Johnny Mercer - Biography

By J Poet

Johnny Mercer was a singer and piano player and spent some time as the lead vocalist for both the Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman bands. He also made albums under his own name in the 40s and 50s, but his reputation rests upon his business acumen – he was one of the founders of Capitol Records – and his songwriting ability. He wrote many enduring standards on his own, including “Dream” and “I'm an Old Cowhand,” but it was as a lyricist that he found enduring fame, writing lyrics for classics like “Blues in the Night,” “Skylark,” “Laura,” “Autumn Leaves,” “One For My Baby (and One More for the Road,)” “Come Rain Or Come Shine", “Lazybones,” and “Goody Goody” to name just a few of his estimated 1,500 copywrites. In his later years he co-wrote the Academy Award winning songs “Moon River” and “Days of Wine an Roses” with Henry Mancini. Mercer was a successful songwriter from more than 40 years and worked with legends like Harold Arlen, Richard Whiting, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Jimmy Van Heusen, Henry Mancini and Michel Legrand. His records as a solo artist were also successful, charting 13 Top 10 hits, including four #1s.


Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia and played piano as a child. He wrote poetry in high school and started composing songs by the time he was 15. He was entirely self-taught and never learned to read or write music. He grew up with African-American servants and friends, loved black music, collected blues 78s, and sang in the church choir. After graduating from Woodbury Forest School in Orange, Virginia he moved to New York to become an actor. He was 19. He landed some bit parts on Broadway and started singing in clubs; his easy-going Southern charm made him extremely popular with audiences. He hung out with songwriters Vernon Duke, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg and Harold Arlen, and got a job as a staff lyricist at Miller Music. He had a few tunes in small reviews, but his career took off after meeting Hoagy Carmichael in 1932. One of their early collaborations, "Lazy Bones," which took a year to write, became a #1 hit for Ted Lewis in 1933. This led to an $85.00 a week job as a singer and writer with Paul Whiteman, who had a weekly radio program starring Al Jolson. Mercer wrote a new song every week for the band.


In 1934, Glen Gray’s band scored with “You Have Taken My Heart” music by Gordon Jenkins and "Pardon My Southern Accent," music by Matty Malneck. Rudy Vallee also hit with "P.S. I Love You," music by Jenkins. In 1935, RKO Pictures asked Mercer to write songs for their low-budget musicals and he moved to LA. He continued having hits with Malneck including "Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo" a #7 for Benny Goodman and "If You Were Mine," for Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday. “I'm Building Up to An Awful Let Down" with music by Fred Astaire, was a #4 hit in 1936. That same year, Benny Goodman took “Goody Goody” to #1 and Bing Crosby cut “I'm An Old Cowhand from the- Rio Grande.”


Mercer kept turning out film hits for the rest of the 30s including "Hooray For Hollywood,” "Too Marvelous For Words,” "Jeepers Creepers,” nominated for a Best Original Song in a Film Oscar in 1938, "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "I Thought About You" with Jimmie Van Heusen, and “Day In-Day Out” with Rube Bloom. Mercer also had his first Top 10 hit on his own with "Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean" b/w the Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael tune "Small Fry” and was a featured performer on Benny Goodman’s half hour radio show. In 1939-40 he sang with Bob Crosby's band on Crosby’s hit NBC network show.


The 40s were his most productive years, with hits like "Fools Rush In” music by Rube Bloom a #1 for Glenn Miller in 1940. In 1942, with Harold Arlen he wrote "Blues In The Night" a #1 hit for Woody Herman in 1941, "I Remember You" #9 for Tommy Dorsey, and "Tangerine" #1 for Tommy Dorsey. In 1943 the duo hit with "That Old Black Magic," a #1 hit for Glenn Miller. "Skylark” with Hoagy Carmichael, hit in 43, as did "Travelin' Light," written with Jimmy Mundy and Trummy Young and waxed by Billie Holiday.


In 1942, Mercer started his own label, Capitol Records, with record storeowner Glenn Wallichs and producer Buddy de Sylva. The label’s first single was Mercer’s "Strip Polka" b/w "Cow Cow Boogie." With his keen ear, Mercer was instrumental in signing Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, Margaret Whiting, Kay Starr, Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Tex Williams to the label. Capitol was the first label to send out promo copies of recording to DJs and by 1946 was selling one-sixth of all the records sold in the United States. Johnny Mercer: Capitol Collector’s Series (1989 Capitol) gives you Mercer singing 20 of his early hits. Mercer Sings Mercer (2009 DRG) also revisits his early Capitol records. Dream Team: Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers (2005 Sepia) collects most of the Capitol singles Mercer made with The Pied Pipers between 1943 and 1954.



Mercer continued charting with "One For My Baby" with Arlen, written for Fred Astaire, "Accentuate The Positive" with Arlen, Mercer’s first #1 single as an artist. “Dream” words and music by Mercer was a #1 for the Pied Pipers and "On The Atchison, Topeka and die Santa Fe" with Harry Warren for Judy Garland’s The Harvey Girls was his first Academy Award winning song. He also had success with "Laura," music by David Raksin from the film of the same name, "Come Rain or Come Shine” with Harold Arlen, "Winter Wonderland," and his #3 duet with Margaret Whiting on "Baby, It's Cold Outside,” written by Frank Loesser.


In the 50s his output slowed, but he contributed lyrics to Broadway musicals and films like Top Banana, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Daddy Long Legs, L'il Abner and Saratoga. His chart hits were “In the Cool Cool Cool of the Evening" an Oscar winning tune written with Hoagy Carmichael for Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman, English lyrics for the German song "The Glow-Worm," a gold record for the Mills Brothers, and his own "Something's Gotta Give," from Daddy Long Legs. He also scored with "Bernadine," a rock hit for Pat Boone.


In 1961, Mercer and Mancini wrote the Academy Award winning "Moon River," for Breakfast at Tiffinay's, with Audrey Hepburn and "Days of Wine and Roses," which won the Best Original Song Oscar the following year. In 1963 he wrote "I Wanna Be Around" a #14 single for Tony Bennett, which became one of his trademark songs.


Mercer was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1971, and continued writing lyrics until he developed a brain tumor in 1975. He died in 1976. Most Mercer collections feature other artists singing Mercer tunes. A good place to start is with The Complete Johnny Mercer Songbook (1998 Polygram UK) collects 48 hits on three CDs performed by Louis Armstrong,  Billie Holliday, Charlie parker and other legends.



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