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, #5

The lyrics of Mercer’s life

The Middle years of Mercer (1950s)

In l950 Evans and Livingston brought their song “Mona Lisa” to Mercer since he was still president of Capital Records in hopes that he would have Nat King Cole record the tune. Neither Mercer nor Cole liked the song. Mercer told the songwriters, “It’s pretty. Just not very good.” Still Mercer and Cole agreed to record the song on the flip side of what they considered a more commercial tune. “Mona Lisa” sold 3,000,000 records and was the #1 song in America for two months! In l951 Mercer won his second Academy Award for Music for his “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” which he wrote with Carmichael. In l951 he had another crack at Broadway, this time it was successful, with the Phil Silvers’ musical, Top Banana. During the memorial service for Mercer in July l976 at New York’s Music Box Theater, the sophisticated jazz singer-composer, Mel Torme was speaking and related that he had heard the Russian song “Song of India” by Rimsky-Korsakov sung by Mario Lanza on the radio in l953. Torme phoned the station to inquire about its lyrics and was amazed when told they were by Mercer. Later he asked Mercer about it and Johnny replied, “Mel, read everything. If you are in the breakfast room, read the cornflakes box; you can ever tell when there’ going to be a lyric in it.” In l942, as a young singer, Torme was granted an audience with the great bandleader Glenn Miller in Chicago. Miller told Torme the singer, “Never mind the melody. Just read the lyrics. Mercer is the very best of ‘em all. Pick up every lead sheet you can lay your hands on with a Johnny Mercer lyric and study the hell out of it” Torme writes, “Mercer was and still is, my role model as a lyric writer. His range absolutely astonished me. He was the master of ‘down-home lyrics.” (It Wasn’t All Velvet). Mercer put wonderful words to such foreign melodies as the French songs “Autumn Leaves” (“Les Feuilles Mortes”) (his most profitable song!) and “When the World Was Young (“Le Chevalier de Paris”) and the German song “Glow Worm” (“Gluhwurmchen”). These English versions were the major successes for Mercer in the early 1950s.

In l954 Mercer won his only Tony Award for music in the Broadway play, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The play was made into monster Hollywood hit in l954 which was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Picture” and had the marvelous choreography by Michael Kidd. In l955 Mercer was brought in to save the film musical Daddy Long Legs. The problem was an ancient Fred Astaire (56 years old) and a young Leslie Caron (24 years old) love affair. Mercer: “I don’t know what woke me up. I went to the piano in the front room, out of bed, and quietly picked it out with one finger. And I wrote it down in my little hieroglyphics, which is my way of writing music. And then I finished it the next day.” What did he write? Astaire was “an old immovable object” and had an “old implacable heart” and Caron was “an irresistible force” and had “an irrepressible smile.” The result of this tension: “something has gotta give.” The song was a smash hit and caused cantankerous Frank Loesser to write Mercer, “Just a note to tell you how crazy I am about ‘Something’s Gotta Give.’ It‘s a real pleasure to see carriage trade writers getting the hits.” Another Broadway hit followed in l956 with Li’l Abner. The play won a Tony Award. In l955 Johnny sold his interest in Capitol Records (after 13 years) and finally paid off his father’s 20 year old debt of $300,000 to creditors. Back then that was real money! In l957 he wrote the title song “Bernadine” for star Pat Boone’s first Twentieth Century Fox movie. I proudly have a framed autographed picture of Boone hanging in my office inscribed “To Bob, a true friend. Pat.” In l958 Mercer joined Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to write “Satin Doll.”


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