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, #6

The Later Years of Mercer


In l961 he won his third Academy Award for his lyrics for “Moon River” (with Henry Mancini) for the blockbuster film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Max Wilk relates the Mercer story: “We had that song in the picture; Holly sat on the fire escape and sang it, remember? Well, we all went up to the first preview in San Francisco, and afterwards we sent back for the usual post-mortem. The verdict was the picture was too long. First thing the producer (Marty Ragin) said was, ‘Well, I don’t know what you guys are going to do but I know one thing we can cut – that song “Moon River.” It can go.’” Baloney. If you remember the opening song, the lilting and lush Mancini music playing in the background as a lonely NY taxi take a shimmering Audrey Hepburn to Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue early in the morning to window shop with coffee and Danish and you don’t want to fall in love, you need to get your heart replaced. In l962 he won his fourth Academy Award for the lyrics to “Days of Wine and Roses” (music by Mancini). Jack Lemon, star of the movie Days of Wine and Roses told Bob Bach that when Mercer first sang this song for him and director Blake Edwards it was in a darkened studio under a single spotlight, and the effect was so dramatic that the easygoing Lemmon was brought to tears. Lemmon is quoted as saying, “I’ll never forget the circumstances. It was one of the most thrilling moments that I’ve ever had in my 35 years of being in this business.” In l963 Mercer wrote the lyrics for “Charade” (music by Mancini) title music for the film Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Nice start for the decade. Mercer’s generous nature was highlighted in l963 when a Youngstown, Ohio grandma-cosmetician named Sadie Vimmerstedt sent him a suggested line for a song “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody’s breaking your heart.” The line inspired Mercer to write the words and music to the 1963 Tony Bennett hit song “I Wanna Be Around.” He gave co-credit to Vimmerstedt and 50% of the royalties. Vimmerstedt sang in the choir at St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church. In l964 Mercer teamed with Johnny Mandel to write the lovely title song “Emily” for the James Garner/Julie Andrews film. One of my favorites. Mercer hadn’t lost his touch – try rhyming with “Emily.” Mercer did it with “dreamily” and “family.” However in l964 there was a major defeat. Mercer tells the story to Max Wilk: “A couple of year ago they asked me to do the song for a picture called The Sandpiper. I worked up a lyric and brought it in, and the producer (Martin Ransohoff) turned it down. He went and got another one – “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Huge hit. That can be pretty depressing.” The song lyric was written by Paul Webster and the tune by Johnny Mandel and it received an Academy Award in l965! In l965 Johnny wrote the lyrics for the Frank Sinatra smash hit, “Summer Wind.”


In l971 he was among the original ten inductees into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was the Hall’s first president. Johnny Mercer moved to London in the early 70s to work with composer Andre Previn on a musical, The Good Companions. The playwright was a young Englishman, Ronald Harwood. Harwood relates that one evening they were working in Mercer’s London apartment when the phone rang. “I couldn’t get who was on the other end of the hone, but Johnny sang one of his songs very lightly to the person at the other end. Then he put down the phone, and I said, ‘What was that about.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that was Frank Sinatra. He wanted to know how to phrase something.’” In l975 while in England he began having dizzy spells and a British physician suggested he return to the States and have exploratory brain surgery. While he was back in California waiting for surgery Paul McCartney, though intermediary singer Margaret Whiting, suggested they collaborate on some music. He turned McCartney down, probably because he knew he was not the same lyricist of old. Music taste had change against his taste. James Maher, music historian, tells the story that after a night of drinking with Mercer they found themselves in the Manhattan bar, Danny’s Hideaway, “Johnny had his arms out on this big round table and his head down on the tale , mustering “’Why don’t I die? Why don’t I die?’” After six cancer consultations he agreed to have ill-advised surgery in the fall of l975 and was left in basically a comatose state afterwards. He died in Los Angeles in l976. On his tombstone is inscribed “And the Angels Sing,” the title of a 1939 Mercer song lyric recorded by Benny Goodman and sung by Martha Tilton.


In l980 the Songwriters Hall of Fame established the Johnny Mercer Award which goes to a writer or writers already inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and judged by the Nominating Committee as having established a history of outstanding creative works. Frank Sinatra was the first recipient. In a recent SHF press release it was stated: “The Johnny Mercer Award is the highest honor bestowed by the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and only those who are already inducted can receive it.”


In l995 the Georgia state legislature declared April 19, 1995 to be Johnny Mercer Day in Georgia. In l997 his music and his home were featured in the Clint Eastwood movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.


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