On Moon River

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”…

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