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On Moon River

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Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
Johnny Mercer with Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan, each of whom made recordings of Mercer’s songs; illustrations from The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer

Johnny Mercer, perhaps the finest of American popular song lyricists, searched endlessly for usable melodies, caroming from partner to partner throughout his frenetic professional life. He wrote with so many different composers—Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Henry Mancini, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren, Richard Whiting—that he wound up essentially solitary.

Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1909, and died in Los Angeles in 1976. Those two place names tell a lot about his life. Although he sometimes let years pass without homing back to Georgia, Mercer remained haunted by the landscapes of his youth, to which he returned in lyric after lyric. Mercer is a rarity among American lyricists in creating songs with nature in them, where wind is palpable and rain is wet. On the other coast, Los Angeles was long a site of his popular and financial triumphs. Many of his best-loved lyrics were written expressly for, or were eagerly and indiscriminately gobbled up by, Hollywood: “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Laura,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “I’m Old-Fashioned,” “Moon River,” “Blues in the Night.”

Mercer was born a generation or so later than those outsize musical pioneers Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, who reshaped the American popular song in the early decades of the twentieth century. What this meant for Mercer’s boyhood was a musical milieu richly compounded of traditional and religious song, absorbed through both his black neighbors and an Episcopal youth choir; turn-of-the-century operetta-tinged show tunes; and the earliest modern standards, songs like Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me.”

At the other end of his life, Mercer grew to feel understandably eclipsed, as pop songs yielded to rock songs and dexterity came to be seen as insincerity.* The man who once famously urged his listeners to “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive” and “E-lim-mi-nate the negative” in later years subsided into pessimism and gloom. His fate was one he’d always dreaded: a career commencing in zeal and concluding in acrimony. But what lay in the middle were a number of songs by which twentieth-century America chose to define itself.

To pinpoint the essence of Mercer’s accomplishment as a lyricist is a far harder task than to catalog his shortcomings. Though capable of adroit turns of language, he lacked Cole Porter’s breezy ability to create wittily entertaining lyrics or to concoct a line that might actually make a listener laugh aloud (like “Do do that voodoo that you do so well” or “Lithuanians and Letts do it…. Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”). Mercer could be deeply moving, but he generally lacked Berlin’s ability to write what were known as “sob ballads” (as in “What’ll I do with just a photograph/To tell my troubles to?”). Mercer was a discerning devotee of rhyme, but he couldn’t begin to match the sonic acrobatics of Stephen Sondheim (“But no one dared to query her/superior/exterior”) or Lo-renz Hart (“While you love your lover let/Blue skies be your coverlet”). And Mercer lacked the autodidact’s bookishness of Ira Gershwin or Frank Loesser, who displayed an infectious joy in their dictionaries.

Even so, Mercer may well ultimately have surpassed them all in his mystical ability to take a promising melody from virtually any man (his numerous collaborators were all but universally male) and fit memorable words to it. Knopf has recently issued a handsome and authoritative Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, which holds many surprises, but perhaps none greater than the ten dense pages (more than two hundred names!) that chronicle his collaborators.

Mercer tried and failed to complete an autobiography. He was an uneven prose stylist and evidently an engaging but not sparkling conversationalist. He left behind few quotable remarks. Still, some of his autobiographical fragments and interviews are deeply touching, especially in their nostalgia for a vanished Southern world of leisurely dealings and apprehensions. A remarkably keen eye protected him from a misty sentimentality. Here he is at seventeen, describing the environs of his family’s summer house:

Vernon was a very small, very beautiful, island—not beautiful in the sense of blue transparent waters and pebble-flecked beaches but of sturdy solidity, of dark salt-smelling marsh-grass, narrow, blinding white ribbon-roads of crushed oyster shell, and gray moss hanging low on old oaks.

For me the most affecting moment in Mercer’s prose wasn’t meant for the page. It arose during an interview in New York. Mercer characteristically took a close-mouthed pride in not playing the high-handed artist—he was quick to stress his connections to the humble life. (“I get a lyric idea from anywhere. Maybe from a billboard on the street.”) But here we find him, in a flurry of mixed metaphors, fleetingly giving voice to the mystic within:

…There’s something funny about songs—it’s elusive, it’s like you’re going out looking for the snark or something that you never heard of, the golden fleece. You don’t know where it is, it’s just up there somewhere and you can tune in on it, and you get a little glimmer, and you say, ah—you don’t even know if it’s a word and then it begins to—it’s like you’re tuning in to a musical instrument that’s miles away, and you say, oh, there’s something there, if I just dig hard enough, I know it’ll come.

