Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Past Southern Passage

June 25 is a day to remember for many Savannahians in particular and fans of the Great American Songbook in general. It marks the passing of Johnny Mercer in 1976. He was a sentimental gentleman from Georgia, a favorite son of Savannah and one of the nation's most important figures in entertainment in the last century. Mercer's impact was universal. He composed melodies, wrote lyrics, sang a wide range of songs, performed in films, kept the nation laughing with his comedy, and co-founded Capitol Records and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Johnny Mercer, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 48

We have come a long way from the advent of rock and roll in the mid-1950's and its dominance in the family tree of popular music. Still, the Great American Songbook, that generation of music beginning around 1930 and continuing into the early 1960's, has found a comfortable niche among music lovers around the world. Many songs in that now-tattered "book" belong to Mercer and stand in tribute to a man described as America's folk-poet and the finest lyricist in our history.

In his career Mercer wrote the lyrics to 1500 songs, collaborating with the country's top music writers, including Harold Arlen, Bernie Hannigan, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Gene DePaul, Henry Mancini, Jerome Kern, Rube Bloom, and Matty Malneck. He also left behind a few thousand more unpublished songs and song fragments, scores of poems and prose pieces, and an unfinished autobiography all housed in the Johnny Mercer Collection at the Georgia State University Library in Atlanta. 

Mercer often talked about his "bread and butter" songs. I'd say most songwriters and performers would be pleased to have five songs in such a list. Mercer had twenty-nine. Regardless of your age and interest in popular music, you may be surprised at how many of these songs you recognize:

Lazybones (1933), music by Hoagy Carmichael;

Goody, Goody (1936), music by Marty Malneck;

Too Marvelous For Words (1937), music by Richard A. Whiting;

Jeepers Creepers (1938), music by Harry Warren;

Satin Doll (1958), written with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn;

You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby (1938), music by Harry Warren;

That Old Black Magic (1943), music by Harold Arlen;

Accentuate the Positive (1944) music by Harold Arlen;

Fools Rush In (1940), music by Rube Bloom;

I Remember You (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger;

Day In - Day Out (1939), music by Rube Bloom;

Dearly Beloved (1942), music by Jerome Kern;

Come Rain or Come Shine (1946), music by Harold Arlen;

Tangerine (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger;

Hooray For Hollywood (1938), music by Richard A. Whiting;

Laura (1945), music by David Raksin;

Dream (1944), words and music by Johnny Mercer;

On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe (1946, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Harry Warren;

Something's Gotta Give (1954), words and music by Johnny Mercer;

One For My Baby (1943), music by Harold Arlen;

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening (1951, Academy Award for Best Music, Oroginal Song), music by Hoagy Carmichael;

Skylark (1941), music by Hoagy Carmichael;

Autumn Leaves (1950), music by Joseph Kosma;

I Wanna Be Around (1962), words and music by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt;

Blues in the Night (1941), music by Harold Arlen;

Charade (1963), music by Henry Mancini;

Summer Wind (1965), music by Henry Mayer;

Moon River (1961, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini;

Days of Wine and Roses (1962, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini;

That's plenty of "bread and butter" on one man's plate, but we need to keep in mind that he had seven more songs nominated for an Academy Award that never made this list. What a remarkable talent...and I bet you hear one of his songs today.

For more on this American folk poet visit


Photos and Illustrations:
William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress

Johnny Mercer: The Life, Times, and Song Lyrics of Our Huckleberry Friend, Bob Bach and Ginger Mercer, The American Poet and Lyricists Series, Lyle Stuart, October 1982.

Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, Philip Furia, St. Martin's Press, December 2004.

Portrait of Johnny: The Life and Times of John Herndon Mercer, Gene Lees, Hal Leonard, February 2006.

The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, Johnny Mercer, edited by Kimball, Day, Kreuger, and Davis; Knopf 2009

Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World, Glenn T. Eskew, University of Georgia Press, 2013

Johnny Mercer Foundation

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