When he was three years old, Mercer began to develop a fascination with music, listening to the family’s cylinder player. By fifteen he had written his first song, titled, “Sister Susie, Strut Your Stuff.” Three years later, his life would change when his father’s real estate business collapsed, leaving the family heavily in debt. Mercer’s father promised to repay the almost one million dollars he owed, a promise that Mercer himself fulfilled. With no money for college, Mercer planned to stow away on a ship headed for New York City. When his father informed the captain, he ended up working for his passage.
In New York, Mercer tried his luck as an actor, auditioning for the Garrick Gaieties. He ended up supplying a song for the revue, “Out of Breath and Scared to Death of You.” Mercer fell heads over heels in love with one of the chorus girls, Elizabeth “Ginger” Meehan. She didn’t encourage the youngster, but didn’t put him off, either. In 1928 and ’29 he appeared in a few Broadway shows, including Hero Worship and House Party, but didn’t attract much notice. He took a day job in a Wall Street brokerage office but continued to place a few songs in Broadway revues, and in 1932 he collaborated with Harold Arlen on “Satan’s Li’l Lamb.” This became Mercer’s first recorded song, committed to posterity by Ethel Merman. Mercer, Arlen, and lyricist E.Y. Harburg became fast friends.
Paul Whiteman held a contest for a new band singer, needing to fill a gap in his roster that was caused by the departure of The Rhythm Boys, Al Rinker, Harry Barris, and Bing Crosby. (Crosby, by the way, was having his own tempestuous affair with Ginger Meehan.) Mercer won the contest and the job and joined Whiteman’s organization.
Mercer met Hoagy Carmichael through Whiteman and the two teamed up to write Mercer’s first hit, “Lazy Bones.” In addition to singing and emceeing with Whiteman, Mercer supplied songs for Whiteman’s Kraft Music Hall radio appearances. Mercer and Whiteman trombonist Jack Teagarden became something of a team on the broadcasts. He also wrote for Benny Goodman and sang with Bob Crosby’s band.
Mercer placed a few songs in Hollywood pictures, beginning when “Lazy Bones” was interpolated into the 1933 film Bombshell. So he decided to try his luck in Hollywood and made a minor splash as a performer in two 1935 films, Old Man Rhythm and To Beat the Band, both of which also featured his lyrics. He acquitted himself gracefully, but that was the end of his acting career. Mercer continued working for RKO until 1940, with occasional loanouts to other studios. On a trip back to Georgia, Mercer and Ginger, now his wife, passed through Texas and had their first look at a mechanical bull. It inspired the lyric to “I’m an Old Cowhand,” which became a huge hit for Bing Crosby in the 1936 film, Rhythm on the Range. In 1938, Mercer recorded duets with Bing Crosby for Decca Records.
While working on the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel, Mercer reacquainted himself with Benny Goodman, and in 1939 he became a regular on Goodman’s Camel Caravan radio show. Mercer had his own radio show, The Johnny Mercer Chesterfield Music Shop for 26 weeks in 1944. He made another stab at Broadway with the show Walk with Music (1940), collaborating with Hoagy Carmichael, but despite a fine score, the show was not a success.
On April 8, 1942, Mercer, technician/businessman Glenn Wallichs, and songwriter/producer B.G. De Sylva established a company they intended to call Liberty Records--but the name was already in use. Ginger Mercer supplied a substitute: Capitol Records. There were a few hurdles to overcome for the fledgling company. Shellac was in short supply during the war years, but Wallichs discovered a young bandleader whose father had a large stash of it. The bandleader was signed to Capitol where he recorded four sides, and Capitol had its shellac. Wallichs also advertised in local newspapers for people to “trade unwanted records for new,” and collected over twenty-thousand pounds of shellac. Capitol’s next crisis had a salutary ending. The musicians went on strike on August 1, 1942. Capitol and Decca resolved their differences in November 1943, but Columbia and RCA held out for another year, giving Capitol a jump on the larger labels.
Mercer’s first act at Capitol was to sign Paul Whiteman, and he was featured on the label’s first release, which included “I Found a New Baby” and “The General Jumped at Dawn.” Mercer also paid back Martha Tilton by signing her to the new label, and he himself recorded numerous hits. By 1946, Capitol could boast one sixth of the total record sales in the United States.
In 1947, Mercer resigned as president of the Capitol, and in 1955, he sold his interest to EMI, Ltd. for $8.5 million. He insisted that the company’s success was dependent on full-time stewardship and he didn’t find it fun anymore. Mercer used part of the money to finish paying off his father’s debts.
Mercer continued writing pop tunes and songs for films, publishing more than 250 songs in the 1940s, more than sixty of them bona fide hits. His efforts as a vocalist paid off as well, and he racked up twenty-seven hit records..
Mercer’s Hollywood assignments included You’ll Find Out (1940); Second Chorus and Blues in the Night both in 1941; 1942’s The Fleet’s In, You Were Never Lovelier, and Star Spangled Rhythm; The Sky’s the Limit (1943); Here Come the Waves (1944); 1945’s Out of This World; The Harvey Girls in 1946; The Belle of New York in 1952; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954); and Daddy Long Legs (1955). He also wrote for Broadway but didn’t find much success there. St. Louis Woman (1946), written with Harold Arlen, contained one of Broadway’s finest scores but the libretto brought the production down. In 1949, Mercer and Robert Emmett Dolan wrote the lighthearted Texas, Li’l Darlin’ ,which did enjoy a respectable run. Top Banana (1951) starred Phil Silvers, and this time Mercer wrote the songs himself. Mercer’s biggest Broadway success was Li’l Abner (1956), which he wrote with Gene de Paul. Mercer and Arlen teamed up for the unfortunate failure Saratoga (1959), again with an under-appreciated score. His last Broadway show was the Bert Lahr vehicle Foxy, with music by Robert Emmett Dolan. The show closed prematurely in 1964. Mercer’s last stage score was for the London production of Good Companions (1974), for which Andre Previn wrote the music. Mercer’s lyrics revealed an artist still at the top of his form. Though he claimed never to have had a Broadway hit, it isn’t quite true, and his songs remain top-notch musical theatre works.
With each succeeding decade Mercer’s output fell, mirroring that of other masters of the American popular song whose opportunities waned as rock–and-roll captured the public’s imagination. Johnny Mercer died on June 26, 1976. (KB)
“Johnny Mercer is the greatest of the folk poets. I think it has something to do with him being from the south. He has the descriptive flair of a Mark Twain and the melodies of Stephen Foster.”E.Y. Harburg
Johnny Mercer’s mother commented on his early love for music: “He disappeared one morning [when he was six] and was gone all day. I looked all over town for him. When he finally got home late in the evening, I found out that he had followed the town band, the Irish Jasper Greens, out to a picnic and stayed with them all day. He just couldn’t resist the music.”Johnny Mercer’s mother
"Our working habits were strange. After we got a script and the posts for the songs were blocked out, we’d get together for an hour or so every day. While Johnny made himself comfortable on the couch, I’d play the tunes for him. He has a wonderfully retentive memory. After I would finish playing the songs, he’d just go away without a comment. I wouldn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks, then he’d come around with the completed lyric."Harold Arlen
“I’ve often had a lot of good lyrics loused up by writing them first because the guy doesn’t understand the meter that I want. I’d rather catch the mood of his tune.”Johnny Mercer
"When John drank he was a mess. The best way to handle it was just to shun John when he was drinking. He was completely two different people when he was sober and when he was drinking. After chewing someone out something terrible the next morning he would send roses by way of apologizing. He never got out of line with me until one night he started and I could see the direction it was going and I just stopped him and said, 'John I don’t want any of your roses tomorrow morning.' And he stopped. The fact is, he could do it all, write the most tender love lyrics and come out with ‘Ac-Cen-Chu-Ate the Positive’ and 'Blues in the Night,' which is Americana. I don’t know anybody who was any better."Margaret Whiting
“I saw and heard you on the Steve Allen show last night. Well first I want to tell you I am an old timer, and I’ve seen them all. Ophays, I mean. You are in my estimate the greatest Rhythm Singer of all Ophays I’ve ever heard.”Eubie Blake in a letter to Mercer
"I’m crazy about songwriters.… I can remember being terribly jealous of a few writers when I was a young man, but after I got a few hits of my own, I didn’t mind them at all. I’ve never been jealous since, of any writer. I love to hear a good song, no matter where it comes from."Johnny Mercer in the ASCAP magazine
“I worshipped him because I was learning about writing. He really helped me a lot. There was real goodness in the man. We all worshipped him. He was, to me, the hippest, coolest person that I ever met.”Carl Sigman
“I like a guy who writes his way and his way is so high that it starts where everyone else leaves off.”Johnny Mercer