Successful songwriting is typically seen as a process whereby two minds, overcoming the obstacles between them, unite for the couple of minutes of a song’s unfolding. Something similar is displayed in this quotation. Here, too, we have two minds—in this case, lodged in the same head—struggling to harmonize with each other. Mercer-the-interviewee is recounting a rare sighting of the enigmatic Mercer-the-lyricist. The description is all the more touching, and believable, for its growing inarticulateness as the quarry is neared. If the two Mercers were really to meet, the only adequate response would be to break into song.

Mercer has been the subject of two full-length biographies: Philip Furia’s Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer (2003) and Gene Lees’s Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer (2004). Furia’s book seems to me the more solid and better-researched of the two. Lees has the advantage of being himself a songwriter, whose work has been recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and he can speak illuminatingly about minute matters of consonant and vowel placement in the delivery of a melody. Furia is sometimes clunky; Lees is frequently repetitive.

There may be room for another biography, but only one that would succeed, as neither of these books quite do, in finding the sources of Mercer’s intermittent and outrageous cruelty. He was a mean drunk, capable of telling one hostess who wished to introduce her mother, “I don’t want to meet your fucking mother.” When his wife annoyed him at a party, he poured a drink over her head. He could also be charming and generous and sweet—someone who inspired in his many friends a devotion nowhere more striking than in their willingness to overlook his unpredictable personal attacks. When Mercer, addressing one of his lifelong heroes, publicly accused Irving Berlin of having no talent, Berlin—who could be prickly himself—merely laughed it off.

The volatility of Mercer’s temperament surely owes something to a childhood upended by financial disaster. The Mercers were a well-to-do and well- established family in Georgia—and in America generally. (One ancestor was an aide and confidant of George Washington; family lore had it that he might have eventually become president himself, had he not been killed at the Battle of Princeton.) Yet in 1927, Johnny’s father’s investment house collapsed, leaving many local people bereft. Johnny was pulled out of prep school; college—he was seemingly Princeton-bound—was out of the question.

Johnny responded not bitterly but helpfully; one of the Mercer family keepsakes was “Johnny’s two dollars he gave Pop after the liquidation.” Later in life, it must have been hugely gratifying for Mercer to establish himself not merely as a successful songwriter but as a canny businessman; he was a founder of Capitol Records, and when he sold his share of the company, he made good on all his father’s distant debts—something he had no legal obligation to do. It’s easy to see why his friends indulged and loved him.

Harder to discern is why Mercer’s unparalleled critical success did little to temper his inner tumult. (He won four Academy Awards for best song; at one point he had written five of the top ten songs on the radio; he also had a fine singing voice, and he was the only major songwriter of his era to record numerous hits as a singer.) In Portrait of Johnny, Lees lays much of the responsibility on Mercer’s wife, Ginger, a dancer when he met her and a cast-off lover of Bing Crosby’s. She and Mercer were only twenty-one when they married. In her later life, Lees knew Ginger well, and his unrelenting hostility toward her feels initially like a blemish in his Portrait; eventually, in its tireless rancor, it becomes unwittingly comic. (A typical Lees observation: “I never heard Ginger express ardor for anything or anybody—or even heard of her doing so—with a single exception: a gigolo she met after Johnny’s death.”)

Lees finds “embarrassing” the letters that the virginal Mercer wrote to Ginger during their courtship, and adds that “Johnny’s utter sexual subservience is really quite disturbing.” Lees seems utterly to lose sight of how young and vulnerable the two of them were. Ginger’s father had committed suicide when she was a girl, leaving her impoverished mother to raise three children. Is the inexperienced Johnny’s subservience “disturbing”? More so is Lees’s speculation that the twenty-one-year-old Ginger must have been “an adept sexual technician”—otherwise, why would Mercer have fallen so hard for her?

Anyway, their marriage was often wretched. If a songwriting team of composer and lyricist may resemble a married couple, Mercer in his professional life was a successful polygamist; privately, he remained a miserable monogamist for more than forty years, straying from but ultimately unwilling to sever his marital bonds.

Perhaps they stayed together through the inanition of alcohol; both frequently pursued excess into stupor. Lees and his wife were at a party one night when, as he reports, “on no provocation at all, John turned on Ginger, saying, ‘What are you? Just an ugly old woman who keeps hanging around.’” Maybe they hung on together in order to give loyalty a bad name. Mercer probably felt himself flailing in a sea of booze. This may explain why, in 1941, he took up with Judy Garland, who was still a teenager; she was thirteen years Mercer’s junior, and was then engaged to the first of what would be five husbands.

