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A CurtainUp Feature
My Huckleberry Friend: The Lyrics of Johnny Mercer
By Richard Hughes
The age-old question about popular songs has to do with which is more important, words or music? My observation is that more people cite music than words as the dominant feature. When the issue is raised, supporters of that view mention the intricate melodies of George Gershwin or Jerome Kern and toss off one-liners like, "No one ever whistled a lyric..." But, in point of fact, the evidence is all on the other side.
"Lazy Bones," Hoagy Carmichael's second greatest hit, gathered dust in his music chest until the lyric was added. Ziggy Elman, the trumpeter for Benny Goodman's Band in the 1930s, wrote a song which showcased his brilliant technique, and no one paid any attention to it until a lyric titled "And The Angels Sing..." was added. Dizzy Gillespie wrote a number to demonstrate the new musical form that he and Charlie Parker developed called "Be-bop," which was all but unnoticed until a stunning lyric, "Midnight Sun," was added. In all three of those cases, the lyrics that made the difference came from Johnny Mercer.
Johnny Mercer is, without question, one of the three or four premier lyricists of American popular music, a field which is peopled with astonishing talent. From 1930 until his death from a brain tumor in 1976, he turned out a succession of popular songs of unusual quality; songs with deft lyrics, imagery worthy of a major poet and the part that touches most deeply, a haunting vision of the past and the future and their effect upon the present which is otherwise unknown in popular music. His collaborators included all of the best-known composers of the period; men like Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini, Arthur Schwartz, Jimmy Van Husen, Harry Warren, and Richard Whiting, as well as a number of less well known musicians, such as Joseph Kozma, Victor Schertzinger, and Matty Malneck. In his last years, he wrote a number of songs with Blossom Dearie, including what may be the best "list" song of all time, "My New Celebrity is You." Beyond that, although he had little or no musical training, he composed the music of many of his greatest hits, songs like "Strip Polka," "The GI Jive," and "Dream."
Beyond that, he was the best performer of much of his music, singing in a swinging, jazzy style that could not be mistaken. His first intention was to be an actor, and he turned to song writing only when a casting director for a Broadway review turned him away with the words, "We're only interested in girls and songs." He didn't get a part, but his first published song , "Out of Breath and Scared to Death," appeared in the Garrick Gaieties in 1930. That is something like hitting a home run in your first time at bat in the major leagues. He later sang with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, The Benny Goodman Orchestra and then moved to Hollywood where he began to write for the movies, and appeared regularly for a couple of years on the Bing Crosby radio program. They were famous in that time for their duets on "Small Fry," "Mr. Meadowlark," and "Bob White," all of which were written by Mercer.
His first great exposure as a song writer came in 1936, when he did the lyrics for Rhythm on the Range, a movie which starred Bing Crosby and Frances Farmer, and introduced a young comic singer, Martha Raye, to movie audiences. Bob Burns, a deep south comic, also made his debut in that film playing his "Bazooka," a home-made musical instrument which was the to give a name to the anti-tank weapons which were first used in World War II. The big hit - the one that pushed Mercer into the forefront of American popular music, was a nonsense song called "I'm An Old Cow Hand," with lyrics unforgettable to this day.
John Herndon Mercer was born on November 18, 1909, in Savannah, Georgia, the son of a prominent attorney and real estate speculator. The Mercers were of solid southern stock and could trace their ancestry back to before the Revolutionary War, in which a Mercer served as a brigadier-general under George Washington. He had an early interest in music, was given piano lessons for a time but gave them up, and then switched to trumpet, but lost interest in that, too. He attended Woodbury Forrest School in Virginia and sang in the chapel choir and developed an interest in drama. As a youngster, his only work experience was helping out in his father's office during summer vacations.
In his seventeenth year, his father's real estate business failed and pushed the family out of its comfortable situation. Rather than declaring bankruptcy, George Mercer gave up his personal holdings and all his real estate except the family home, started another business and vowed to pay off the more than one million dollars in debts that he owed. When he died in 1940, he had paid some $700,000 of that debt. In 1955, the banker who was handling the Mercer affairs received a check for the remaining $300,000 along with a note from Johnny saying that he was glad to be able to clear his father's debt, but the check was unsigned. Legend has it that a few days later, another check arrived, signed, with a note that explained that he had carried the first check around for several days, and thought he might have forgotten to sign it when he mailed it. "But," he added, "If I did sign the first one, just tear one of them up. . ."
I first became aware of Johnny Mercer in 1936, when I was nine. I loved the movie Rhythm on The Range, and the song, "I'm An Old Cow Hand." I saw a picture of him in one of my sister's movie magazines and I liked his looks. He wasn't bad looking, he just wasn't handsome, and that was a fair description of me. Beyond that, I loved music - wanted to be a popular singer when I grew up - and so did he, so we had another connection. Without even realizing it, I became a Fan - note the capital "F"- and I began to follow his career. In 1937, when he wrote the music for Hollywood Hotel, and especially the song, "Hooray for Hollywood," which was sung by Johnny "Scat" Davis, another not-handsome-but-okay-looking-guy that years later I worked with on a television series, my identification was complete. I always identified with the guys who didn't get the girl because they were ordinary-looking, and perhaps a little shy, in contrast to the leading men. They were always more interesting than the leading men, and the girls would always have been happier with them than with the Adonis characters, but the girls didn't know that because they (we) couldn't tell them. Probably the best way to describe it is to say that they (we) were always outsiders. Always standing to one side and watching - and thinking. So, like Johnny Mercer in the few films he made, and like "Scat" Davis in the even fewer films he made, we never got the girl and were relegated to the role of the "Silent Love," which was so well captured in a popular song of that time and title. It would be nice if Johnny Mercer had written it, but he didn't, even though the words captured exactly the "little-boy-lost" feeling all of us ordinary, shy guys shared.
