Mercer, John Herndon ("Johnny")

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MERCER, John Herndon ("Johnny")

(b. 18 November 1909 in Savannah, Georgia; d. 25 June 1976 in Los Angeles, California), one of the leading popular music lyricists of the mid-twentieth century and winner of four Academy Awards for best song, including "Moon River" (1962) and "Days of Wine and Roses" (1963); cofounder of Capitol Records.

Mercer was the son of George A. Mercer, an attorney and real estate salesman, and Lillian Ciucevich. Mercer's family, which included a sister and three older half-brothers from his father's first marriage, was fairly well to do, living in one of Savannah's more prosperous neighborhoods. Mercer attended Woodberry Forest Preparatory School in Orange, Virginia, from 1922 to 1927, where he showed an intense interest in poetry and music. At the age of fifteen he wrote his first song, a jazz number he called "Sister Suzie, Strut Your Stuff."

After graduation Mercer returned to Savannah, where he worked briefly in his father's failing real-estate business. At his mother's urging, he joined the Savannah Little Theater in 1927. Later that year he traveled with the theater group to participate in a one-act play competition in New York City. After the competition he made his Broadway debut in a production of Ben Jonson's Volpone in 1928. Lured by musical theater, he auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in Garrick's Gaieties of 1930, but managed to place one of his songs in the show. Mercer married Ginger Meehan, a dancer in Gaieties, in June 1931, and the couple settled in Brooklyn, where Mercer began to focus his energies on songwriting. They had two children.

From the beginning Mercer collaborated with some of the leading composers of the day. "Lazybones," his first big hit in 1933, was written with Hoagy Carmichael. That same year he went to work for orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, serving as a vocalist, emcee, and songwriter for Whiteman's popular radio show. In 1935 he headed to Hollywood after landing a songwriting and acting contract with RKO Studios. Although his acting career was relatively brief, over the next several decades Mercer wrote hundreds of songs for the movies. In the early 1940s the songwriter joined music-store owner Glenn Wallich and fellow song-writer Buddy DeSylva in founding Capitol Records, at which he served as president and talent scout. In 1946 Mercer won his first Academy Award for best song, for "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe," written with composer Harry Warren for the film The Harvey Girls.

Mercer won his second Academy Award in 1951 for his lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael's "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," written for the film Here Comes the Groom. Although Mercer was a songwriter for several decades, he produced perhaps his greatest musical contributions during the 1960s. He did some of his most memorable work, and earned two more Oscars, during the last full decade of his career as a lyricist. A major factor in Mercer's work during the 1960s was his rewarding collaboration with composer/orchestra leader Henry Mancini.

Mercer's greatest fame came for his lyric writing, but he did create both the words and music for two musical films, Daddy Long Legs (1954) and Top Banana (1951). He also supplied both the lyrics and the melody for a handful of popular hits, including "Something's Gotta Give" (1955), "I'm an Old Cowhand" (1936), and "Dream" (1944).

Early in the decade Mercer and Mancini wrote "Moon River" for the film Breakfast at Tiffany's, starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. The song, an instant classic, won Mercer his third best-song Oscar in 1962. A masterful marriage of words and music, the song is particularly memorable for the wistfulness of Mercer's lyrics.

The Mercer-Mancini collaboration hit pay dirt once again in 1963, with the Academy Award–winning song for "Days of Wine and Roses," the theme song for the movie of the same name, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Mercer also worked with Mancini on songs for two other films, The Great Race (1965) and Darling Lili (1970).

Another 1960s hit for Mercer was "I Wanna Be Around" (1959), first made popular by vocalist Tony Bennett, and later covered by dozens of artists, including a sizzling live version presented by rhythm-and-blues artist James Brown at the Apollo Theater. An interesting story surrounds the genesis of this song, the idea for which was first suggested to Mercer in a letter from Ohio cosmetician Sadie Vimmerstedt. She sent him a single line, "I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody's breaking your heart," and with that as his inspiration, Mercer wrote the rest of the lyrics. He never forgot Vimmerstedt's contribution, however, and he gave her a coauthor credit that earned her about $3,000 a year once the song became a big hit.

In 1965 Mercer wrote English lyrics to revise a popular French song, creating "Summer Wind," a big hit for Frank Sinatra and Wayne Newton. Two years later, collaborating with composer Neal Hefti, Mercer wrote the title song for the film version of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park.

In the late 1960s, when music publishers Howard Richmond, Abe Olman, and Al Brackman founded the Song-writers Hall of Fame (SHOF), Mercer seemed a natural choice as founding president of the organization, which had been created to give songwriters some well-deserved visibility. Mercer served in that post from 1969 until 1973, when he passed the torch to Sammy Cahn, his hand-picked successor. Mercer remained active into the mid-1970s. In late 1975 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died at the age of sixty-six. Mercer is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery in his hometown of Savannah.

One of the most prolific American lyricists of the twentieth century, Mercer will be remembered for far more than the sheer volume of his output and the speed with which he turned out songs. According to the SHOF Web site, Mercer's unique place in songwriting history cannot be traced to either "the hip sophistication of his lyrics" or "his Southern charm." As captivating as these qualities may have been, they fail to capture the real Mercer. "Ask anyone who writes lyrics, Johnny Mercer was a genius."

Mercer helped to shape the face of American popular music through more than four decades. His quintessentially American lyrics served as themes for such classic jazz and ballad singers as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Tony Bennett. According to fellow songwriter Oscar Brand, "Johnny Mercer had a panache quality that was beyond celebrity. You wanted to cherish this man."

A permanent Mercer exhibit is at the Pullen Library on the campus of Georgia State University in Atlanta. A portrait of Mercer, along with the lyrics that are his greatest legacy to American popular music, is in Bob Bach and Ginger Mercer, eds., Our Huckleberry Friend: The Life, Times, and Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (1982). Further information can be found in Gene Lees, American Film (Dec./Jan. 1978); and Warren Craig, The Great Songwriters of Hollywood (1980). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 June 1976).

Don Amerman

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Mercer, John Herndon ("Johnny")

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