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100 Years Of Johnny Mercer, Pop Poet Laureate

In May 1971, songwriter Johnny Mercer appeared at New York's 92nd Street Y to sing and talk about his remarkable career. He told the audience what he tried to listen for when a composer first played the music for a new song.

"You get a little glimmer and you say, 'Ahhh!' " he told the crowd. "You don't even know if it's a word. And then it begins to ... you know, it's like you're tuning in to a musical instrument that's miles away. And you say, 'Oh, yeah, there's something there. If I just dig hard enough, I know it'll come.' "

For close to 50 years, Mercer dug hard, and the hits kept coming. "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive." "Skylark." "Laura." "Blues in the Night." "Moon River."

Interview clips that didn't make the full radio story:

Mercer wrote the words, and sometimes the music, for more than 1,500 songs, with more than 200 collaborators, among them composers Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Jerome Kern. He was nominated for 18 Academy Awards and won four.

One hundred years ago today, Johnny Mercer was born in Savannah, Ga. And he grew up to be one of the most popular lyricists of the American Songbook.

A Pop Poet

Robert Kimball recently co-edited The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer. He says, in some ways, that Mercer was a pop-music poet laureate.

"He was a national writer," Kimball says. "Most of the writers were city people and Johnny came from the South, from a more rural part of America, and they're reflected in his work."

Savannah is a city, but Mercer's lyrics are filled with down-home turns of phrase, train whistles and bird calls. Mercer's niece, Nancy Gerard, grew up in the same house in Savannah where her uncle was raised.

"It's a slow, kind of easy, genteel demeanor that people just grow up with," Gerard says.

Mercer may have grown up in Georgia, but he spent most of his career in Hollywood. Not only did he write a string of hit songs for movies from the 1930s to the '50s, for performers from Fred Astaire to Bing Crosby to himself. According to Gerard, Mercer had 13 Top 10 hits as a singer.

Mercer recorded most of those hits for the label he helped found in L.A.: Capitol Records.

The Days Of Wine And Roses

Mercer wrote the lyrics for "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," for the film The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland. Though Mercer was married to the same woman, Ginger, from the age of 20 until his death at 66, Garland was the love of his life, historian Robert Kimball says.

" 'That Old Black Magic' is about Judy, 'One for My Baby' is about Judy and 'I Remember You' was about his relationship with Judy," Kimball says.

The love affair haunted Mercer and most likely didn't help his lifelong struggle with alcohol and anger. Andrea Marcovicci has researched Mercer's life for a cabaret show devoted to his songs.

"He could drink a certain amount, and then take one sip more, and out would come this extraordinary beast," Marcovicci says. "And he had a tendency to attack, but he always remembered everything that he did, unfortunately, and then apologized the next day. And he sent roses."

And The Angels Sing

Like many writers of his generation, Johnny Mercer found his kind of songwriting pushed aside with the rise of rock 'n' roll. Then in 1961, Henry Mancini called, asking him to write a song for the film Breakfast at Tiffany's.

"And, at that moment, he writes 'Moon River,' and he gets a brand-new career," Marcovicci says, laughing. "It was a wonderful arc for him, because Mancini truly resurrected Johnny Mercer."

Mercer died of a brain tumor on June 25, 1976. He's buried in Savannah's famous Bonaventure Ceremony with members of his family. And all of their tombstones have quotes from his lyrics, according to his niece.

"His has 'And the angels sing,' " Gerard says. "His wife, my aunt Ginger's, has 'You must've been a beautiful baby'; my mother's has 'Dream, when the day is through' — that was her favorite song — and my grandmother's has 'My mama done tol' me.' "

Gerard says hers will read: "Skylark, won't you lead me there." Today, the city of Savannah has unveiled a statue of Johnny Mercer, in honor of his 100th birthday.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

While Johnny Mercer's songs were covered by some of the greatest singers of the 20th century –- among them Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby -– there's nothing quite like hearing the songwriter performing his own work. Mercer was a truly distinctive singer, jazzy and soulful. In addition to writing countless hit songs, Mercer was a popular radio personality and recording artist. With songwriter Buddy DeSylva and music-store owner Glenn Wallichs, Mercer founded Capitol Records in 1942, and recorded many of his songs on the label. Here's one.

Moon River

In 1974, Mercer recorded an album for Pye Records in England, revisiting some of his hits with some contemporary arrangements. While they're a bit too "groovy" for my tastes, it still gives listeners an opportunity to hear the songwriter sing some of his evergreens.

Out of Breath (and Scared to Death of You)

In 1971, Mercer appeared at New York's 92nd Street Y and spent an hour talking about his work and performing songs from throughout his career. This is an extraordinary recording: He sings a medley of his hits at the end of the evening that goes on and on and on. But he also performed the very first professional song he ever wrote, which gives you a sense of how accomplished he was as a lyricist, even at 21.

Lazybones

As an added bonus, here's Hoagy Carmichael, singing one of the hit songs he wrote with Johnny Mercer.
Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

One hundred years ago today, a baby was born in Savannah, Georgia, who grew up to become one of the most popular lyricists in the American Songbook. Johnny Mercer's hits include �Moon River,� �Skylark,� �Hurray for Hollywood� and �Blues in the Night.� Jeff Lunden has this centennial tribute.

JEFF LUNDEN: In May 1971, Johnny Mercer appeared at New York's 92nd Street Y to sing and talk about his remarkable career. He told the audience what he tried to listen for when a composer first played the music for a new song.

