Sunday, March 27, 2016

Music History At Its Best: Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter For The World

As OTR readers know the American songwriter and singer, Johnny Mercer, is a frequent subject on this blog. Even forty years after his death he remains the favorite son of his hometown, Savannah. And from coast-to-coast it's downright impossible to go a day without hearing at least one of his 28 "bread and butter songs." In all he wrote over 1400 songs during his forty-year career. Bits and pieces of another 1500 songs and song ideas can be found in the Johnny Mercer Collection at the Georgia State University Library in Atlanta.

I've had a long association with Mercer's music and the Great American Songbook beginning in the early 1950's when I listened to my foster brother practicing his trumpet for high school performances and dance band gigs. Into and beyond the golden age of rock my record collection had several jazz and pop vocals with more than a few of his songs. The watershed event occurred in 1977 when a career move brought me to Savannah six months after Mercer's death. There I learned about his remarkable influence on American music as a lyricist, songwriter, singer, and entrepreneur. The result of that "learning" is three linear feet of books, recordings and files on the "Old Music Master," a name that comes from - where else - a 1943 song resulting from his work with another music master, Hoagy Carmichael.

The latest addition to the Mercer book shelf is an outstanding academic biography by Professor Glenn T. Eskew at Georgia State University. Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World (University of Georgia Press, 2013) provides readers with a fine, well-written, and enjoyable chronological view of the Mercer story. What makes this biography different from earlier attempts is its placement of Mercer, a product of the patriarchal South, in the Southern diaspora of jazz, blues, and popular music artists into the north and western United States and the world. Eskew also focuses on Mercer's significant role in shaping the direction and diversity of American music through his work as a founder and artists and recording director of Capitol Records. Ninety pages of citations and footnotes make the book an essential for Mercer students and fans.

In summary, this book cements much of the information in two other Mercer biographies with additional information and, citations, and additional sources. It also rightfully documents Mercer as an enormous force in American music history, far beyond the talented lyricist and smiling, gap-toothed singer the Greatest Generation knew so well. For readers who have an interest in the "Old Music Master" himself and his work with the blues, jazz, country, and popular music entertainers who brought such music to American culture in the 20th century, it is an important read. In fact, if you want to read one book on the subject, I'd say this is it.

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