Mercer, Johnny (actually, John Herndon)

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Mercer, Johnny (actually, John Herndon)

Mercer, Johnny (actually, John Herndon), idiomatic American songwriter, singer, and record company executive; b. Savannah, Ga., Nov. 18, 1909; d. Los Angeles, June 25, 1976. A prolific writer whose songs were characterized by an inventive use of rural slang and imagery. Mercer primarily was a lyricist for songs featured in motion pictures; he wrote songs for at least 73 films released between 1934 and 1973. These efforts brought him 19 Academy Award nominations, and four Oscars for “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening”“Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses” Though he worked less frequently in the theater, he contributed to 13 musicals and revues produced on Broadway and in the West End between 1930 and 1974. He also maintained a career as a singer, scoring a series of major hits in the 1940s, the most successful being his own “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”

A major figure in the entertainment industry, Mercer was a director of ASCAP (1940–41), a cofounder and the first president of Capitol Records, president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (which bestows the Emmy Awards) (1956–57), and cofounder and the first president of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Mercer was the son of George A. and Lilian Mercer; his father was a lawyer who worked in real estate. He studied piano and trumpet as a child and wrote his first, unpublished, song, “Sister Susie, Strut Your Stuff” at 15. He joined a theater group in Savannah and traveled with them to N.Y for a play competition in 1927, then stayed in the city seeking work as an actor and writer. He appeared in several Broadway plays and became a staff writer for a music publishing firm. In 1930 he auditioned for the revue The Garrick Gaieties (N.Y., June 4, 1930), and though he was not accepted as a performer, he placed “Out of Breath (And Scared to Death of You)” (music by Everett Miller) in the score; it became his first published song. He also met Elizabeth “Ginger” Meehan, a dancer in the show, whom he married in 1931; they had two children.

In 1932, Mercer first worked with two of his major collaborators, Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael. With Arlen he wrote “Satan’s Little Lamb” (lyrics also by E. Y. Harburg), one of three songs he placed in the revue Americana (N.Y, Oct. 5, 1932). His first major success with Carmichael came when he set a lyric to the composer’s instrumental “Washboard Blues” and came up with “Lazybones,” which enjoyed many recordings, including a best-seller by Ted Lewis and His Band in July 1933. This success allowed him to give up his job as a runner for a Wall Street firm and turn to songwriting and performing full-time. During this period he also appeared on the radio series The Kraft Music Hall as a singer and master of ceremonies with Paul Whiteman and His Orch., and he recorded with Whiteman.

Mercer began to enjoy widespread success as a songwriter in 1934. In February his song “You Have Taken My Heart” (music by Gordon Jenkins) was a hit for Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orch.; in September, Irving Aaronson and His Commanders scored a hit with “Pardon My Southern Accent” (music by Matty Malneck); in October, The Boswell Sisters sang “If I Had a Million Dollars” (music by Malneck) in the film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, Mercer’s first movie song, and Richard Himber and His Orch. recorded it for a hit; and in November, Rudy Vallee and His Connecticut Yankees had a hit with “P.S. I Love You” (music by Jenkins).

Mercer moved to Hollywood in 1935 under contract to RKO as both a writer and performer. He appeared in and wrote songs for two films released in the fall of the year, Old Man Rhythm and To Beat the Band; the latter featured “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo” (music and lyrics by Mercer and Malneck), which spent nine weeks in the hit parade for Benny Goodman and His Orch. starting in December. But the films were not successful, and Mercer returned to Tin Pan Alley. He collaborated with Fred Astaire on “I’m Building Up to an Awful Let-Down,” and Astaire recorded it for a hit parade entry in February 1936.

Mercer penned “Goody Goody” (music by Malneck), which Benny Goodman took to the top of the hit parade in March. It was succeeded at #1 by “Lost” (music and lyrics by Phil Ohman, Mercer, and Macy O. Teetor), recorded by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Mercer then collaborated with Rube Bloom on the score for the revue Blackbirds of 1936 (London, July 9, 1936), which ran 124 performances, and he had his first hit for which he alone wrote both music and lyrics with “I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande).” Bing Crosby sang it in the July film release Rhythm on the Range; Crosby’s recording took it into the hit parade in September.

