Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia. His father, George Anderson Mercer, was a prominent attorney and real estate developer, and his mother, Lillian Elizabeth (née Ciucevich), George Mercer’s secretary and then second wife, was the daughter of Croatian-Irish immigrants who came to America in the 1850s. Lillian's father was a merchant seaman who ran the Union blockade during the U.S. Civil War. Mercer was George's fourth son, first by Lillian. His great-grandfather was Confederate General Hugh Weedon Mercer and he was a direct descendant of American Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer, a Scottish soldier-physician who died at the Battle of Princeton. Mercer was also a distant cousin of General George S. Patton. The construction of Mercer House in Savannah was started by General Hugh Weedon Mercer in 1860 (although never finished by him; the next owners of the house finished it), later the home of Jim Williams, whose trial for murder was the centerpiece of John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, although neither the General nor Johnny ever lived there.
Mercer liked music as a small child and attributed his musical talent to his mother, who would sing sentimental ballads. Mercer's father also sang, mostly old Scottish songs. His aunt told him he was humming music when he was six months old and later she took him to see minstrel and vaudeville shows where he heard “coon songs” and ragtime. The family’s summer home “Vernon View” was on the tidal waters and Mercer’s long summers there among mossy trees, saltwater marshes, and soft, starry nights inspired him years later.
Mercer’s exposure to black music was perhaps unique among the white songwriters of his generation. As a child, Mercer had African-American playmates and servants, and he listened to the fishermen and vendors about him, who spoke and sang in the Creole dialect known as “Geechee”. He was also attracted to black church services. Mercer later stated, “Songs always fascinated me more than anything”. He never had formal musical training but was singing in a choir by six and at eleven or twelve he had memorized almost all of the songs he had heard and he had become curious about who had written them. He once asked his brother who the best songwriter was, and his brother said Irving Berlin, among the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Despite Mercer's early exposure to music, his talent was clearly in creating the words and singing, not in playing music, though early on he had hoped to become a composer. In addition to the lyrics that Mercer memorized, he was an avid reader and wrote adventure stories. However, his attempts to play the trumpet and piano were not successful, and he never could read musical scores with any facility, relying instead on his own notation system.
As a teenager in the Jazz Era, he was a product of his age. He hunted for records in the black section of Savannah and played such early black jazz greats as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. His father owned the first car in town, and Mercer’s teenage social life was enhanced by his driving privilege, which sometimes verged on recklessness. The family would motor to the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina to escape the Savannah heat and there Mercer learned to dance (from Arthur Murray himself) and to flirt with Southern belles, his natural sense of rhythm helping him on both accounts.
Mercer attended exclusive Woodberry Forest boys prep school in Virginia until 1927. Though not a top student, he was active in literary and poetry societies and as a humor writer for the school’s publications. In addition, his exposure to classic literature augmented his already rich store of vocabulary and phraseology. He began to scribble ingenious, sometimes strained rhymed phrases for later use. Mercer was also the class clown and a prankster, and member of the “hop” committee that booked musical entertainment on campus.
Mercer was already somewhat of an authority on jazz at an early age. His yearbook stated, “No orchestra or new production can be authoritatively termed ‘good’ until Johnny’s stamp of approval has been placed upon it. His ability to ‘get hot’ under all conditions and at all times is uncanny”. Mercer began to write songs, an early effort being ‘’Sister Susie, Strut Your Stuff.” and quickly learned the powerful effect songs had on girls.
Given his family’s proud history and association with Princeton, New Jersey, and Princeton University, Mercer was destined for school there until his father’s financial setbacks in the late 1920s changed those plans. He went to work in his father’s recovering business, collecting rent and running errands, but soon grew bored with the routine and with Savannah, and looked to escape.
