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Singing a song of Johnny Mercer

Debbie Reynolds was the presenter in 1962 when Johnny Mercer (right) and Henry Mancini won Oscars for “Moon River’’ from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’ Debbie Reynolds was the presenter in 1962 when Johnny Mercer (right) and Henry Mancini won Oscars for “Moon River’’ from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’ (Associated Press/File)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 28, 2009
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“Baby shall we go/Out skippin’?/Careful, amigo,/You’re flippin’. Speaks Latin,/That satin doll.’’

The concision of phrasing, the easy languor of the language, the winking wit: How could Johnny Mercer, the man who wrote these lyrics to Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll,’’ not be the great American songwriter?

Well, because the competition’s so stiff. Giving the title to Mercer - or Cole Porter, or Irving Berlin, or Jerome Kern (the list goes on) - is like saying huckleberry is the great American pie or Georgia the great American state.

Mercer is, however, the great overlooked American songwriter. Although he had a hand in some 1,500 songs, wrote seven Broadway shows, and contributed to dozens of movies, his name is nowhere as familiar as his lyrics to such songs as “Come Rain or Come Shine,’’ “Blues in the Night,’’ “Moon River,’’ “Skylark,’’ the list also goes on.

The biggest contributor to Mercer’s fame since his death, in 1976, hasn’t been musical but literary. He receives several mentions in John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’’ as the most famous son of Savannah, Ga.

Mercer’s relative unfamiliarity is likely to change. This year marks the centenary of his birth, Nov. 18, 1909, and the celebration has already begun. Tribute concerts have been held in New York, Glasgow, Miami, and Savannah, with others scheduled for Chicago, Paris, and elsewhere.

PBS will devote an “American Masters’’ broadcast to him this fall. “The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer’’ arrives in bookstores in October. Turner Classic Movies plans to program an entire broadcast day in November of films featuring Mercer songs. (A four-time Academy Award winner, he received 19 Oscar nominations.)

There are several reasons for Mercer’s comparatively low profile. Almost all of his best-known songs were collaborations. His collaborators included some of the biggest names in Tin Pan Alley history: Kern, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Jimmy Van Heusen. But Mercer never had a longstanding partner, as did George Gershwin with his brother Ira or Richard Rodgers with Lorenz Hart, then Oscar Hammerstein II.

Mercer is hard to categorize generally. Although mainly a lyricist, he also composed music. “Something’s Gotta Give’’ and “Dream’’ are probably his two best-known compositions. He was a successful singer. Four of his records reached No. 1 on the charts. He helped start one of the most important labels of the postwar era, Capitol Records. And even though his career spanned almost half a century, much of it came as the pages of the Great American Songbook were closing. Mercer was enough of an expert on closing time - he wrote the lyrics to “One for My Baby’’ and “Days of Wine and Roses,’’ after all - to know that’s rarely when the party’s going strongest.

The word “mercer’’ means one who deals in textile fabrics. That Johnny Mercer should have a tradesman’s name is fitting. He took an unashamedly craftsmanlike approach to his art. Mercer claimed to have written “Days of Wine and Roses’’ in five minutes and “Autumn Leaves,’’ for which he rendered a French lyric into English, while taking a taxi to the airport. (Conversely, “Skylark’’ required an entire year. “Sometimes you get lucky,’’ Mercer liked to say, “but not often.’’)

“Autumn Leaves’’ is an example of his willingness to retrofit lyrics to preexisting music. Sometimes the music was foreign, like Paul Lincke’s “Glow-Worm.’’ Or it could be a movie theme, like David Raksin’s “Laura.’’ Mercer especially excelled at coming up with words for jazz numbers: “And the Angels Sing,’’ “Midnight Sun,’’ “Early Autumn,’’ and, of course, “Satin Doll.’’ He had a singular affinity for jazz.

Mercer wasn’t immune to the occasional purple patch in his writing. Consider “Early Autumn’’: “There’s a dance pavilion in the rain/All shuttered down,/A winding country lane all russet brown,/A frosty windowpane shows me a town grown lonely.’’ But such fustian was less a matter of artistry, perhaps, than personality. It sprang from a deep streak of melancholy in Mercer’s character. Certainly, there’s none of the stentorian solemnity of a Hammerstein.

What’s most striking about Mercer’s work, in fact, is how gorgeously idiomatic it is, full of slang, catch phrases, even nonsense syllables like “yippe-ay-o-kay-ay,’’ from “I’m a Lone Cowhand,’’ or “whooee-duh-whooee,’’ from “Blues in the Night.’’ Some of Mercer’s most celebrated lyrics are so vernacular the songs are practically novelty numbers: “Jeepers Creepers,’’ “Hooray for Hollywood,’’ “Lazybones.’’

