His name is Johnny Mercer, and he was, to put it mildly, one of the most important figures in popular music in the 20th century. How? Let me count the ways:
Lyricist: Mercer wrote more than 1,100 songs, collaborating with everyone from Harold Arlen to Richard Whiting (and perhaps he did team up with someone whose last name ended in “Z”!). Many of them were hits, and more than a few have become “standards” – “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Hooray For Hollywood,” “And The Angels Sing,” “Blues In The Night,” “Laura.”
Vocalist: Mercer was a pretty solid singer in his own right, with an easy swing, a delightful sense of humor and a great feel for the blues. He had a number of hits, and not just with his own material, either. His duet partners ranged from Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey in the ‘30s to Bobby Darin in the ‘60s.
Executive: Mercer was one of the driving forces behind Capitol, the first notable record label based on the West Coast. It developed a reputation for musical quality during the 1940s, signing everyone from Nat Cole to Les Paul to Richard Whiting’s daughter Margaret. That was probably one reason Frank Sinatra signed with the label in 1953 after his falling-out with Columbia…and most of you know the rest. (Mercer sold his stock to EMI after it bought the label in 1955.)
You can tell I’m a Johnny Mercer fan, can’t you?
Well, you can join the fun in honoring Savannah’s most famous son on Wednesday. Turner Classic Movies has been running movies with Mercer music the past two Wednesday nights, and on the 18th they will be running said films all day long (11 of ‘em) – plus replaying a fascinating documentary on the man (produced by Clint Eastwood). Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):
6 a.m. – “You’ll Find Out” (1940). Kay Kyser and band in a haunted house…with comic turns from Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.
8 a.m. – “Navy Blues” (1941). Ann Sheridan, Martha Raye, Jack Oakie and Jack Haley in pre-Pearl Harbor Honolulu.
10 a.m. – “Top Banana” (1954). Phil Silvers (a year before Sgt. Bilko) and Rose Marie (post-Baby Rose, pre-“The Dick Van Dyke Show”) star in this backstager.
noon -- “You Can’t Run Away From It” (1956). Take the plot of “It Happened One Night,” add Mercer songs 22 years after the original, and...this remake stars June Allyson (who would take the Carole Lombard role in a “My Man Godfrey” remake a year later) and Jack Lemmon.
2 p.m. – “Autumn Leaves” (1956). Joan Crawford stars in this drama with a young Lorne Greene.
4 p.m. – “The Americanization Of Emily” (1964). Excellent World War II film, with superb chemistry between Julie Andrews and James Garner (he deems this the favorite of his movies). The Mercer song is, of course, “Emily.”
6 p.m. – “Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me” (2009). Lots of clips of Mercer; I particularly liked his duet with Nat Cole on “Save The Bones For Henry Jones.” You'll come across plenty of tunes you know, but didn't realize Mercer had written.
8 p.m. – ”The Harvey Girls” (1946). Judy Garland sparkles in this musical about old-time railroad hospitality, featuring “On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe.” All aboard!
10 p.m. – “Here Comes The Groom” (1951). Big Crosby and Jane Wyman stars in this comedy, in which Mercer won an Oscar for “In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening.”
midnight – “Breakfaast At Tiffany’s” (1961). One of Audrey Hepburn’s most memorable films, and one of Mercer’s most famous songs, ”Moon River.” There’s such a lot of world to see…
2 a.m. – “Days Of Wine And Roses” (1962). Jack Lemon and Lee Remick battle alcoholism; both this and “Tiffany’s” were directed by Blake Edwards.
4 a.m. – “Going Places” (1938). Don’t know much about this one, other than it has Dick Powell, Anita Louise and an early Warners performance from Ronald Reagan.
But there’s even more of Mercer to savor. WAMU-FM in Washington has an outstanding program, “Hot Jazz Saturday Night,” and last week it played a three-hour tribute to Mercer, focusing on his early compositions up to about 1941 or so. (I'm sure Lombard liked many of these tunes, though I don't know if she ever met Mercer.)
There were all sorts of fine interpretations of Mercer music, including Fred Astaire’s “I’m Building Up To An Awful Letdown” (he wrote the music, Mercer the lyrics) and Mercer dueting with Ginger Rogers on “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” (proof that Ginger could sing in languages other than pig Latin; she had a nice vocal style, somewhat similar to Connie Boswell, and it’s unfortunate she didn’t record more).
Finally, you’ll hear some radio broadcasts featuring Mercer, notably with Benny Goodman’s “Camel Caravan” in 1939. This includes the debut of “And The Angels Sing,” done by Martha Tilton, and one of Johnny’s “newsy bluesies,” brief musical snippets based on happenings in the news -- he’d read the papers the day of the show and come up with lyrics.
Sorry you missed it? Well, if you hurry, you won’t. WAMU has put the show up online (as it does for all “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” shows) and it should be up until Sunday or so. To check it out, go to http://wamu.org/programs/hjsn/ -- but don’t be “lazybones” about it.
Celebrate the centennial of a man who indeed was “too marvelous for words.” (And marvelous with them, too!)
We'll leave you with the debut of one of Mercer's most famous songs, "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)." It's become so identified with Frank Sinatra, due largely to his brilliant 1958 ballad version, that relatively few remember it was introduced by Fred Astaire and sung in a much more jaunty manner. Here it is, from the relatively obscure 1943 film "The Sky's The Limit," followed by a few minutes from the movie co-starring Joan Leslie: