Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer

Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer

by Gene Lees

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An intimate biography of the great songwriter, this is also a deeply affectionate memoir by one of Johnny Mercer’s best friends.

“Moon River,” “Laura,” “Skylark,” ”That Old Black Magic,” “One for My Baby,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Satin Doll,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Something’s Gotta Give”—the honor roll of Mercer’s songs is endless. Both Oscar Hammerstein II and Alan Jay Lerner called him the greatest lyricist in the English language, and he was perhaps the best-loved and certainly the best-known songwriter of his generation. But Mercer was also a complicated and private man.

A scion of an important Savannah family that had lost its fortune, he became a successful Hollywood songwriter (his primary partners included Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern), a hit recording artist, and, as co-founder of Capitol Records, a successful businessman, but he remained forever nostalgic for his idealized childhood (with his “huckleberry friend”). A gentleman, a nasty drunk, funny, tender, melancholic, tormented—Mercer was a man immensely talented yet plagued by
self-doubt, much admired and loved but never really understood.

In music historian and songwriter Gene Lees, Mercer has his perfect biographer, who deals tactfully but directly with Mercer’s complicated relationships with his domineering mother; his tormenting wife, Ginger; and Judy Garland, who was the great love of his life. Lees’s highly personal examination of Mercer’s life is sensitive as only the work of a friend of many years could be to the conflicts in Mercer’s nature. And it is filled with insights into Mercer’s work that could come only from a fellow lyricist (whose own lyrics were much admired by Mercer).

A poignant, candid, revelatory portrait of Johnny.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307489692
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/19/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,022,655
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Gene Lees is the author of fourteen previous books of jazz history and analysis, including The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to Write Lyrics, a standard reference work. He has written biographies of Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, and Lerner and Loewe. As a lyricist, he has collaborated with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Charles Aznavour, and Bill Evans, among others, and his songs have been recorded by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Carmen McRae, and Tony Bennett. A three-time winner of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Journalists Association, Lees writes and publishes Jazzletter. He lives in Ojai, California.

Read an Excerpt


It is often difficult to remember exactly where and when you met someone, but in the case of Johnny Mercer I remember that first encounter almost to the minute. I had come out to Los Angeles from New York, where I then lived, to write the lyrics for some songs in a movie. I called a friend, the wonderful singer Betty Bennett, and asked if she might be free for dinner that night. She said she would be attending a birthday party, and then added, “Do you want to go with me?” I asked her whose birthday it was and she said it was that of the composer John Williams.

I said, “Since today is also my birthday, I’d love to go.”

We went to the Williams house. As we entered, I saw three men standing at the top of a little stairway from the foyer into the living room. The one on the left was a friend of several years, Henry Mancini. The one on the right I did not recognize, although I soon learned he was Dave Cavanaugh, one of the most important producers at Capitol Records. The one in the middle, the man with a space between his incisors when he smiled, was Johnny Mercer. I knew that face from countless photographs in Down Beat and other publications, including one called The Capitol News, which was distributed free through record stores throughout the United States. And because it was my thirty-eighth birthday, and John Williams’s thirty-fifth, I can date this meeting exactly: February 8, 1966, shortly after eight p.m.

I had the most immense respect for Johnny Mercer. Every American lyricist I have known considers, or considered, him the best of them all, and the volume of his output of great lyrics, at all levels, from the outright commercial (“Goody Goody”) to the reaches of high art (“Once Upon a Summertime,” “One for My Baby”), over four decades, is awesome. In 1942 alone he wrote for motion pictures twelve major standard songs that are still performed around the world.

In addition to that, he was the man who founded Capitol Records, an upstart company that had a huge impact on American—and, by extension, world—culture. The company began in 1942, in the midst of World War II, under conditions that would have halted a lesser man, including a major shortage of the shellac on which discs were pressed and a pending musicians’ strike. Capitol was a fresh wind in popular music and jazz, and its artistic direction, as I would eventually learn, was set almost completely by Mercer.

