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Johnny Mercer: A Georgia Peach of a Songwriter

by Billy C. Farlow    Elk River    November 2009

Johnny Mercer is not your usual Southern music icon. In the genre of down-home music greats most life stories are all too familiar. Artists arise from humble beginnings, spend long years of struggle, and ultimately die an early, lonely, and often painful death. The lucky ones see a brief (or longer) flash of fame. before being blind-sided by poverty and dissipation.

Certainly many such as Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Buddy Bolden,Little Walter, Harry Choates, Bunk Johnson, Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, Jaybird Coleman, Alton Delmore, and Lonnie Johnson, all fit easily into this pattern. For every Roy Acuff and B.B. King, there are a thousand Blind Lemon Jeffersons and Memphis Minnies, whose names, had it not been for a cult of blues revivalist/scholars that emerged in the late '50's, would have been lost for all time. For instance, only one copy of slide guitar legend Willie Brown's incredible 1927 "Future Blues" on Paramount Records is known to exist.

Obscurity and poverty however, are not words one would associate with Johnny Mercer. Born in 1909 in Savannah, Georgia, the son of a well-to-do attorney, Mercer was also the great-great-grandson of a Confederate general. That's something you could never hang on Leadbelly! Nevertheless, Mercer had a great big soul for native southern music from an early age. He was particularly taken by the local African-American Geechee culture and loved to listen to the songs of street vendors and fishermen around Savannah's ports.

Johnny learned to play piano at an early age and soon began writing songs for small theater productions, musicals, and occasional solo performances. After college he moved to New York City to try and make it on the Tin Pan Alley scene. His talent soon caught the attention of many, including top orchestra leader of the early '30's Paul Whiteman, the so-called King of Jazz, who loved Johnny's quick folksy humor and bright, playful vocals on tunes like "Jamboree Jones" and "Lazybones."

After his stint with Whiteman, Mercer's star kept rising with every passing year as his songwriting brought him international fame and acclaim from all corners of the entertainment world. Doing fewer public appearances and concentrating more on
songwriting and publishing, he cranked out a staggering list of memorable show tunes and pop hits, collaborating at times with other song masters such as  Hoagy Carmichael,  Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, and Richard Whiting. Among these evergreens the are the unforgettable classics "Accentuate The Positive", "Blues In The Night", "I'm An Old Cowhand", "Too Marvelous For Words", "Fools Rush In" , "Laura", "One For My Baby(And One More For The Road)"-- I get dizzy just thinkin' about 'em!  In the '40's when he co-founded Capitol Records in Los Angeles, his fortune was made.

With the changing of public tastes in the '50's and a very fat wallet, Mercer slowed his songwriting somewhat. The truth is, he had trouble coming to grips with Rock 'n Roll. Like so many others of his generation, he thought decent music had tanked for good. He never stopped writing, however, and still came up with the occasional Top Ten Hit, usually smooth "crossover" ballads.

I particularly enjoy the story behind one song during this period. It seems Mr. Mercer was checking out of a hotel one day when a lady named Sadie Vimmerstedt recognized him and offered her idea of a song title. Any songwriter knows this is dangerous ground. One has to be cordial while at the same moment not burst into laughter in some well-meaning fan's face. I have been in this position many times. That time though, Mercer literally struck gold. A stunned Mercer listened as the lady offered, "I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart!". Within an hour, as the story goes, Johnny had his song finished with the previously unknown Mrs. Vimmerstedt listed as co-writer.

In the '60's, Mercer teamed with composer/bandleader Henry Mancini on movie hits such as "Days Of Wine And Roses", "Charade" and one of my favorite adolescent sock hop buckle grinders, "Moon River". In the late '60's he slowly eased into retirement, crafting the occasional tune, always amused and skeptical of the constantly changing pop music world. (Wouldn't you like to know what he thought of Jimi Hendrix?) But he was comfortable and content to be above it all. He died rich and happy on June 25,  1976, a resident of California's ultra-swanky Bel Air.

I had a bit of trouble digging Johnny Mercer in my youth. My parents, who were teens most of the '40's, and had an old album of his 78's so I was familiar with his music and actually liked a few tunes, but they didn't shake me up like Elvis or Duane Eddy could. A few of his songs like "Goody Goody" or "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry" threatened to make me physically ill. But as my tastes broadened and matured (don't laugh), he won me over. I love to fetch down some old sheet music and my vintage Gibson arch top and knock myself out trying to be a ballad singer while giving those beautiful melodies and major ninths and minor sevenths a good butchering.

I could go on and on. I could rave about his teaming up on vocals with Nat King Cole on the 1947 hit "Save The Bones For Henry Jones (Cause Henry Don't Eat No Meat)", or gas about his work with jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Lionel Hampton, or Woody Herman, or tell about all the Academy Awards that were showered upon him, or confess how I bust out in tears every time I hear Ray Charles sing "Come Rain Or Come Shine", but I won't. Instead, I'm going downstairs and crack a beer, then put on a scratchy 33 1/3 album and listen to the Old Master himself. I suggest ya'll do the same.

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