The success of “I’m an Old Cowhand” brought Mercer back to Hollywood under contract to Warner Bros., where he was paired with composer Richard A. Whiting. Their first film together was Ready, Willing and Able, released in March 1937; it featured “Too Marvelous for Words,” which Bing Crosby recorded for a hit in April. The second Mercer- Whiting outing was Varsity Show, released in September, which featured “Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?” in the hit parade for Tommy Dorsey and His Orch. Meanwhile, Mercer continued to write non-movie songs; “Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)” (music by Bernard Hanighen) was a hit parade entry for Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell in January 1938. The same month saw the release of the next Mercer-Whiting film Hollywood Hotel starring Benny Goodman, which contained no hits but featured “Hooray for Hollywood,” a witty portrait of the movie business that became the industry’s unofficial anthem.

Whiting died on Feb. 10, 1938, leaving Mercer without a writing partner; as the year went on he began to work with Harry Warren, whose partnership with Al Dubin was breaking down. Mercer subbed for Dubin on some of the material for Gold Diggers of Paris, released in June, notably “Day Dreaming,” which became a minor hit for the film’s star, Rudy Vallée. Mercer and Warren’s score for Hard to Get, released in November, included “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” which topped the hit parade for Bing Crosby by the end of the year and became a much-recorded standard. It was replaced at #1 in January 1939 by Mercer and Warren’s “Jeepers Creepers” from Going Places, which was recorded by Al Donohue and His Orch. and became Mercer’s first Academy Award nominee for Best Song. Maintaining his performing career, Mercer appeared as singer and master of ceremonies on the radio series The Camel Caravan with Benny Goodman in 1938, remaining on the show when Bob Crosby took it over from 1939 to 1940. He also made some duet recordings with Bing Crosby, among them “Small Fry” (music by Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics by Frank Loesser), which had a couple of weeks in the hit parade in October 1938.

Though Mercer continued to contribute to Warner Bros, films until the expiration of his contract with the June 1939 release Naughty but Nice, he turned his attention increasingly to writing for the swing bands. “Could Be” (music by Walter Donaldson) entered the hit parade for Johnny Messner and His Orch. in February 1939; “(Gotta Get Some) Shut-Eye” (music by Donaldson) was a hit for Kay Kyser and His Orch. in March; “And the Angels Sing” (music by Ziggy Elman, based on his instrumental “Frälich in Swing”) topped the hit parade in May for Benny Goodman; and “Day In—Day Out” (music by Rube Bloom) went to #1 for Bob Crosby and His Orch. in October.

Meanwhile, Mercer was collaborating with Hoagy Carmichael on his first Broadway musical, Walk with Music, which had a long out-of-town gestation before it arrived in N.Y in June 1940 and flopped, closing after only 55 performances. But by that time, Mercer was back in the hit parade with “Fools Rush In” (music by Rube Bloom), which went to #1 for Glenn Miller and His Orch. in July. Returning to Hollywood, Mercer collaborated with Jimmy McHugh on the Kay Kyser vehicle You’ll Find Out, released in November, which featured two hits, “You’ve Got Me This Way” for Tommy Dorsey and “The Bad Humor Man” for Jimmy Dorsey and His Orch., as well as Mercer’s second Oscar nominee, “I’d Know You Anywhere.” He earned another Oscar nomination in the same year for “Love of My Life” (music by Artie Shaw) from the January 1941 release Second Chorus, for which he also cowrote the screenplay. His fourth Academy Award nomination was for “Blues in the Night” (music by Harold Arlen), from the December 1941 film of the same name, a #1 hit in February 1942 for Woody Herman and His Orch., one of five Top Ten recordings.

Mercer collaborated with Victor Schertzinger on the Jimmy Dorsey vehicle The Fleet’s In, released in March 1942, producing three hits for Dorsey, the chart-topping “Tangerine,” the Top Ten “I Remember You,” and the comic “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.” Glenn Miller peaked in the Top Ten with the independent song “Skylark” (music by Hoagy Carmichael) in May. That spring, combining with record store owner Glenn Wallichs and songwriter/movie producer B. G. De Sylva, Mercer launched Capitol Records and became its president. He also became one of its first recording artists, releasing his own composition “Strip Polka,” which hit the Top Ten for him, as it did for three other performers, most successfully Kay Kyser, who scored a million-seller with it in October.