Mercer moved to New York in 1928, when he was 19. The music he loved, jazz and blues, was booming in Harlem and Broadway was bursting with musicals and revues from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. Vaudeville, though beginning to fade, was still a strong musical presence. Mercer’s first few jobs were as a bit actor (billed as John Mercer). Holed up in a Greenwich Village apartment with plenty of time on his hands and a beat-up piano to play, Mercer soon returned to singing and lyric writing. He secured a day job at a brokerage house and sang at night. Pooling his meager income with that of his roommates, Mercer managed to keep going, sometimes on little more than oatmeal. One night he dropped in on Eddie Cantor backstage to offer a comic song, but although Cantor didn’t use the song, he began encouraging Mercer’s career. Mercer's first lyric, for the song "Out of Breath (and Scared to Death of You)", composed by friend Everett Miller, appeared in a musical revue The Garrick Gaieties in 1930. Mercer met his future wife at the show, chorus girl Ginger Meehan. Meehan had earlier been one of the many chorus girls pursued by the young crooner Bing Crosby. Through Miller’s father, an executive at the famous publisher T. B. Harms, Mercer's first song was published. It was recorded by Joe Venuti and his New Yorkers.
The 20-year-old Mercer began to hang out with other songwriters and to learn the trade. He traveled to California to undertake a lyric writing assignment for the musical Paris in the Spring and met his idols Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. Mercer found the experience sobering and realized that he much preferred free-standing lyric writing to writing on demand for musicals. Upon his return, he got a job as staff lyricist for Miller Music for a $25 dollar-a-week draw which give him a base income and enough prospects to win over and marry Ginger in 1931. The new Mrs. Mercer quit the chorus line and became a seamstress, and to save money the newlyweds moved in with Ginger’s mother in Brooklyn. Johnny did not inform his own parents of his marriage until after the fact, perhaps in part because he knew that Ginger being Jewish would not sit comfortably with some members of his family, and he worried they would try to talk him out of marrying her.
In 1932, Mercer won a contest to sing with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, but it did not help his situation significantly. He made his recording debut, singing with Frank Trumbauer's Orchestra, on April 5 of that year. Mercer then apprenticed with Yip Harburg on the score for Americana, a Depression-flavored revue famous for "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (not a Mercer composition), which gave Mercer invaluable training. After several songs which didn’t catch fire, during his time with Whiteman, he wrote and sang "Pardon My Southern Accent". Mercer’s fortunes improved dramatically with a chance pairing with Indiana-born Hoagy Carmichael, already famous for the standard "Stardust", who was intrigued by the “young, bouncy butterball of a man from Georgia”. The two spent a year laboring over "Lazybones", which became a hit one week after its first radio broadcast, and each received a large royalty check of $1250. A regional song in pseudo-black dialect, it captured the mood of the times, especially in rural America. Mercer became a member of ASCAP and a recognized “brother” in the Tin Pan Alley fraternity, receiving congratulations from Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter among others. Paul Whiteman lured Mercer back to his orchestra (to sing, write comic skits and compose songs), temporarily breaking up the working team with Carmichael.
During the golden age of sophisticated popular song of the late Twenties and early Thirties, songs were put into revues with minimal regard for plot integration. During the 1930s, there was a shift from revues to stage and movie musicals using song to further the plot. Demand diminished accordingly for the pure stand-alone songs that Mercer preferred. Thus, although he had established himself in the New York music world, when Mercer was offered a job in Hollywood to compose songs and perform in low-budget musicals for RKO, he accepted and followed idol Bing Crosby west.
It was only when Mercer moved to Hollywood in 1935 that his career was assured. Writing songs for movies offered two distinct advantages. The use of sensitive microphones for recording and of the lip-synching of pre-recorded songs liberated songwriters from dependence on the long vowel endings and long sustained notes required for live performance. Performers such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could now sing more conversationally and more nonchalantly. Mercer, as a singer, was attuned to this shift and his style fit the need perfectly.
Mercer's first Hollywood assignment was not the Astaire-Rogers vehicle of which he had dreamed but a B-movie college musical, Old Man Rhythm, to which he contributed two undistinguished songs and even worse acting. His next project, To Beat the Band, was another flop, but it did lead to a meeting and a collaboration with Fred Astaire on the moderately successful Astaire song "I’m Building Up to an Awful Let-Down".
