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)
Jerome Kern, for all his success and experience, could still be insecure about his work. He had the teenage Margaret Whiting sing this song with a Johnny Mercer lyric for him at his home in Beverly Hills. Cowed by the great man’s talents, Whiting was speechless when she finished. Kern responded, “I guess you like it, even though you don’t say so. If you didn’t like it, you would not have been able to sing it so well.”Dearly Beloved
Johnny Mercer: "My wife and I went to see a movie one night at the Graumann’s Chinese and Henry Fonda played a farm boy in it. And you know how he is, he’s got that wonderful kind of slow delivery, genuine, real, homespun. And in the movie he saw something, something impressed him, and he said, 'Jeepers creepers,' and that just rang a little bell in my head, and I wrote it down when I got out of the movie. ‘Cause you know, 'jeepers creepers' in America in those days was kind of a polite way, I think, of saying 'Jesus Christ.'”Jeepers Creepers
“Johnny Mercer is a very clever fellow. We wrote some nice songs like ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’–-he gave me that title. I wrote that from the title. And he wrote 'Jeepers Creepers' to the music."You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby
Harry Warren: "I didn’t know where to put that title in the melody. I was trying all ways of starting off with the line. Then I finally got it the other way, with the title at the end, which worked out better."On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe
Arlen was noodling around on the piano looking for a tune when a phrase caught Johnny Mercer’s ear. Mercer exclaimed, “I’m gonna love you like nobody loved you…” Arlen jokingly replied, “Come hell or high water.” The proverbial light bulb went off over Mercer’s head and he answered, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that? ‘Come rain or come shine.’” The song was finished before the night was over.Come Rain or Come Shine
Johnny Mercer: "It’s one of Harold’s nicest tunes. It’s kind of a poor lyric, I think. Build on the thing about ‘the drink’s on me.’ I think it’s too flip for that melody. I think it should be nicer. I was in a hurry. I remember the director didn’t like it. I could have improved it, too. I really could. I wish I had. But, you know, we had a lot of songs to get out in a short amount of time, and we had another picture to do."This Time the Dream's on Me
Johnny Mercer to the BBC: When I was working with Benny Goodman back in ’39, I had a publicity guy who told me he had been to hear Father Divine, and that was the subject of his sermon, “Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Well, that amused me so, and it sounds so Southern and so funny that I wrote it down on a piece of paper. And this was, what, five years later? And Harold Arlen and I were riding home from the studio after a conference about getting a song for the sailors. … And Harold was singing me this little tune he had sung me before. Now, that’s a strange thing about your subconscious, because here’s a song that’s kind of lying dormant in my subconscious for five years, and the minute he sang that tune, it jumped into my mind as if it dialed a phone number. