Songwriter, singer, record company executive
Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics or music for more than 1,000 songs in a career spanning nearly 50 years, making him one of the most successful songwriters of the twentieth century. One of the most versatile lyricists ever, he penned catchy words for everything from bouncy numbers (“Goody Goody”) and mysterious mood setters (“That Old Black Magic”) to romantic love songs (“Moon River”). During the 1930s and 1940s Mercer was also a popular singer who performed on a number of radio shows with top bands. He was a master at the business of music as well, as evidenced by his co-founding of the highly successful Capitol Records.
Well-turned Mercer phrases for such classics as “Too Marvelous for Words,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” “Fools Rush In,” and scores of other songs have been forever locked into the memories of millions of listeners. Mercer also wrote memorable melodies for such songs as “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “Dream,” and “Something’s Gotta’ Give,” composing them by using one finger on the piano because he couldn’t read a note of music.
Mercer was once quoted as saying that his songwriting success was due to his “feeling for tunes, no matter where they come from.” This “feeling” helped him forge effective partnerships with a wide variety of composers over the years, among them Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Henry Mancini, Rube Bloom, and Michel Legrand. The long and distinguished list of performers who made hit songs of the words and melodies of Johnny Mercer includes Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Andy Williams, Peggy Lee, and Tony Bennett.
An unpublished ditty called “Sister Susie, Strut Your Stuff,” written when he was 15, was Mercer’s first known attempt at songwriting. His first desire was to be a star on the stage, and he joined a theater group in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, while still a teenager. After his group won a one-act play competition in the Belasco Cup in New York City, Mercer decided to stay in New York and try to make it on Broadway.
Mercer managed to land a few small parts during the late 1920s in Volpone, Marco Millions, and Houseparty. During this time, and on into the 1930s, he also worked at a music publishing company and continued his songwriting. After auditioning for the Garrick Gaieties in 1929 without landing a part, Mercer offered his and Everett Miller’s “Out of Breath and Scared to Death” to the show, and it was sung by Sterling Holloway. The
For the Record…
Born John Herndon Mercer, November 18, 1909, in Savannah, GA; died of a brain tumor, June 25, 1976, in Los Angeles, CA; married Ginger Meehan (a dancer), 1931; children: Amanda, John.
Appeared as bit player on New York City stage, 1927; co-wrote first published song, “Out of Breath and Scared to Death,” for Garrick Gaieties, 1930; began writing songs for RKO Pictures, 1935; appeared in films Old Man Rhythm and To Beat the Band, 1935; became emcee and featured vocalist for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, late 1930s; became vocalist on Benny Goodman’s Camel Caravan (radio show), c. 1938; co-wrote lyrics for first musical, Walk With Music, 1940; hosted own radio show, Johnny Mercer’s Musical Shop, 1940s; cofounded Capitol Records, 1942.
Collaborated with many popular composers, including Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Michel Legrand, Henry Mancini, and Jimmy Van Heusen; co-wrote hit songs for Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Glenn Miller, Andy Williams, and numerous others.
Member: American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP; director, early 1940s).
Awards: Academy awards for best song, 1946 (with Harold Warren), for “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” 1951 (with Hoagy Carmichael), for “In the Cool Cool Cool of the Evening,” 1961 (with Henry Mancini), for “Moon River,” and 1962 (with Mancini), for “Days of Wine and Roses.”
song was a minor success but didn’t create a demand for Mercer’s other songs in the months that followed. He continued working at various jobs to support himself, including as a runner on Wall Street.
Mercer’s singing helped him get on the fast track. After winning a contest for unknown singers staged by Paul Whiteman, one of the leading bandleaders of the time, Mercer was hired as a featured vocalist, emcee, and songwriter for Whiteman’s orchestra. A key element of Mercer’s popularity as a crooner was “a dry Southern drawl that gave his singing a distinctively good-natured character,” according to The Oxford Companion to Popular Music.
Whiteman put his singer-songwriter in touch with Hoagy Carmichael, who at that time was having trouble writing a song. Mercer came to the rescue with his lyrics for “Lazybones,” which became his first big hit. According to John S. Wilson in the New York Times, this song “drew on his [Mercer’s] Southern background in a way that was to prove effective throughout his career.” Indeed, many of Mercer’s most popular numbers had an easygoing, down-home charm that reflected his early years down South.
By 1934 Mercer was one of the most successful lyricists in the United States. His recorded duets with Jack Teagarden—Whiteman’s jazz trombonist—led to an offer from RKO Pictures in 1935 to write songs, as well as sing and act in movies. Mercer’s movie star potential, however, proved to be dim, and he would only appear in two films.
However, his songwriting fame soared, thanks to Bing Crosby who sang a number of his songs in the 1936 film Rhythm on the Range. Mercer’s popularity with movie fans grew throughout the 1930s with tunes such as “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Love Is Where You Find It.”
After co-writing songs with Richard Whiting for Hollywood Hotel, a 1937 film featuring Benny Goodman’s orchestra, Mercer became a singer on Goodman’s Camel Caravan radio show. He also sang on radio with Bob Crosby’s orchestra. His steady climb up the musical ladder in the early 1940s led to hosting his own radio show, Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop. In 1940 Mercer collaborated with Hoagy Carmichael on his first musical, Walk with Music, but the show had a very short run on Broadway.
Not content to merely add more popular songs to his resume, Mercer teamed up with businessman Glen Wallichs and songwriter-film producer Buddy de Sylva to found Capitol Records in 1942. It was not the best time to start a record company, since the shellac material used to make records was being rationed during World War II. Starting by producing records pressed partly from recycled scrap records, the company’s first ventures were Mercer’s “Strip Polka,” and Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse’s “Cow-Cow Boogie.”
It wasn’t long, however, before Capitol Records had signed up budding stars Stan Kenton, Jo Stafford, the King Cole Trio, and Margaret Whiting. In 1946, with Mercer serving as president, the company sold 42 million records, one-sixth of the total record sales in the United States. Capitol was also the first record company to provide disk jockeys with free promotional records, as well as the first to utilize all three turntable speeds.
Broadway became fertile ground for Mercer in the 1940s. He contributed lyrics to Arlen’s score for St. Louis Woman in 1946 and Robert Emmett Dolan’s Texas L’il Darlin in 1949. He also won his first Academy Award, with composer Harry Warren, for “On the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe,” sung by Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls. By the end of the 1940s Mercer had logged up over 250 published songs and nearly 60 hits.
Mercer showed no let-up in giving the public the songs they wanted in the 1950s, and he had his greatest success with musical shows during that period. He earned credits for both music and lyrics for 1951’s Top Banana, which starred Phil Silvers, and he had major successes in collaborations with Gene DePaul on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1954 and L’il Abner in 1956. He also penned words to songs in the film Here’s to My Lady, and two Fred Astaire vehicles, The Belle of New York and Daddy Longlegs.
A generous spirit was revealed by Mercer in 1959 when he received a song idea from Sadie Vimmerstedt, an Ohio cosmetician who sent him the line, “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody’s breaking your heart.” After fashioning a song around the contribution, Mercer gave Vimmerstedt a co-author credit that earned her about $3000 a year after the song became a hit for Tony Bennett in 1963.
In the 1960s Henry Mancini proved another valuable songwriting partner for Mercer as the pair earned Academy awards for “Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Mancini and Mercer also wrote songs for two other movies, The Great Race and Darling Lili. Composer Andre Previn became yet another collaborator when Mercer shifted his base of operation to Britain for extended periods in the early 1970s, and the two teamed up for the musical The Good Companions in 1974.
Mercer remained active right up to suffering a brain tumor in late 1975. His death marked the end of an incredible stretch of success in a business known for fleeting fame. A precious rarity in the music industry, Johnny Mercer managed to stay in style and continue stirring listeners through four decades of continually evolving musical tastes.
(With Jo Stafford, Paul Weston, and Jack Teagarden) Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop, Artistic, 1943-44.
(With Bobby Darin) Two of a Kind, Atco, 1961.
Audio Scrapbook, Magic/Submarine, 1974.
Two Marvelous for Words: Capitol Sings Johnny Mercer, Capitol, 1992.
“Too Marvelous for Words.”
“Ac-Cent-Tu-Ate the Positive.”
“You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.”
“On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”
“In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”
“The Days of Wine and Roses.”
“That Old Black Magic.”
“Fools Rush In.”
As composer and lyricist
“I’m an Old Cowhand.”
“Something’s Gotta Give.”
(Co-writer of lyrics) Walk With Music, 1940.
(With Harold Arlen) St. Louis Woman, 1946.
(With Robert Emmett Dolan) Texas L’il Darlin, 1949.
(And composer) Top Banana, 1951.
(With Gene DePaul) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954.
(With DePaul) L’il Abner, 1956.
(With Robert Emmett Dolan) Foxy, 1964.
(With Andre Previn) The Good Companions, 1974.
Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 2, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness, 1992.
Halliwell, Leslie, Halliwell’s Film Guide, seventh edition, Harper & Row, 1990.
Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper & Row, 1979.
Oxford Companion to Popular Music, edited by Peter Gammond, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Cosmopolitan, April 1946.
New York Times, June 26, 1976.
Newsweek, January 29, 1945.
Los Angeles Magazine, September 1992.
Reader’s Digest, June 1991.
Spin, November 1992.
Stereo Review, June 1988.
Lyricist. Nationality: American. Born: John H. Mercer in Savannah, Georgia, 18 November 1909. Education: Attended Woodbury Forest School, Orange, Virginia. Family: Married Ginger Meehan, children: one daughter, one son. Career: 1927–29—stage actor; then band vocalist; lyricist for Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Henry Mancini, and others; 1933—lyrics for first film, College Coach; co-founder, Capitol Records. Awards: Academy Award, for songs "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe," 1946, "In the Cool Cool Cool of the Evening," 1951, "Moon River," 1961, and "Days of Wine and Roses," 1962. Died: 27 June 1976.
Films as Lyricist:
College Coach (Wellman); The Good Companions (Saville) (co)
Old Man Rhythm (Ludwig) (+ ro); To Beat the Band (Stoloff) (+ ro)
Rhythm on the Range (Taurog)
Varsity Show (Keighley); Ready, Willing, and Able (Enright);The Singing Marine (Enright); Hollywood Hotel (Berkeley)
Gold Diggers in Paris (Enright); Going Places (Enright);Hard to Get (Enright); Cowboy from Brooklyn (Bacon);Garden of the Moon (Berkeley)
Naughty But Nice (Enright); Wings of the Navy (Bacon)
You'll Find Out (Butler)
Second Chorus (Potter); Blues in the Night (Litvak); Let's Make Music (Goodwins); You're the One (Murphy); Navy Blues (Bacon); Birth of the Blues (Schertzinger)
The Fleet's In (Schertzinger); Star Spangled Rhythm (Marshall); You Were Never Lovelier (Seiter); All through the Night (Sherman); Captains of the Clouds (Curtiz); They Got Me Covered (Butler)
The Sky's the Limit (Griffith); True to Life (Marshall)
Here Come the Waves (Sandrich); To Have and Have Not (Hawks)
Out of This World (Walker); Her Highness and the Bellboy(Thorpe)
The Harvey Girls (Sidney); Centennial Summer (Preminger)
Dear Ruth (Russell)
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Pichel)
Make Believe Ballroom (Santley); Always Leave Them Laughing (Del Ruth)
The Petty Girl (Levin)
Here Comes the Groom (Capra); My Favorite Spy (McLeod);The Belle of New York (Walters)
Dangerous When Wet (Walters); Everything I Have Is Yours(Leonard); Those Redheads from Seattle (Foster); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Donen)
Daddy Long Legs (Negulesco) (+ composer); I'll Cry Tomorrow (Daniel Mann)
You Can't Run Away from It (Powell); Spring Reunion(Pirosh)
Bernardine (Levin) (+ composer); Missouri Traveler (Hopper)
Merry Andrew (Kidd); Love in the Afternoon (Wilder)
Li'l Abner (Frank)
Facts of Life (Frank)
Breakfast at Tiffany's (Edwards); Hatari! (Hawks)
Days of Wine and Roses (Edwards); Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (Koster)
Charade (Donen); Love with the Proper Stranger (Mulligan);How the West Was Won (Ford, Marshall, and Hathaway)
The Americanization of Emily (Hiller); The Pink Panther(Edwards); Man's Favorite Sport? (Hawks)
The Great Race (Edwards); Johnny Tiger (Wendkos)
Not with My Wife, You Don't! (Panama); Alvarez Kelly(Dmytryk); Moment to Moment (LeRoy); A Big Hand for the Little Lady (Cook)
Barefoot in the Park (Saks); Rosie (Rich)
Darling Lili (Edwards)
Robin Hood (Reitherman); The Long Goodbye (Altman)
On MERCER: book—
On MERCER: articles—
Lees, Gene, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), December/January 1978.