Though all but overwhelmed by the glitter of Hollywood, Mercer found his beloved jazz and nightlife lacking. As he wrote, “Hollywood was never much of a night town. Everybody had to get up too early... the movie people were in bed with the chickens (or each other).” Mercer was now in Bing Crosby’s hard-drinking circle and enjoyed Crosby’s company and hipster talk. Unfortunately, Mercer also began to drink more at parties and was prone to vicious outbursts when under the influence of alcohol, contrasting sharply with his ordinarily genial and gentlemanly behavior.
Mercer’s first big Hollywood song "I'm an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande" was inspired by a road trip through Texas (he wrote both the music and the lyric). It was performed by Crosby in the film Rhythm on the Range in 1936, and from thereon the demand for Mercer as a lyricist took off. His second hit that year was "Goody Goody". In 1937, Mercer began employment with the Warner Brothers studio, working with the veteran composer Richard Whiting (Ain't We Got Fun?), soon producing his standard, "Too Marvelous for Words", followed by "Hooray for Hollywood". After Whiting’s sudden death from a heart attack, Mercer joined forces with Harry Warren and created "Jeepers Creepers", which earned Mercer his first Oscar nomination for Best Song. It was given a memorable recording by Louis Armstrong. Another hit with Warren in 1938 was "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby". The pair also created "Hooray For Spinach", a comic song produced for the film Naughty But Nice in 1939.
During a lull at Warners, Mercer revived his singing career. He joined Bing Crosby’s informal minstrel shows put on by the "Westwood Marching and Chowder Club," which included many Hollywood luminaries and brought together Crosby and Bob Hope. A duet "Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer" was recorded and became a hit in 1938.
In 1939, Mercer wrote the lyrics to a melody by Ziggy Elman, a trumpet player with Benny Goodman. The song was "And the Angels Sing" and, although recorded by Bing Crosby and Count Basie, it was the Goodman version with vocal by Martha Tilton and memorable trumpet solo by Elman that became the Number One hit. Years later, the title was inscribed on Mercer's tombstone.
Mercer was invited to the Camel Caravan radio show in New York to sing his hits and create satirical songs with the Benny Goodman orchestra, then becoming the emcee of the nationally broadcast show for several months. Two more hits followed shortly, "Day In, Day Out" and "Fools Rush In", and Mercer in short order had five of the top ten songs on the popular radio show Your Hit Parade. Mercer also started a short-lived publishing company during his stay in New York. On a lucky streak, Mercer undertook a musical with Hoagy Carmichael, but Walk With Music (originally called Three After Three) was a bomb, with story quality not matching that of the score. Another disappointment for Mercer was the selection of Johnny Burke as the long-term songwriter for the Hope-Crosby “Road” pictures. In 1940, the Mercers adopted a daughter, Amanda. Mercer was thirty and his life and career were riding high.
In 1941, shortly after the death of his father, Mercer began an intense affair with nineteen-year-old Judy Garland while she was engaged to composer David Rose. Garland married Rose to stop the affair, but the effect on Mercer lingered, adding to the emotional depth of his lyrics. Their affair revived later. Mercer stated that his song "I Remember You" was the most direct expression of his feelings for Garland.
Shortly thereafter, Mercer met an ideal musical collaborator in the form of Harold Arlen whose jazz and blues-influenced compositions provided Mercer's sophisticated, idiomatic lyrics a perfect musical vehicle. Now Mercer's lyrics began to display the combination of sophisticated wit and southern regional vernacular that characterize some of his best songs. Their first hit was "Blues in the Night" (1941), which Arthur Schwartz claimed was “probably the greatest blues song ever written.”
They went on to compose "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" (1941), "That Old Black Magic" (1942), and "Come Rain Or Come Shine" (1946) among others.