Porter and Hart can suffer for the excellence of their lyrics in at least one respect. You can sense sometimes self-congratulation wafting off a particularly bravura rhyme. There’s none of that with Mercer. He never flourishes his virtuosity. The brilliant triple rhyme of “right time,’’ “nighttime,’’ and “despite time,’’ in “Out of This World,’’ works so effortlessly it’s more felt than noticed. Mercer’s being so naturally, resolutely idiomatic inoculates him from attacks of self-regard.

In their indispensable anthology “Reading Lyrics,’’ Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball write that Mercer’s songs “seem easy, relaxed, inevitable.’’ Ease and relaxation are not to be confused with ignorance and slackness. Mercer liked to affect a certain bumpkinishness - the Southern drawl, the cute verbal coinages - but it was an affectation. He’s very much like Carmichael that way, another singing songwriter of laidback manner who hailed from the hinterlands. People who leave the country for the big city usually do so either seeking sophistication or already in possession of it. Mercer is a case in point. According to Irving Berlin, “Johnny gives everybody credit for knowing what he’s talking about.’’ The talk could be startlingly cultivated.

“When an irresistible force such as you/Meets an old immovable object like me,’’ from “Something’s Gotta Give,’’ does nothing less than put Newtonian physics to music. “Accentuate,’’ “eliminate,’’ and “affirmative’’ are not words one expects to find in a product of Tin Pan Alley, let alone from a writer as idiomatic as Mercer, but there they are, in “Accentuate the Positive.’’ Mercer immediately follows them, as if wanting to cover his intellectual tracks, with the splendidly colloquial “Don’t mess with Mr. In-between.’’

He does something similar, only in reverse, in “Too Marvelous for Words.’’ The lines “You’re much too much,/And just too very very!’’ find Mercer so inarticulate he can’t even supply words for the adjectives to modify. Then he turns the situation on its verbal head, completing the rhyme with “To ever be in Webster’s Dictionary!’’ The wonder of it isn’t Mercer’s getting away with using “Webster’s Dictionary’’ in a love song; it’s how matter-of-fact those six syllables scan. No other songwriter would ever think to use “Webster’s Dictionary’’ because no other songwriter might have pulled it off.

“We all come from Gilbert,’’ Mercer liked to say, meaning W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. That’s true, of course. But just as Gilbert came to Ira Gershwin via the Lower East Side and Cole Porter via Peru, Ind., and Yale, he came to Mercer via the South.

The importance of his Southern roots can hardly be overstated. No other master of the Great American Songbook demonstrated such a capacity to tap into the music of the South: the softened consonants and casual speech, the irresistible rhythms and blues inflections, of blacks and poor whites. Out of the same culturally mulatto stew came Elvis Presley, born 25 years and a month after Mercer. (The cross-fertilization worked both ways. Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon’’ is on “The Sun Sessions,’’ and Dean Martin was one of Presley’s favorite singers.)

Mercer’s Southerness is even more audible in his singing than his songwriting. Although he tended to disparage his vocal abilities, Mercer had a very winning way with a song. When he sang, he sounded smooth, unhurried, joshing. It was a style that took the crooning of Bing Crosby (whom he succeeded in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra) a crucial step further in the artistic relaxation of racial boundaries. Where Crosby nodded in the direction of black vocal style, Mercer ambled right on over. In fact, his friend the critic Gene Lees has said the award Mercer most cherished came in 1944 when an African-American boys’ club in Chicago voted him “outstanding young Negro singer of the year.’’ It was an honest mistake. All they’d had to go on, in an age without television, was Mercer’s vocal style.

Maybe the best way to understand Mercer and honor the singularity of his achievement is as the great transitional American songwriter. More than any of his peers, Mercer brought the South into the Great American Songbook and, however unconsciously, began to transcend race. Yet those very things that helped enrich Tin Pan Alley in its waning years, also helped end it. It was the South and racial transcendence that did so much to propel rhythm ’n’ blues and rock ’n’ roll, soon to become the primary popular music not just of America but the entire world - “From Natchez to Mobile,/From Memphis to St. Jo,/Wherever the four winds blow,’’ to quote “Blues in the Night.’’

As it happens, Mercer loathed rock ’n’ roll. It must have pained him that the two biggest acts on Capitol Records in the ’60s were the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Mercer and his partners had sold the company by then. It was the worst of both worlds. He didn’t profit by the association while still, presumably, feeling its taint. In his own fashion, he had helped pave the way. What the irresistible force of rock met in Johnny Mercer wasn’t so much an old immovable object as an unwitting ally.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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