Craig, Warren, in The Great Songwriters of Hollywood, San Diego, 1980.
Albertson, Chris, "The Lyrics of Johnny Mercer," in Stereo Review, June 1988.
Macnie, Jim, "On Midnight Soundtrack, Mercer Is Man of the Hour," in Billboard, 6 December 1997.
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When the American film business converted to sound movies in the late twenties, an important motive for this sweeping technological and institutional change was economic. Though films had been silent, theaters had not; an important element in the attractiveness of the "picture palaces" built in the first two decades of the studio period was that they had not just screens, but stages, orchestra pits, and elaborate organs, all of which produced music to please the paying customers. Sound film not only enabled the films themselves to talk; it allowed them to make music as well, replacing the expensive live musicians who had previously provided it.
It was this change that permitted a number of experienced lyricists and composers to leave Broadway for California, lured by the promise of large salaries and steady work. The list of Broadway notables who began film work in the early thirties includes Ralph Rainger, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, Mack Gordon, Richard Whiting, and Al Dubin. And there was also Johnny Mercer, a lyricist who had worked on stage productions with such notables as Jerome Kern and had written songs for Paul Whiteman's band. Taking advantage of the boom in film music work, he was able to launch a Hollywood career that would endure for four decades. In the thirties and forties, Mercer's talents were in demand to write songs not only for those films in which vocal performance was of predominant importance (the genre that would, on the analogy of similar productions on Broadway, be known as "musicals"), but also to write numerous songs for films that featured one or at most several vocal performances that provided moments of musical entertainment that interrupted what was otherwise a dramatic or comedic narrative. Though they often led to the sale of lyric sheets, the majority of these songs achieved no enduring popularity outside the films in which they were performed, and these were largely forgettable themselves: not prestige productions but ordinary films that were a part of Hollywood's vast output during the decade. For Varsity Show, for example, Mercer penned no fewer than ten songs, including "On with the Dance," "Little Fraternity Pin," and "We're Working Our Way through College." The work was varied and steady. Occasionally, Mercer got the opportunity to do title-song work for prestige productions; a good example is his "Jezebel" for the Warners's Civil War epic of the same name. These songs were often more recognized, notably the title song for Blues in the Night, which received an Oscar nomination.
In fact, during the forties it became more common to market a film through its title song. Mercer wrote the title theme for Laura, for example, after the movie was released; the nondiegetic music in the film itself is wordless. Mercer also did important title work for I'll Cry Tomorrow, Love in the Afternoon, Bernardine, Days of Wine and Roses, and, of course, most famously, Breakfast at Tiffany's, whose "Moon River" became his signature song. In the fifties and sixties, demand for film lyrics lessened as Hollywood began to depend more exclusively on already successful Broadway productions as source material for film musicals. At the same time, dramatic films and comedies of the period depended less on the "performance moments" that required the lyric inventiveness of a commercial composer such as Mercer. Because he was never much of a success on Broadway, despite several attempts, and because he never formed a long-term partnership with a music composer, Mercer has undoubtedly received less than a fair share of credit for contributions to American popular music, especially of the Hollywood variety. His many songs, however, some of which have become standards, decisively shaped the character of the American cinema during the studio period, which without him would have lacked the joyful humor of "The Square of the Hypoteneuse" (Merry Andrew) and the poignant romanticism of "Moment to Moment" (from the film of the same name), among many other examples.
—R. Barton Palmer