By Will Friedwald
A year ago, those of us preoccupied with such things were busy predicting a Johnny Mercer revival. Dream, a revue designed around Mercers songs, was corning to Broadway, and his music was rumored to be at the heart of Clint Eastwoods then-forthcoming screen adaptation of John Berendt’s blockbuster book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It was hoped that Mercer was destined for flavor-of-the-week status and that the film would do for his songs what the musicals Five Guys Named Moe and Jelly’s Last Jam did for Louis Jordan and Jelly Roll Morton, respectively.
By the end of 1997, both the Broadway show and the Midnight movie had tanked. It turns out, however, that Mercer doesn’t need any such contemporary peg to be current. The Huckleberry Poet is already so seamlessly integrated into the fabric of American culture that, show or no show, film or no film, his words are already on everyone’s lips.
Johnny Mercer first came to New York from his native Savannah, Georgia, in 1928 at the age of nineteen. He had written his first song, “When Sister Susie Struts Her Stuff,” back home in Georgia five years earlier, but his intention was to try his luck as an actor and singer, and he would always refer to lyric writing as something he just fell into. In retrospect, it seems that Mercer was determined to get into show biz at any—and, eventually, every—level.
For the first decade or so of his career, Mercer’s efforts both behind and in front of the microphone progressed at roughly parallel rates: as his early songwriting began to win attention, Mercer himself gained exposure as band vocalist with Paul Whiteman and, by the end of the ’30s, as singing emcee with Benny Goodman. Mercer’s film career got off the ground when RKO Pictures first hired him to write songs—as well as sing them, in an onscreen roll as a lazy Southerner—for the 1935 epic Old Man Rhythm. He didn’t get much work in front of the camera after that, but soon, thanks partly to the support of composer Harry Warren, Mercer became the number one writer of film songs, first at Warner Brothers, then across Hollywood. Warren’s kindness was repaid when his most notable collaboration with Mercer (“On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” from the film The Harvey Girls) won the composer his third Oscar and Mercer his first of the four that eventually made him Hollywood’s most decorated tunesmith.
Mercer continued to make records (mostly for Capitol, the company he co-founded in 1942 and ran for six years) and to appear on radio and television until his death in 1967. It seems that of the major songwriters who were also performers (including his frequent collaborators Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen, and the keyboard virtuoso George Gershwin), all were fiercely devoted to the world of jazz and big bands, as opposed to the major Broadway ASCAPers—the Porters, Kerns, and Rodgerses—none of whom had much use for jazz, and who had little talent for performing themselves. Mercer was the only major composer/performer in the bunch who was also a lyricist. His words, particularly when wedded to the melodies of Carmichael or Arlen, often seem to sing themselves.
Mercer’s lyrics to “Wine and Roses” (sung on the Midnight soundtrack by the great Cassandra Wilson) are a model of subtlety and flexibility: you don’t even need to know that he and Henry Mancini wrote the piece as a theme for a downer movie (of the same name) about drinking and disillusionment in the postwar era. (Having Mercer write for a film about alcoholism was chillingly ironic: longtime friend Rosemary Clooney, who sings “Fools Rush In” on Midnight, remembers going with Mercer to a party at which the hostess instructed him, “Just behave yourself tonight and you won’t have to send me any damn flowers in the morning.”)
Three kinds of performers participate in the Midnight soundtrack: those who came up in the generation when Mercer’s songs were still on the hit parade (Rosemary Clooney, Joe Williams), current pop artists (Paula Cole, k.d. lang), and actors from the film (Kevin Spacey on “That Old Black Magic,” and the Clint-ster himself on “Acc-Cen-Tchu-Ate the Positive”). Singers from the latter two categories do better than you might expect (with the exception of Clint). Still, you can’t help but wish the entire disc were given over to specialists in the jazz-and-standards genre.
The songs selected for Midnight do constitute a representative cross-section of Merceriana. No track is more moving than k.d. lang’s rendition of “Skylark”—one of Mercer’s most moving elegies (and one of Hoagy Carmichael’s most sweeping tunes)— over the opening credits. Lang has by far the most remarkable chops of any contemporary pop star, but opportunities to hear her sing class material are frustratingly rare, making the opening moments of Midnight, which project Mercer’s lyric via a sweeping airborne shot, doubly moving. Lang, in fact, performs her allotted ballad with considerably more gusto than most contemporary performers who regularly visit the Great American Songbook—Diana Krall, for one. For all the attention this young Canadian pianist-singer has received, her interpretation of “Midnight Sun” is as dull as the rest of her recordings. It’s a shame, since “Midnight Sun” features one of Mercer’s better texts. For one thing, he uses a triple-rhyming scheme. In itself, that’s not too remarkable—Glenn Miller, a lesser talent, stacked up three rhymes instead of the usual two in the hit “Moonlit Cocktail”—but three rhymes of a Mercer-level quality are something else again. Rhyming “chalice” with “palace” would be competent enough, but the real coup comes when he throws in “aurora borealis.” Until Krall learns to play it cool without sounding somnambulant, refer instead to the classic recordings of this piece by Jo Stafford, June Christy, and Ella Fitzgerald (the latter on perhaps the single most essential collection of Merceriana, Fitzgerald’s Johnny Mercer Songbook).