Frank Sinatra was particularly successful with the first two and Bing Crosby with the third. "Come Rain" was Mercer’s only Broadway hit, composed for the show St. Louis Woman with Pearl Bailey. "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" was a big smash for Judy Garland in the 1946 film The Harvey Girls, and earned Mercer the first of his four Academy Awards for Best Song, after eight unsuccessful nominations.
Mercer re-united with Hoagy Carmichael with "Skylark" (1941), and the Oscar-winning "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" (1951). With Jerome Kern, Mercer created You Were Never Lovelier for Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in the movie of the same name, as well as "I'm Old Fashioned". Mercer co-founded Capitol Records (originally “Liberty Records”) in Hollywood in 1942, along with producer Buddy DeSylva and record store owner Glen Wallichs. He also co-founded Cowboy Records.
Mercer by the mid-1940s enjoyed a reputation as being among the premier Hollywood lyricists. He was adaptable, listening carefully and absorbing a tune and then transforming it into his own style. Like Irving Berlin, he was a close follower of cultural fashion and changing language, which in part accounted for the long tenure of his success. Mercer preferred to have the music first, taking it home and working on it. He claimed composers had no problem with this method provided that he returned with the lyrics. Only with Arlen and Whiting did Mercer occasionally work side-by-side.
Mercer was often asked to write new lyrics to already popular tunes. The lyrics to "Laura", "Midnight Sun", and "Satin Doll" were all written after the melodies had become hits. He was also asked to compose English lyrics to foreign songs, the most famous example being "Autumn Leaves", based on the French "Les Feuilles Mortes".
In the 1950s, the advent of rock and roll and the transition of jazz into "bebop" cut deeply into Mercer’s natural audience, and dramatically reduced venues for his songs. His continual string of hits came to an end but many great songs were still to come. Mercer wrote for some MGM films, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Merry Andrew (1958). He collaborated on three Broadway musicals in the 1950s - Top Banana (1951), Li'l Abner (1956), and Saratoga (1959).
Mercer made occasional television appearances. In 1953-1954 season, he guest starred as himself on ABC's Jukebox Jury, a musical/quiz program on which celebrities judge the latest releases from the recording companies. In 1954, he appeared on NBC's The Donald O'Connor Show.
His more successful songs of the 1950s include "The Glow-Worm" (sung by the Mills Brothers) and "Something’s Gotta Give". In 1961, he wrote the lyrics to "Moon River" for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and for Days of Wine and Roses, both with music by Henry Mancini, and Mercer received his third and fourth Oscars for Best Song. The back-to-back Oscars were the first time a songwriting team had achieved that feat. Mercer, also with Mancini, wrote Charade for the 1963 Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn romantic thriller with the same name. The Tony Bennett classic "I Wanna Be Around" was written by Mercer in 1962 and the Sinatra hit "Summer Wind" in 1965.
An indication of the high esteem in which Mercer was held can be observed in that in 1964 he became the only lyricist to have his work recorded as a volume of Ella Fitzgerald's celebrated 'Songbook' albums for the Verve label. Yet Mercer always remained humble about his work, attributing much to luck and timing. He was fond of telling the story of how he was offered the job of doing the lyrics for Johnny Mandel's music on The Sandpiper, only to have the producer turn his lyrics down. The producer offered the commission to Paul Francis Webster and the result was The Shadow of Your Smile which became a huge hit, winning the 1965 Oscar for Best Original Song.
In 1969, Mercer helped publishers Abe Olman and Howie Richmond found the National Academy of Popular Music's Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1971, Mercer presented a retrospective of his career for the "Lyrics and Lyricists Series" in New York, including an omnibus of his "greatest hits" and a performance by Margaret Whiting. It was recorded live as An Evening with Johnny Mercer. In 1974, he collaborated on the West End production The Good Companions. He also recorded two albums of his songs in London in 1974, with the Pete Moore Orchestra, and with the Harry Roche Constellation, later compiled into a single album and released as "...My Huckleberry Friend: Johnny Mercer Sings the Songs of Johnny Mercer". In 1975, Paul McCartney approached Mercer for a collaboration but Mercer was ill, and an inoperable brain tumor was diagnosed. He died on June 25, 1976 in Bel Air, California. Mercer was buried in Savannah's historical Bonaventure Cemetery. The simple line drawing caricature adorning his memorial bench is in fact a reproduction of a self-portrait.
