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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted: October 23, 2009 01:42 PM

Johnny Mercer, Lyricist-Composer-Singer, at 100

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John Herndon Mercer -- the songwriter-singer and Capitol Records founder popularly known as Johnny Mercer -- was born November 18, 1909. So it's one hundred years since he arrived to write lyrics, music or both to some of the most famous, most lucrative songs of the twentieth century. The winner of four Oscars -- his lyrics for "On the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," "Moon River," "The Days of Wine and Roses" -- he could be considered the best lyricist of the last five-score years.

Anyone making that argument to me wouldn't meet with much resistance. Particularly considering that as of this moment, whoever held that view could wave as substantiating evidence the just-published -- and appropriately-timed -- Robert Kimball-Barry Day-Miles Kreuger-Eric Davis compilation, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (Alfred A. Knopf, $65). The title states that everything the master wordsmith penned has been included between hard covers. It's a hopeful avowal, though -- and the compilers admit it -- when referring to some 230 collaborators they identified for Mercer during the five years it took to, uh, complete their task.

Along with verbatim versions of movie production numbers like the lengthy "Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe" and "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" sequences -- the former from Judy Garland's Harvey Girls extravaganza, the latter kid-gloved by Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman in Here Comes the Groom -- Kimball, Day, Kreuger and Davis note myriad titles for which they specify "music by Mercer does not survive" or "lyric missing. composer unknown."

What does survive and thrive, as a thumbing of these 1,200-plus titles -- at least 100, maybe 200 of which start tunes swirling in the thumber's head -- confirms that, among other accomplishments, Mercer is one of the most evocative writers about the American South who's ever put pen to paper. While William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote and others were garnering praise for their depictions of life below the Mason-Dixon line, Mercer was adding musical and lyrical flourishes. Peruse the words to "Blues in the Night" -- with its references to Natchez and Mobile, Memphis and St. Joe -- and tell me, as the notes saxophone in your brain, that the haunted ditty (Harold Arlen's melody) isn't a towering portrait of mid-twentieth-century Southern angst and disillusionment.

There are reasons for this, and one is manifested in a Mercer quote the book's purveyors collect along with (most of) his indelible lyrics. The man, who claimed his "Autumn Leaves" translation was his biggest copyright, said, "Just don't write anything below your intelligence and let the public catch up with you. That way, if you don't compromise...you'll never have anything to be ashamed of later. I've been compromising all my life. I love to have a big hit song, and as long as it seems genuine and honest to me, I'm no snob about its literary quality. Fine, if it has it, but I like 'Jeepers Creepers' just as well as 'Skylark.'"

So yes, the book provides evidence that Mercer, known to his buddies as a heavy and abusive drinker, supplied many cliché lyrics for the Hollywood films to which he was attached -- see something like "I Promise You" from the 1944 Here Come the Waves. Yet, that score also includes the infectiously sly "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" (Arlen, again) which could serve as a Mercer motto. Mercer also translated "Le Chevalier de Paris (Les Pommiers Doux)" as the fathomlessly sophisticated "When the World Was Young" -- than which Cole Porter has never done better.

Enjoying a book such as this -- or any of the Kimball collections -- is akin to turning on an internal iPod. But since it doesn't come with its own CD, the reader can supplement the activity by going to soundtracks and original cast recordings or, if in a metropolis like New York City, dropping by boites where singers are currently feting Mercer (Marilyn Maye in two parts already this year, Andrea Marcovicci and Mary Cleere Haran offering dueling Mercer tributes in November, Kimball himself plugging the book at the 92nd Street Y -- also in November).

There's another highly entertaining way: searching Mercer songs on YouTube. You find gems like a "Hooray for Hollywood" clip from 1937's Hollywood Hotel or Doris Day singing her definitive version of the song. You find Capitol recording artist Mercer singing "Jamboree Jones" and Judy Garland swinging the number in a never-aired excerpt from her 60's television series. You find Fred Astaire singing, dancing and smashing glasses through "One for My Baby" from 1943's The Sky's the Limit. You find Peggy Lee's moving work on "When the World Was Young," with several lyrics surprisingly not in the Kimball et al tome.

Always remember while reading and viewing that Mercer, who died on June 25, 1976, wrote "That Old Black Magic" and infused it -- and everything else he copiously imagined -- with that old knack magic.