Mercer had two films in release that December; first the Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth picture You Were Never Lovelier, on which he collaborated with Jerome Kern, resulting in the Academy Award nominee “Dearly Beloved,” recorded for a Top Ten hit by Glenn Miller, and second the all-star Star Spangled Rhythm, with music by Harold Arlen, which included “That Old Black Magic,” a #1 hit for Glenn Miller.

From 1943 to 1944, Mercer hosted his own radio program, Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop, an activity that, along with running Capitol Records, allowed him less time as a songwriter. In addition, the musicians’ union recording ban limited his success as either a writer or performer on records. But his score for the Fred Astaire vehicle The Sky’s the Limit, written with Harold Arlen and released in September 1943, yielded “My Shining Hour,” an Academy Award nominee and Top Ten hit for Glen Gray after the ban ended, and “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” which became a favorite of many performers in later years.

In January 1944, Glenn Miller reached the Top Ten with “Blue Rain” (music by James Van Heusen), a Mercer song originally recorded and released in 1939 but reissued due to the recording ban. That same month Mercer himself entered the charts with the timely “G.I. Jive,” for which he had written both music and lyrics, but Louis Jordan’s version outdistanced the songwriter’s, going to #1 in August. Mercer’s sole movie score for the year, written with Harold Arlen, was the Bing Crosby-Betty Hutton war-themed picture Here Come the Waves, released in December. It featured “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” an Academy Award nominee that drew three Top Ten renditions, the most popular a #1 hit by Mercer himself, and “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” a hit for Jo Stafford.

Mercer’s next hit was his own recording of a duet with Stafford on “Candy” (music and lyrics by Mack David, Joan Whitney, and Alex Kramer), which topped the charts in March 1945. The closing theme for Mercer’s radio show was his own composition, “Dream.” It was picked up for a Top Ten hit by three performers in 1945, with the Pied Pipers hitting #1 in May. That same month Woody Herman peaked in the Top Ten and sold a million records with “Laura,” the theme to the film noir classic released the previous autumn, to which Mercer had subsequently set a lyric; there were four other Top Ten versions as well. Out of This World, a film released in June, contained two Mercer-Arlen compositions, one of them the title song, with which Jo Stafford scored a Top Ten hit.

Mercer’s next film score, for the Judy Garland vehicle The Harvey Girls, written with Harry Warren, was not released until January 1946, but his recording of its most popular song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” appeared six months earlier, and it topped the charts starting in July, one of five Top Ten versions; it also became his first Academy Award winner. He returned to #1 as a recording artist in March 1946 with “Personality” (music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke). The same month he teamed with Harold Arlen for the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman. It ran only 113 performances, but Margaret Whiting recorded “Come Rain or Come Shine” from the score for a minor hit and the song eventually became a standard.

After St. Louis Woman, Mercer focused on his singing career, hitting the Top Ten with a series of recordings in late 1946 and 1947: the seasonal “Winter Wonderland” (music by Felix Bernard, lyrics by Richard B. Smith) in December 1946; “A Gal in Calico” (music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Leo Robin) and the novelty “Hug-gin’ and a Chalkin’” (music and lyrics by Clancy Hayes and Kermit Goell) in January 1947; “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (music by Allie Wrubel, lyrics by Ray Gilbert) in February; and “Sugar Blues” (music by Clarence Williams, lyrics by Lucy Fletcher) in November. During this period he also appeared on the radio program Your Hit Parade.

Mercer scored his final Top Ten hit as a recording artist in July 1949 with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser), a duet with Margaret Whiting. Texas, Li’l Darlin’, his third attempt at a Broadway musical, opened in the fall and ran 293 performances, though it failed to turn a profit.

Returning to movie work in 1950, Mercer wrote songs for The Petty Girl, released in August 1950, and for The Keystone Girl, which was never produced. From the score for the latter, he placed “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (music by Hoagy Carmichael) in the Bing Crosby film Here Comes the Groom, released in September 1951. It became a chart hit in a recording by Crosby and his costar, Jane Wyman, and won Mercer his second Academy Award. For Top Banana, his fourth Broadway musical, Mercer wrote his own music. The show, a vehicle for Phil Silvers, who played a television comedian, opened in November and ran 350 performances but closed in the red. A film version, shot onstage at the Winter Garden Theater, was released in February 1954.

