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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Johnny Mercer (1909 – 1976): Huckleberry, you were a mean drunk, #3

The lyrics of Mercer’s life

The Middle Years of Mercer (1930s)

Paul Whiteman is responsible for opening the door for Mercer’s career. In l932 orchestra leader Paul Whiteman and his vocal group, The Rhythm Boys” parted company. Bing Crosby was one of the “Rhythm Boys.” Whiteman held a contest to replace the “Boys” and Mercer won the contest. Whiteman gave him a job singing with his jazz orchestra. In l933 Whiteman introduced Mercer to anther young songwriter, Hoagy Carmichael. Carmichael, already famous for “Stardust” would later describe Mercer as “a young, bouncy butterball of a man from Georgia. . . I could tell he could write” (Philip Furia). Mercer, in turn, commented on the great Carmichael, “He is such a gifted lyric writer on his own that I felt intimidated by him much of the time.” Carmichael was having trouble finishing a song for Whiteman and Mercer helped with the lyrics and “Lazybones” was the result. Mercer and Carmichael (Georgia and Indiana) were such a popular team for a couple of years in the mid-30s that it is estimated that roughly 1 – 2 % of all the songs played on the radio in America were written by them! However, the year before (l932) Mercer wrote the lyrics to a tune written by banker-industrialist-composer William Woodin (“Spring is in My Heart Again”) who would become FDR’s Secretary of the Treasuring in l933! Interesting company Johnny was keeping in those days. Mercer continued to sing and was paired with the great Whiteman trombonist, Jack Teagarden, for some major hits in the early 30s. In l932 Mercer would work with one of his guiding influences, the Marxist lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg. Harburg had been hired to score a Broadway musical called Americana. Needing help, Harburg contacted other lyricists and composers, including a young Johnny Mercer. Mercer became his assistant for the play. Mercer writes in his unpublished memoirs, “In making me a kind of assistant during the formation of the Americana score, he taught me how to work at lyric writing. I had been a dilettante at it, trying hard but most undisciplined, waiting for the muse to strike. God, he’ll sit in a room all day and he’ll dig and he’ll dig and he’ll dig . . . sometimes we’d get a rhyming dictionary and a Roget’s Thesaurus and we’d sweat. And that’s the first time I ever knew that you had to work that hard.” One of Harburg’s great influences was the Victorian English librettist and wit, William S. Gilbert (1836-1911), of Gilbert & Sullivan fame.  In only three years, by 1933, Mercer’s reputation was soaring and RKO Pictures in Hollywood came a calling and so off to California Mercer goes. He was still a singer, a composer and lyricist and even an actor (Old Man Rhythm and To Beat the Band, 1935).

In l936 he hit his stride by writing the music for the Crosby hit film, Rhythm on the Range when he wrote “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande.”  After “Old Cowhand,” Mercer and Johnny Burke were vying to be the permanent lyricist for the monster star Crosby. Mercer, understandably, thought he had the inside tract on this lucrative deal. Crosby asked Mercer to write some lyrics for a tune written by trumpeter “Ziggy” Elman. But he could not come up with anything and so Crosby asked Johnny Burke to step in and write some Crosby conversational lyrics for the tune. The smash Crosby hit “What’s New” was the result and Burke got the Crosby and began working with Van Heusen on scores of Crosby’s movies. Mercer never forgot the defeat and when, years later his son-in-law, Bob Corwin, a jazz pianist, tried lyric writing, Mercer gave him the ultimate put-down, “Sounds like Johnny Burke. Forget it.”  He added radio in the late 30s when he was a regular guest on Benny Goodman’s NBC and CBS program Camel Caravan. In l938 Mercer was assigned by Warner Brothers to help Harry Warren (earlier blog) finish his tune “September in the Rain” with the alcoholic Al Dubin (earlier blog). Dubin, a tempestuous lyrical star was so humiliated and enraged by the addition of Mercer that he demanded that the studio release him from the contract. The studio did release the troubled poet and he left immediately for New York and the lush life. He was never healthy again. Addicted to booze and morphine, Dubin continued to write some good lyrics but was in an addled state the rest of his life. He collapsed on a street by the Empire Hotel in upper Manhattan and died in February l945.

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