One of Mercer’s key strategies is to reconsider the relationship between the singer and the audience. He constantly tinkers with the form of each lyric, not so much with its musical structure (most are sixteen lines in the standard AABA format) as its concept. Most pop songs, coming out of a musical comedy tradition, set their singer up as a character in a boy-girl scenario. In “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “That Old Black Magic,” for instance, the singer is cast as the lover, and the listener, whom the singer addresses as “you,” as the object of his affection. Yet Mercer, perhaps inspired by the older and stuffier “Dinner for One Please, James” and Cole Porter’s “Make It Another Old-Fashioned Please,” structured his classic “One for My Baby” in the manner of a barroom conversation. You could say that the listener (in Frank Sinatra’s usual spoken intro) assumes the role of a bartender, but Mercer unveils his story by giving us only half of the dialogue, as if we were eavesdropping on a phone call. The perspective of “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” changes within the song itself—it may have been felt that, as yet another movie “train song,” it needed an extra-special lyric to distinguish itself. Composer Harry Warren had already enjoyed a mammoth success in the genre with “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and he and Mercer were writing for Judy Garland, who had also introduced a classic train number with “The Trolley Song” in Meet Me in St. Louis. If such a concern did exist, however, it was unnecessary: “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” and the production number that introduced it in The Harvey Girls, outdid both “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “The Train Melody” (and, unlike either of the earlier songs, “A, T & SF” brought home an Oscar).
Earlier, in “Blues in the Night,” Mercer had introduced a “sound effect” (the famous “a-hooey-da-hooey”) with the line “hear that train a-callin’.” But on “A, T & SF,” the singer evokes the sound of the train itself (“ooh-ooh”) with no such preface. When Warren later recorded the piece with Rosemary Clooney, he incorporated the rigid rhythm of the train into the actual orchestration.
Eastwood and company have omitted Mercer’s classic “Hooray for Hollywood” from the Midnight festivities; perhaps its barbed attitude toward Tinseltown is still too sharp—after all, it’s still the place “where any office boy/or young mechanic/can be a panic/with just a good-lookin’ pan.” Introduced by Benny Goodman’s orchestra and trumpeter-vocalist Johnny “Scat” Davis in the 1937 movie Hollywood Hotel, “Hooray for Hollywood” amounts to an early peak for Mercer, with its masterful deployment of contemporary slang. The best comedy is invariably both timely and timeless, and in spite of Mercer’s use of such ’30s icons as Sally Rand (who did indeed dance “with or without a fan”), and the opening rhyme of “screwy” and “ballyhooey,” “Hollywood” seems utterly undated. By the time Doris Day recorded her definitive version in the mid-’50s, Mercer had updated the lyrics for the Eisenhower era with couplets like “TV’s Lassie” and “Monroe’s chassis.” In 1998, with a new Tarzan flick in the offing, even the jungle yells that conclude the original performance (“they take perfect-shape men/and make them act like apemen”) seem topical once more.
The inclusion of Tony Bennett’s hit version of “I Wanna Be Around” represents the only vintage performance on the Midnight collection, and the song itself may well represent the pinnacle of the entire Mercer idiom. By 1962, the Mercer style was so distinct that it was even possible for someone else to come up with a Johnny Mercer line, which is indeed the genesis of “I Wanna Be Around.” A store clerk named Sadie Vimmerstadt devised the opening two lines and mailed them to him:
I wanna be around, to pick up the pieces
When somebody breaks your heart.
The miracle isn’t that Mercer wrote the rest of the song (words and music) and gave her half of the proceeds, but that the post office even deigned to deliver the original letter, which bore for an address only “Johnny Mercer, songwriter, New York.” Mercer wisely selected Tony Bennett to introduce the piece, and even then Bennett’s singing was saturated with echoes of Louis Armstrong. Sinatra recorded what was for him a half-assed version (on his second album with Count Basie), and Dinah Washington later gave it a scorching, barn-burning treatment, but the song remains the exclusive property of the mighty Tony, who today concludes it with a resounding Satchmo-like “Oh yeah!”
Ever wary of gaudy patter, Mercer described Hollywood (even as he shouted “hooray” for the place) as “where you’re terrific if you’re even good.” The quality of Mercer’s work makes it difficult to find adequate phrases to sing his praises without resorting to mere superlatives. Johnny Mercer was sui generis, which is a fancy-pants, dead language way of saying, “Too Marvelous for Words.”