Case in Point


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, #4

The lyrics of Mercer’s life

The Middle years of Mercer (1940s)

In l940 he tried his hand at a Broadway musical with Hoagy Carmichael (Walk with Music) but it flopped. In l940 Mercer also began collaborating with Jimmy McHugh (a blog subject). In his unpublished memoirs Mercer writes the interesting reflection about McHugh improvising: “I’d come into the office at the studio and maybe I’d say, ‘Mornin’ Jim, how’s it goin’? and he’d start tinkling away on the treble, echoing ‘Morning’ Jim, how’s it goin’ to a dozen strains until I thought I’d go daffy. There was no way to break the spell either, or it you said, ‘I guess I’ll go to the men’s room,’ he’d switch to that theme and we’d be going to the men’s room for half an hour in waltz time rumba, and fox trot.’” Needless to say, while some wonderful songs came out of that partnership it was to be short-lived. Mercer’s work with Walter Donaldson (another blog subject) in the 1040s was much more pleasant the Savannah Sage. In the early 40s Mercer was promoted to his own radio program, The Johnny Mercer Music Shop with Wendell Niles doing the announcing on NBC. In 1941 he wrote what many believe to be one of the two best blues songs ever written, “Blues in the Night” with Harold Arlen (“Hear the train a callin’/A whoo-ee-duh-whoo-ee”). (The other great blues song is “St. Louis Blues.”). Written for the movie Hot Nocturne the movie executives were so impressed by the Irving Berlin-recommended name of “Blues in the Night” that they changed the name of the movie to Blues in the Night! Oscar Hammerstein won the Academy Award in l941 for his song but he apparently remarked to Broadway producer, Robert Dolan, “When you get back to Hollywood, tell Johnny he was robbed.” In l942 Mercer formed the record company, Capital Records with Buddy DeSylva (formerly of the songwriting team DeSylva, Brown and Henderson). He became Capital’s first president. The company built its landmark office building in Hollywood shaped like a stack of 45 rpm records in l956. The building was a tourist attraction for the Case family in the when we visited Southern California a couple of years later. The story is told by lyricist Don George about how he came to record his song “I’m Beginning to See the Light:” He began making the rounds, first approaching Johnny Mercer at Capital. Mercer told him that the title was cute with a monotonous melody and then said, condescendingly, “C’mon, Don. How about that lyric.” Don got the cold shoulder from everyone else in Hollywood. Finally, Harry James agreed to record the song in l945 and it sold more than a million records. When he later ran into Mercer in a bar (where else!), Mercer demanded to know why George had never shown him the song. In l944 he and Arlen again struck gold with “Accentuate the Positive,” sung by Bing Crosby and inspired by a phrase used by the Harlem preacher Father Divine. It received an Academy Award nomination. In l944 he wrote the music and the lyrics for “Dream” demonstrating again that while he had a Southern Agrarian poetic heart, he could write a tune as well. He says, “I was just fooling around at the piano and I got a series of chords that attracted me. I play it for Paul Weston and he said, ‘Why don’t we use it for the theme song on the show?’ We were doing the ‘Chesterfield Show’ on radio – Paul had the band – and I was on it for six months. Then along came Perry Como and did the show for twelve years! I guess that shows something about me as a performer.” In l945 he wrote the words for the haunting David Raksin tune “Laura” without ever seeing the movie of the same name. Cole Porter is reputed to have said that Laura was his favorite song – among those he didn’t write. In l946 he won his first Academy Award for Music for his “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” which he wrote composer Harry Warren in one hour. Mercer recorded the song for his Capital Records and when Warren saw an ad highlighting “Johnny Mercer’s ‘On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe’ Warren felt that his role as composer had been diminished and he refused to speak to Mercer for five years. In fact, when the “the Atchison” won the Academy Award in 1946 for best song, neither Mercer nor Warren accepted the prize, both nurturing his wounded pride. In his unpublished biography Mercer is quoted as saying that Warren is Italian and everything that goes with it: “He is Papa, he is quick-tempered, he is suspicious, and he is clannish. While I love him as a friend, I would hate to have him for an enemy.” During the mid-40s a handful of Hollywood musical greats would gather together one Monday evening each month at Jerome Kern’s home to play music into the wee hours. The group (“The Monday Night Music Club”) included Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Jule Stein, publisher Buddy Morris, and Mercer. With Kern he wrote “I’m Old Fashioned” for the Fred Astaire 1943 movie You Were Never Lovelier. When Mercer first met his idol Kern in l933 he found the great composer “probably irascible and conceited.” However, in l943 when he began to work with Kern he realized that Kern conceit was a cover for his great shyness and social awkwardness. When Mercer brought the “Old Fashioned” lyric to Kern’s home, the normally taciturn composer was so taken with it that he jumped up from the piano and kissed Mercer on the cheek. He then called Eva, his wife, in to hear the song sung by Margaret Whiting and proclaimed Mercer a “genius.” Philip Furia writes of Mercer: “During the l940s, Mercer’s songs dominated the airwaves and the pop charts. During one stretch, he had a song in the top Ten for 221 weeks (the songwriting equivalent of DiMaggio’s hitting streak); at another point, four of the Top Ten songs of the week had a lyric by Mercer.”


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