Mercer was nothing if not a professional—time and again, facing a Hollywood deadline, he got the job done—and the Complete Lyrics is, among other things, a testament to his journeyman’s willingness to fuse a no-more-than-adequate lyric to a no-more-than-adequate melody. This isn’t a book to read straight through. Yet when dipped into judiciously, the Complete Lyrics assembles a portrait of an artist of grace and depth. As a songwriter, Mercer worked in whatever style and genre was requested of him. A good many of his lyrics might well have been created, with equal felicity, by someone else. How far removed is Mercer’s “I’m Building Up to an Awful Letdown” from Berlin’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”?

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Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest
Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, with music by Henry Mancini and lyrics by Johnny Mercer

Yet there’s another group of Mercer songs of such a highly personal character that it’s difficult to imagine their being written by anyone else. He had a gift for producing little sunlit slices of Americana. Mercer’s first big hit, “Lazybones,” is an affectionate rural portrait (“Lazybones, sleepin’ in the shade,/How you ‘spec’ to get your cornmeal made?”), as are “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” (“Cross the river, round the bend,/Howdy, stranger—so long, friend…”), and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening”:

How ‘bout ya, brother jackass?”
Ev’ryone gaily cried,
“You comin’ to the fracas?”
Over his specs he sighed:
“In the cool, cool, cool of the evenin’,
Tell ‘em I’ll be there.
In the cool, cool, cool of the evenin’,
Slickum on my hair….”

Such songs may recall the contented, easily dismissible images of Norman Rockwell—and they share Rockwell’s serene ability to disregard his critical detractors while successfully wooing a larger public. Irving Berlin rightly predicted that “Moon River,” perhaps Mercer’s most famous lyric, would become an American anthem. As the composer of “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” and “Easter Bonnet,” Berlin surely understood better than anyone what it was for a songwriter to aspire to speak not merely for lovers—the wayward passage of romance that is the songwriter’s staple subject—but for an entire nation as its people pursue their humdrum daily activities.

One listening a year to “White Christmas” seems to me plenty. Yet surely our national holidays and fads and pastimes and scenery are enriched for having background words and music attached to them. Although Mercer may have had the waters of his native Georgia in mind when writing “Moon River,” his closing lines (“We’re after the same/Rainbow’s end,/Waitin’ round the bend,/My huckleberry friend,/Moon River/And me”) linked them forever as a tributary to the Mississippi.

While celebrating open-endedness, “Moon River” strikes a melancholy note that was often present in Mercer’s work but that became more prominent and poignant in his later years. The spare lyric to “Days of Wine and Roses” shows a peculiar, haunting wistfulness:

The days of wine and roses
Laugh and run away
Like a child at play
Through the meadowland
Towards a closing door,
A door marked “Nevermore”
That wasn’t there before.

This seems less close to the mood of a typical pop lyric than to Victorian poetry—to the mountain where the village children disappeared in Browning’s “Pied Piper” or the invocatory poem of another lament for lost childhood, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland :

Lay it where childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in a far-off land.

Finer still, it seems to me, is Mercer’s “Skylark,” with melody by Hoagy Carmichael. It’s a song, especially in Helen Forrest’s 1942 recording with Harry James, that lies on my own personal list of the dozen greatest American pop songs. W.H. Auden once remarked that he preferred Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew; I’d add that Mercer’s skylark means more to me than Shelley’s.

The words are ideally suited to the plaintive elongations and tumbling interrogations of Carmichael’s beautiful melody. Would anyone but Johnny Mercer have come up with this pastoral and yet passionate lyric?

Skylark,
Have you anything to say to me?
Won’t you tell me where my love can be?
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone’s waiting to be kissed?…

Oh Skylark,
I don’t know if you can find these things,
But my heart is riding on your wings,
So, if you see them anywhere,
Won’t you lead me there?

The song’s precarious origins only render it the more moving. Carmichael supplied Mercer with the melody. Mercer was characteristically mulling and slow—so slow that Carmichael, who was always working in a frenzy, forgot all about the song. It returned to him as an unexpected boon when, months later, Mercer sang it to him over the phone.

The artists who brought us the golden age of the American popular song—Berlin, Kern, Rodgers, Hart, Porter, and all the rest—typically worked in just this crazed, harum-scarum fashion. Songs were continually being yanked out of one show and jammed into another, reworded, reconceived, forgotten, remembered, thrown into a trunk, pulled out of a trunk, brooded over…. Carmichael and Mercer’s “Skylark” would be a beauty in any case. But the bird’s plumage takes on an additional luster in catching the light of its era’s thrown-together brilliance, its slapdash immortality.

  1. *

    Mercer disliked most rock and roll and was reported to respond with horror (“You call that a lyric?”) to Paul McCartney’s James Bond movie theme “Live and Let Die.” It’s hard not to sympathize with Mercer here; the song contains perhaps the worst single line any great songwriter has ever produced: “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in….”

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