Mr. JOHNNY MERCER (Lyricist): You get a little glimmer and you say, ah. You don't even know if it's a word. You know, it's like you're tuning in to a musical instrument that's miles away. And you would say, oh, yeah, there's something there. If I just dig hard enough, I know it'll come.

(Soundbite of song, �Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive�)

Mr. MERCER: (Singing) If you wanna hear my story, then settle back and just sit tight.

LUNDEN: For close to 50 years, Johnny Mercer dug hard and the song hits kept coming.

(Soundbite of song, �Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive�)

Mr. MERCER: (Singing) You got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive. E-lim-i-nate the negative. And latch on to the affirmative. Don't mess with mister in between.

LUNDEN: And coming.

(Soundbite of song, �Laura�)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Laura is the face in the misty light.

LUNDEN: And coming.

(Soundbite of song, �Blues in the Night�)

Mr. MERCER: (Singing) My mama done told me when I was in knee pants, my mama done told me, son�

LUNDEN: Johnny Mercer wrote the words and sometimes the music for over 1,500 songs, with more than 200 collaborators - among them, composers Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Jerome Kern. He was nominated for 18 Academy Awards and won four. Robert Kimball recently co-edited The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer and said in some ways he was a pop music poet laureate.

Mr. ROBERT KIMBALL (Historian, Co-Editor, �The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer�): He was a national writer. Most of the writers were city people and Johnny came from the South, from a more rural part of America, and they're reflected in his work.

(Soundbite of song, �Lazybones�)

Mr. MERCER: (Singing) Lazybones, sittin' in the sun. How you expect to get your day's work done?

LUNDEN: Savannah is a city, but Mercer's lyrics are filled with down home turns of phrase, train whistles, bird calls.

(Soundbite of song, �Skylark�)

Mr. MERCER: (Singing) Skylark, have you anything to say to me? Won't you tell me where my love can be? And if you see her anywhere, won't you lead me there?

LUNDEN: Johnny Mercer's niece, Nancy Gerard, grew up in the same house in Savannah where her uncle was raised.

Ms. NANCY GERARD: It's a slow, easy, genteel demeanor that people just grow up with.

LUNDEN: Mercer may have grown up in Georgia, but he spent most of his career in Hollywood.

(Soundbite of song, �Hooray for Hollywood�)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Hooray for Hollywood, that screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood.

LUNDEN: He not only wrote a string of hit songs for movies from the 1930s to the '50s for performers from Fred Astaire to Bing Crosby�

Ms. GERARD: Well, he did have 13 Top 10 hits as a singer.

(Soundbite of song, �On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe�)

Mr. MERCER: (Singing) Do you hear that whistle down the line. I figure that it's engine number 49. She's the only one that'll sound that way on the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.

LUNDEN: Mercer recorded most of those hits for the label he helped found in L.A. - Capitol Records. Mercer wrote the lyrics for �On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe� for the film �The Harvey Girls� starring Judy Garland.

(Soundbite of film, �The Harvey Girls�)

(Soundbite of song, �On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe�)

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Performer): (Singing) Back in Ohio where I come from, I've done a lot of dreaming and I've traveled some.

LUNDEN: Though Mercer was married to the same woman, Ginger, from the age of 20 until his death at 66, Judy Garland was the love of his life, says historian Robert Kimball.

Mr. KIMBALL: �That Old Black Magic� is about Judy. �One for My Baby� is about Judy. And �I Remember You� was about his relationship with Judy.

(Soundbite of song, �I Remember You�)

Mr. MERCER: (Singing) I remember you. You're the one who said, I love you, too. I do, didn't you know.

LUNDEN: The love affair haunted Mercer and likely didn't help his lifelong struggle with alcohol and anger. Andrea Marcovicci has researched Mercer's life for a cabaret show devoted to his songs.

Ms. ANDREA MARCOVICCI (Performer): He could drink a certain amount and then take one sip more and out would come this extraordinary beast. And he had a tendency to attack, but he always remembered everything that he did, unfortunately, and then he apologized the next day, and he sent roses.

(Soundbite of song, �One for My Baby�)

Mr. MERCER: (Singing) We're drinking, my friend, to the end of a brief episode. Make it one for my baby and one more for the road.

LUNDEN: Like many writers of his generation, Johnny Mercer found his kind of songwriting being pushed aside with the rise of rock and roll. Then, in 1961, Henry Mancini called, asking him to write a song for the film �Breakfast at Tiffany's.�

Ms. MARCOVICCI: And at that moment, he writes �Moon River.�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARCOVICCI: And he gets a brand-new career. It was a wonderful arc for him because Mancini truly resurrected Johnny Mercer.

(Soundbite of song, �Moon River�)

Ms. AUDREY HEPBURN (Actress): (Singing) Moon River, wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style some day.

LUNDEN: Johnny Mercer died of a brain tumor on June 25th, 1976. He's buried in Savannah's famous Bonaventure Cemetery with members of his family. And all of their tombstones have quotes from his lyrics, says his niece Nancy Gerard.

Ms. GERARD: His has: And the angels sing. His wife, my aunt Ginger's, has: You must've been a beautiful baby. My mother's has: Dream, when the day is through - that was her favorite song. And my grandmother's has: My mama done told me.

LUNDEN: Gerard says hers will read: Skylark, won't you lead me there?

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(Soundbite of song, �Skylark�)

Unidentified Woman #3: Skylark, I don't know if you can find these things.

BLOCK: And you can hear more of Johnny Mercer's songs at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, �Skylark�)

Unidentified Woman #3: So if you see them anywhere, won't you lead me there? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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