Well regarded also as a singer, with a folksy quality, Mercer was a natural for his own songs such as Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive, On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, One for My Baby (and One More for the Road), and Lazybones. He was considered a first-rate performer of his own work.
It has been said that he penned One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)—one of the great torch laments of all times—on a napkin while sitting at the bar at P. J. Clarke's when Tommy Joyce was the bartender. The next day Mercer called Joyce to apologize for the line "So, set 'em up, Joe," "I couldn't get your name to rhyme."
ATCO Records issued Two of a Kind in 1961, a duet album by Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer with Billy May and his Orchestra, produced by Ahmet Ertegün.
In his last year, Mercer became fond of pop singer Barry Manilow, in part because Manilow's first hit record was of a song titled Mandy, which was also the name of Mercer's daughter Amanda. After Mercer's death in 1976 from a brain tumor, his widow, Ginger Mehan Mercer, arranged to give some unfinished lyrics he had written to Manilow to possibly develop into complete songs. Among these was a piece titled "When October Goes", a melancholy remembrance of lost love. Manilow applied his own melody to the lyric and issued it as a single in 1984, when it became a top 10 Adult Contemporary hit in the United States. The song has since become a jazz standard, with notable recordings by Rosemary Clooney, Nancy Wilson, and Megon McDonough, among other performers.
He was honored by the United States Postal Service with his portrait placed on a stamp in 1996. Mercer's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1628 Vine Street is a block away from the Capitol Records building at 1750 Vine Street.
Mercer was given tribute in John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer song "Skylark", sung by K.D. Lang, features prominently in the movie and the movie soundtrack is a tribute album to Johnny Mercer, containing 14 Mercer songs performed by a variety of jazz and pop recording artists.
The Johnny Mercer Collections, including his papers and memorabilia, are preserved in the library of Georgia State University in Atlanta. GSU occasionally holds events showcasing Mercer's works.
In November 2009, a statue of Mercer was unveiled in Ellis Square in Savannah, Georgia, his hometown and birthplace.
The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer was scheduled to be published by Knopf in the fall of 2009.The Complete Lyrics contains the texts to nearly 1,500 of his lyrics, several hundred of them appearing in print for the first time.
Mercer won four Academy Award for Best Original Song:
- "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" (1946) (music by Harry Warren) for The Harvey Girls
- "In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening" (1951) (music by Hoagy Carmichael) for Here Comes The Groom
- "Moon River" (1961) (music by Henry Mancini) for Breakfast at Tiffany's
- "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962) (music by Henry Mancini) for Days of Wine and Roses
In 2009 Clint Eastwood produced a documentary film on Johnny Mercer's life and work called "The Dream's on Me" (Turner Classic Movies). After airing on Turner Classic Movies, the film was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in the category of Outstanding Nonfiction Special. It is currently available as a Warner Brothers DVD.
Lyrics by Mercer, unless noted.
He wrote many other songs, some of which have entered the Great American Songbook:
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- Bach, Bob & Mercer, Ginger (1982). Our Huckleberry Friend: The Life, Times, and Lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Lyle Stuart. ISBN.
- Furia, Phillip (1990). Poets of Tin Pan Alley. Oxford University Press. ISBN.
- Furia, Phillip (2003). Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer. St. Martin's Press. ISBN.
- Kimball, Robert, et al (2009). The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Knopf. ISBN.
- Lees, Gene (2004). Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer. Hal Leonard. ISBN.
- Wilder, Alec (1990). American Popular Song. Oxford University Press. ISBN.
- Will, Max (1997). They're Playing Our Song. Da Capo Press. ISBN.