I am a HUGE fan of the Great American Songbook, and especially a fan of certain of some of its more acclaimed practitioners, one such being John Herndon Mercer.
Mercer contributed to the creation of more than 1500 songs, mostly as a lyricist, but also as composer for a handful. He wrote with most of the top songwriters of his era: Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, Richard Whiting, Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Mancini. And he wrote all types of songs: ballads (“Laura”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, “Moon River”, “I Remember You”), satire (“Hooray for Hollywood:, “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands”), fun songs (“Jeepers Creepers”, “Glow Worm”, “Accentuate the Positive”) and perhaps the greatest torch song of all time: “One for My Baby”. He was nominated for 19 Academy Awards and won 4. In addition to writing he was a creditable and popular performer and also a record company executive as a co-founder of Capitol Records.
At a time when American popular music creation was heavily influenced by Tin Pan Alley and The New York Jewish immigrant experience, Johnny brought the perspective of a southerner with a direct experience of the African American culture that brought so much to the jazz world. Johnny had a privileged youth in Savannah, GA (although his father suffered financial reversals in the 20s and the ignominy of bankruptcy: some 30 years later Johnny personally paid off each and every one of his father’s bankruptcy debts) and grew up something of a song savant, remembering the tunes and lyrics of almost everything he heard. Johnny went to New York with a local theater group when he was about 19. He stayed in NYC hoping to become an actor but fate stepped in and soon Johnny was writing song lyrics. The rest being history.
Georgia State University in Atlanta has a large collection of Johnny’s papers. I spent half-a-day both Monday and Tuesday tiptoeing through the papers, just for the sake of curiosity. Thanks to Kevin and Peter for hooking me up with boxes and boxes.
There are so many great stories about Johnny and I discovered a new one to me by rummaging through the archives. Johnny wrote a song with Arthur Schertzinger called “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry”. In the file were 2 interesting things: a telegram from Cole Porter telling Johnny how much he liked the song, and a letter from Arthur Murray himself, asking Johnny to write a version of the lyrics for a male singer, since 80% of his dance students are male.
Life was different then. Telegrams? Personal letters?