"I reach for you as I'd reach for a star,
worshiping you from afar, leaving me My Silent Love..."
As I grew older and got over that shyness of youth - thank the Lord - even began to get the girl occasionally, I began to see other things in Mercer's lyrics which absolutely devastated me. He could blend the essence of a lost past and a longed-for future into a popular lyric, and combine them with real down-to-earth situations in a way that I never heard before, and have rarely heard since. To my taste, only Stephen Sondheim comes close among contemporary composers. Mercer's songs are the lyric equivalents of the paintings of Edward Hopper - familiar scenes, etched with crystal clarity, and covered over with an aching loneliness and longing for what might have been, as in his opening lyrics for the title song of the movie Laura-- ( ". . .the face in the misty light"). The song's images speak to the ideal one, the Goddess, who is just out of reach. It is l ittle-boy-lost searching, always searching.
Mercer writes with a vision of perfection, unsullied by the world. Consider the bridge for "And The Angels Sing," a lyric he is said to have written in thirty minutes to fit a trumpet solo written by Ziggy Elman when they both were with Benny Goodman's Band. The line, "Silver waves that break on some undiscovered shore," is as perfect and as evocative as anything ever written. Shakespeare would have been proud to have produced it.
That perfect dream world which we all seek was Mercer's metier. Consider "Skylark," from 1939 and the images he uses: "A meadow in the mist..." "A valley green with Spring.." "The shadows and the rain..." "A blossom covered lane." "Lonely flight..." "The music of the night..." "Strange as a will-o-the wisp," "Crazy as a loon" "Sad as a Gypsy" Add to that the other images from other songs, "That Old Black Magic..." "A leaf that's caught in the tide..." "Blues in the Night..." "That lonesome whistle, blowing cross the trestle..." "A worrisome thing...""The moon will hide his light..." Always reaching for the unreachable. The Don Quixote of American popular music.
Even as a performer, Mercer could not resist the little-boy lost lyric, even though that little boy is now full grown. Consider "The Salt Lake City Blues," written by Leon Rene and Johnny Lange. It was one of Mercer's most successful recordings, and it successfuly carries the little-boy theme into manhood. Mercer didn't write it, but he could have, except that the love of his life was with him nearly fifty years.
He was married to his wife Ginny, a dancer he met in New York in the late 1920s and they had a daughter, Amanda, who was immortalized in the song, "Mandy is Two." While I didn't know it at the time, it undoubtedly is the reason why one of my daughters is named Amanda. As far as anyone knows, he had a happy life. Outwardly, he laughed and smiled all the time, but there was one discordant note. In the mid 1940s, he was said to be seeing a psychiatrist several times a week. That does not surprise me, given the imagery and mood of so many of his lyrics, but even that was grist for his mill. The legend is that he wrote "Accentuate the Positive" while driving home from a sessions with his analyst. He took the doctor's advice and turned it into a song:
The music business changed in the last few years of his life and he, like so many other gifted lyricists, couldn't, as they say in show business, get arrested. (That is a play on the fact that when you are arrested, you are booked, just as you are booked for a performance.) He wrote a few songs by himself, words and music, which have all of that melancholy feeling of the songs of his youth, but with a slightly different emphasis.
What I believe to be his last song was written in 1975, and is called "You Go Your Way." It is a very touching lyric, made all the more so by the fact that his life would end in a few months. But what a way to leave:
So you sing your song, I'll sing my song,
We may even share a touch of Auld Lang Synge,
Then you go your way, through your golden doorway,
And wish me luck as I go mine.
A sweet, sweet man.
In the spring of 1976, I heard Bobby Troup, a singer I like very much, perform one of my favorite Mercer songs, "Jamboree Jones," which tells the story of an outsider - a little boy lost, who is shunned by his college mates because he is more interested in playing the clarinet than in football, but who, at precisely the right moment, when the team was behind 17 points in the Rose Bowl and "only had about a minute to play," rose in the stands and played his clarinet - which inspired the team and they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I never read those words, or hear them sung, without getting a huge lump in my throat. So I wrote to Johnny Mercer and told him how much the song meant to me, and how much he and his music meant to me, and that no one else could even come close to singing it as well as he did. I didn't know that he will ill, and I didn't expect a reply, but I got one from his attorney, who told me about the brain tumor and said that Ginny Mercer had read the letter to Johnny, and he had asked that a copy of his recording of the song be sent to me. I cherish it. He was dead ten days later.
My Huckleberry friend.
If you love Johnny Mercer, there is one album you simply must get. It is a Book of the Month Club Record, number 70-5240, and it is entitled "An Evening with Johnny Mercer, Alan Jay Lerner and Sammy Cahn, a three record set, recorded as a part of the 92nd Street YMCA Lyrics and Lyricists concerts in 1971. Each composer has two sides. Mercer talks about his early life and sings some of his early songs, as well as a sampling of his best known works. It is one of the most charming recordings you will ever hear. You might try the Book of the Month Club, and if that doesn't work, start scouring the used record market. If it is out of print it may be expensive - but it is worth some economizing in other parts of your life.