Alley years.
Well-regarded also as a singer, with a folksy singing quality, he was a natural for his own songs such as "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive", "On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe", "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)", and "Lazybones." He was considered a first-rate performer of his own work.
It has been said that he penned "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)", one of the great torch laments of all times, on a napkin while sitting at the bar at P. J. Clarke's when Tommy Joyce was the bartender. The next day he called Tommy to apologize for the line "So, set 'em up, Joe," "I couldn't get your name to rhyme." Mercer, like Cole Porter before him, was more interested in the words than the emotion in lyric. This may be why "One for My Baby" was sung more effectively by him than other singers who often turned it into a tear-jerker.
The war years saw Mercer's beginnings as an entertainment tycoon. In the 1940s Mercer was introduced by the Nordstrom Sisters to backers and in 1942, he was part of the founding trio of Capitol Records which became an industry giant. While running Capitol, Mercer's skills as a talent scout attracted Nat Cole, Stan Kenton, Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee and Margaret Whiting and others to the label. Of course, he released many of his hits on his own label.
Mercer won four Academy Awards for Best Song:
Lyrics by Mercer, unless noted.
He wrote many other songs, some of which have entered the Great American Songbook:
Mercer was a direct descendant of Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer, and through him was also a distant cousin of General George S. Patton.
Another Mercer's ancestors was General Hugh W. Mercer in the American Civil War.
He was honored by the United States Postal Service with his portrait placed on a stamp in 1996. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1628 Vine Street is outside the Capitol Records building.
He died in Bel Air, California.
There is a theatre named after him in Savannah's Civic Center.
Furia, Phillip (1990). Poets of Tin Pan Alley. Oxford University Press. ISBN.
Furia, Phillip (2003). Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer. St. Martin's Press. ISBN.
Lees, Gene (2004). Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer. Hal Leonard. ISBN.
Wilder, Alex (1990). American Popular Song. Oxford University Press. ISBN.
Will, Max (1997). They're Playing Our Song. Da Capo Press. ISBN.