Mercer worked less frequently in film and in the theater in the early 1950s, but his songs continued to make the charts. Stan Kenton and His Orch. revived “Laura” for a hit in August 1951; Rosemary Clooney had a hit with “Blues in the Night” in October 1952; that same month Jo Stafford reached the charts with a million-selling version of “Early Autumn,” Mercer’s lyric to a late 1940s instrumental by Ralph Burns and Woody Herman; in December 1952, the Mills Brothers scored a chart-topping million-seller with “Glow-Worm,” a 1902 melody from the operetta Lysistrata by Paul Lincke to which Mercer had set a new English lyric in 1949; the Hilltoppers revived “P.S. I Love You” for a million-selling Top Ten hit in August 1953; and the Four Aces had a chart revival of “Dream” in September 1954.

Meanwhile, Mercer teamed with Gene de Paul to write the songs for MGM’s big budget movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which became a box office hit upon release in July 1954 and generated a Top Ten soundtrack album, with the song “Lonesome Polecat” giving the McGuire Sisters a chart record in November. The McGuire Sisters also had the highest charting version of Mercer’s next hit, “Something’s Gotta Give,” drawn from the soundtrack to the Fred Astaire film Daddy Long Legs, released in May 1955, for which he had written both music and lyrics. (The song brought Mercer his 11th Oscar nomination.) But Sammy Davis Jr. also reached the Top Ten with the song, and he followed it up with a revival of “That Old Black Magic,” which entered the charts in July. In August, Roger Williams reached the charts with an instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves,” Mercer’s retitling of the French song “Les Feuilles Mortes” (music by Joseph Kosma), for which he had fashioned an English lyric. Williams’s version went to #1, and there were five other chart recordings, with Mitch Miller’s the most popular one to feature Mercer’s lyrics.

In 1956, Mercer worked with Gene de Paul on You Can’t Run Away from It, a movie musical based on the same source used for the popular 1934 film It Happened One Night. Released in October, it produced a hit in the title song, taken into the Top 40 by the Four Aces. Mercer and de Paul also teamed for the stage musical Li’l Abner, based on Al Capp’s comic strip, which became Mercer’s only successful Broadway show upon its opening in November. It ran 693 performances; the cast album reached the charts; and the songs “Love in a Home” (for Doris Day) and “Namely You” (for Don Cherry) became chart singles. The show was adapted into a successful film in 1959.

In May 1957, Tony Bennett belatedly made a chart record out of the much-covered “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” Mercer wrote music and lyrics for two songs used in Pat Boone’s film debut Bernardine, which was released in July 1957; the film was a box office success, and Boone’s recording of the title song became a Top 40 hit. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers revived “Goody Goody” for a Top 40 hit in August. Mercer next teamed with Saul Chaplin to write the six songs used in the movie musical Merry Andrew-,starring Danny Kaye. Released in March 1958, it marked the last time Mercer was employed to write the complete score for a musical comedy on film. From this point on his movie work usually consisted of contributing title songs to nonmusical pictures. Louis Prima and Keely Smith performed “That Old Black Magic” in the film Senior Prom, released in December, and they revived the song for a Top 40 hit. Also in 1958, Mercer set a lyric to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s instrumental composition “Sophisticated Lady.”

Mercer enjoyed a series of hits in the early 1960s through a combination of revivals and newly written movie themes. “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)” was revived by Brook Benton for a Top 40 hit in November 1960, the same month that saw the release of the Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy The Facts of Life, which featured a Mercer title song that earned him his 12th Academy Award nomination. In 1961, Bobby Ry-dell’s revival of “That Old Black Magic” hit the Top 40 in May; Andy Williams reached the Top 40 in June with Mercer’s English language version of the 1929 Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht composition “The Bilbao Song”; Bobby Darin took a revival of “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” into the Top Ten in October; and November saw the release of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, featuring Mercer’s collaboration with Henry Mancini, “Moon River.” Both Mancini and Jerry Butler recorded Top Ten versions of the song, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Song and the Grammy Award for Song of the Year.