Even its black label with silver lettering and an outline of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., seemed special. But above all it was the music that came out on Capitol, produced either directly by Mercer or indirectly by his close collaborators. Suddenly we were presented with an array of new artists, most of them of the highest quality, in those middle and latter years of the war: the King Cole Trio, Jo Stafford, Freddie Slack, Stan Kenton, Andy Russell, Bobby Sherwood, Ella Mae Morse, Peggy Lee, and so many more, including Mercer himself. He was a singer of distinctive, rough-hewn, vaguely bucolic insouciance and charm whose humor shone through such of his songs as “The Strip Polka,” one of Capitol’s first important hits. Mercer’s roots were in jazz, and his vocals had a wonderful and unpretentious swing. Later came his recordings of such poignant works as “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” which he wrote (with Harold Arlen) for the musical St. Louis Woman. That was another thing about Capitol: a lot of its records were just plain funny, including such Betty Hutton hits as “My Rocking Horse Ran Away.”

When I was growing up in Canada, you couldn’t get those records there: Capitol had no out-of-country distribution during the war. So I used to buy them in Niagara Falls, New York, at a favorite record store and smuggle them home, along with the latest issue of The Capitol News, under the seat of an intercities bus. I remember feeling tremors of apprehension as the bus went through Immigration and Customs and a uniformed inspector would ask what I was bringing into Canada; I’d say, “Nothing,” hoping he would not see through my lie. I wondered if for my transgression I might be hustled off to, if not jail, perhaps reform school. I never got caught, but certainly my venture into small-time smuggling lent those records a certain special glamour—because they were illegal, they were contraband. And, furthermore, few other kids where I lived had them.

I did not foresee that I would follow Mercer into the craft of songwriting. It was not on my list of uncertain aspirations; I just liked great songs, and I recognized that his were among the finest. And by then I was an avid observer of the writers’ credits under the song titles on those heavy and breakable old 78 rpm records. The late Alan Jay Lerner thought that Mercer was the greatest lyricist in the history of the English language, which essentially means the American language, since the body of good songs from England is limited. Paul Weston, the arranger who worked closely with Mercer, said, “John did more things well than any other lyricist. John had genius.” Jimmy Van Heusen, with whom Mercer wrote “I Thought About You,” also applied the word genius to Mercer. “As far as lyric writers are concerned,” he said, “I don’t think there’s anybody near him.”

One of John’s friends, the television producer William Harbach—son of another great lyricist, Otto Harbach (who, with Jerome Kern, wrote “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”)—recalled a luncheon with his father and Oscar Hammerstein II. Harbach said, “My father and Oscar Hammerstein were very close friends. They wrote a lot of shows together—Rose Marie, Sonny, and about four other shows. I asked Oscar how he felt about Johnny Mercer. He said, ‘Johnny Mercer is the greatest American lyricist alive. I could no more write a lyric like one of his than fly. It’s so Americana.’ ”

Alan Bergman, of the lyric-writing team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, said, “He was the most versatile, the best of those we study and appreciate. He could write anything. He could be very funny, yet he wrote a lot about lost youth. The images and the metaphors are just marvelous. I’m amazed every time I hear his work.”

What is it that was so great about Mercer’s work?

The late Boris Vian, a gifted French musician, author, and songwriter, once said in an interview that he was far more proud of his song lyrics than of his novels. There are good reasons why he felt so.

The song is unique among literary forms, and by far the most exacting. It has the function of retarding emotional time, so that the listener can experience the feelings it is attempting to convey with an intensity comparable to the effect of watching the wings of a hummingbird in slow-motion cinematography. This is one reason a song can move you to tears.

It has been said that poetry can communicate before it is understood. This is questionable. Language is structured specifically to convey information, and you can be moved only by words in a language with which you are familiar. If you do not understand what is being said, you won’t be moved. Furthermore, one’s own language has a power that no acquired language can probably ever have. Emotion, however, is conveyed by pitch and inflection and sonority. You can hear it even in the cries and yelps and whimpers of animals. Hearing is our early-warning system. We are designed so that we respond instantly to sounds: it is a survival mechanism. And that is what music is made of.