In 1962, Frank Ifield revived “I Remember You” for a Top Ten hit in October, and in December Mercer and Mancini again found success with a movie theme, “Days of Wine and Roses,” which generated Top 40 hits for Mancini and Andy Williams and repeated the feat of winning both the Academy Award and the Song of the Year Grammy. Tony Bennett reached the Top 40 in February 1963 with “I Wanna Be Around” (music and lyrics by Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt). Ricky Nelson revived “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)” for a Top 40 hit in October. And in December, Mercer had two movie title songs in circulation: “Charade” (music by Mancini) was a Top 40 hit for Mancini and for Sammy Kaye and His Orch. and an Oscar nominee, while “Love with the Proper Stranger” became a chart record for Jack Jones.

Mercer continued to write movie themes for the rest of the 1960s, earning an additional Academy Award nomination for “The Sweetheart Tree” (music by Henry Mancini) from The Great Race in 1965. “Summer Wind,” a German song with music by Henry Mayer to which Mercer wrote an English lyric, was a chart record for Wayne Newton in 1965 and a Top 40 hit for Frank Sinatra in 1966. The Dave Clark Five revived “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” for a Top 40 hit in 1967.

Mercer began the 1970s writing songs with Henry Mancini for Darling Lili, an old-fashioned musical comedy film starring Julie Andrews that was released in June 1970. It earned him two Academy Award nominations, for Song ( “Whistling Away the Dark”) and for Original Song Score, as well as a Grammy Award nomination for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or TV Special, and the soundtrack album reached the charts. Mercer earned his final Oscar nomination for “Life Is What You Make It” (music by Marvin Hamlisch) from the 1971 film Kotch. In 1974 he and André Previn wrote the songs for The Good Companions, a stage musical mounted in London, where it played 252 performances. The Salsoul Orch. revived “Tangerine” as a disco instrumental for a Top 40 hit in February 1976. Mercer died in June at age 66 after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor.

In the years immediately following his death, Mercer’s songs were best remembered onstage, turning up in such Broadway shows as Danari (N.Y., March 27, 1978), 42nd Street (N.Y., Aug. 25, 1980), and Sophisticated Ladies (N.Y, March 1, 1981). A stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was mounted in 1982, and Dream, a musical featuring Mercer’s songs, ran on Broadway in 1997. In November 1997 the mystery film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, set in Savannah, featured an all-Mercer score with his songs performed by pop and jazz artists including Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Joe Williams, k. d. Lang, and Paula Cole. The soundtrack album was a hit on the jazz charts.


(only works for which Mercer was a primary, credited songwriter are listed):musicals/revues (dates refer to N.Y. openings unless otherwise indicated):Blackbirds of 1936 (London, July 9, 1936); Walk with Music (June 4, 1940); St. Louis Woman (March 30, 1946); Texas, Li’l Darling (Nov. 25, 1949); Top Banana (Nov. 1, 1951); Li’l Abner (Nov. 15, 1956); Saratoga (Dec. 7, 1959); Foxy (Feb. 16, 1964); The Good Companions (London, July 11, 1974); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (July 8, 1982); Dream (April 3, 1997). films:Old Man Rhythm (1935); To Beat the Band (1935); Ready, Willing and Able (1937); Varsity Show (1937); Hollywood Hotel (1938); Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938); Garden of the Moon (1938); Hard to Get (1938); Going Places (1938); Naughty but Nice (1939); You’ll Find Out (1940); Second Chorus (1941); You’re the One (1941); Navy Blues (1941); Blues in the Night (1941); All Through the Night (1942); The Fleet’s In (1942); You Were Never Lovelier (1942); Star Spangled Rhythm (1942); The Sky’s the Limit (1943); True to Life (1943); Here Come the Waves (1944); The Harvey Girls (1946); The Petty Girl (1950); The Belle of N.Y. (1952); Dangerous When Wet (1953); Top Banana (1954); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954); Daddy Long Legs (1955); You Can’t Run Away from It (1956); Bernadine (1957); Merry Andrew (1958); Li’l Abner (1959); How the West Was Won (1962); The Great Race (1965); Not with My Wife, You Don’t! (1966); Darling Lili (1970).


B. Bach and G. Mercer (his wife), eds., Our Huckleberry Friend (Secaucus, N.J., 1974; rev. as J. M.: The Life, Times and Song Lyrics of Our Huckleberry Friend, 1982).

—William Ruhlmann

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Mercer, Johnny (actually, John Herndon)

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