Music, therefore, can communicate before it is understood. It need not be understood at all, ever. It doesn’t matter whether you have a technical knowledge of the art when you are being moved by, say, a Rachmaninoff concerto or a jazz solo by Dizzy Gillespie. Music is the only art that works directly on the nervous system. Much has been written, and continues to be written, about how music achieves its effects, but in the end even neurologists seem to be baffled. They can describe some of the mechanics of the process, but they cannot tell you why the process works.

In these observations one catches a glimpse, though only a glimpse, of the power of song. The words must be slowed to the pace of the music, which gives them time to have their emotional effect, while the music has its own direct emotional effect. There is nothing in literature to compare to this form.

Modern free verse (vers libre) is all but useless as musical material, since it lacks recurrent pattern, essential to the structure of a song. And poetry in meter has little to do with the nature of the song lyric. For the syllables of a song lyric, wedded to music, must be long or short, to match the note. You need long vowels on long notes, short vowels on short notes, and always there is the problem of articulation: the words must not so much fall trippingly from the tongue, as Shakespeare put it, as move smoothly in and through and from the mouth of the singer. And if the singer is confronted by a rapid-patter song, such as Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant and difficult “I’m Not Getting Married Today” in the musical Company, the flow of the consonants becomes only the more important.

Thus, as a result of this emphasis on length of vowel and consonant, the modern song lyric has more in common with Latin poetry than later European metered poetry. (A trace of this still exists in Italian.)

There is yet another critical factor in good lyric writing: the intervals of the melody line must be close to the intervals that would occur in natural speech, an idea and ideal abandoned in the rock age. English and French are far more tonal languages than is generally recognized. For example, in the opening song of Company, which is based on the name of its principal character, Bobby, Sondheim (who also wrote the music) employed a falling minor third, which is the way you ordinarily say that name. In My Fair Lady, the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” begins with the title phrase set (in C) to the notes CDEGD. That is the way you would say it. The falling fourth, from G to D (“. . . her face”), has an uncertain, sighing quality about it, expressing the protagonist’s bafflement at discovering how much he has come to need her. Whether Lerner set the words to Loewe’s music or Loewe set the music to Lerner’s words I don’t know. Probably they worked the way Cole Porter did: he would find the title, build his melody from it, and then fit the rest of the lyric to the music. Johnny Mercer was reluctant to write lyrics first, believing that a song’s musical flow is more natural, more lyrical, when the music is written first. In general, good lyricists are better at hearing the words in music than composers are at hearing the music in words.

If you do write the lyric before the music, you are forced to set up some sort of metric structure to accommodate music’s need for repeats, particularly the first, second, and final eight bars in an AABA song form. And this forces you into a metrical scheme, which, when the composer attempts to solve the problem, often results in a sort of recitativo chanting effect. There is another problem specific to lyric writing: you should try to avoid beginning a word with the same consonant that ends the previous word. If you don’t, they run together, causing a confusion in the ear. (Americans still seem unable to decide whether the stuff is called duct tape or duck tape.)

Long notes tend to occur at the end of musical phrases. For this reason, long open vowels—those not terminated by a consonant—are ideal at the ends of such lines. The most singable vowel sounds in the English language are oo and oh. But of course you cannot count on open vowels to end every line; there aren’t enough words containing them. Next best are the liquid consonants, sometimes called semivowels, of which there are four in English: m, n, l, and r. Technically f and s qualify as well, but if you sustain them they sound odd. M, n, l, and r can be sustained in singing. You can sing “Dream” (one of Johnny’s most successful songs), and sustain that m, singing Dreammm. Conversely, you cannot sing uppppp. That word would best be used on a short note.

Mercer wrote a deceptively simple song (music by Victor Schertzinger) called “I Remember You.” He built the entire lyric out of the oo and oh sounds and the liquid consonant l, with brief appearances by m and n.

Furthermore, in the second eight bars—the repeat of what songwriters call the front strain—he manages a deft character sketch of shy humility.

I remember you. You’re the one who made my dreams come true a few kisses ago.

I remember you. You’re the one who said: “I love you, too.” I do. Didn’t you know?

I remember, too, a distant bell and stars that fell like rain, out of the blue.

When my life is through and the angels ask me to recall the thrill of them all, then I shall tell them I remember you.

It sounds so simple, but it is stunning in its technical virtuosity.

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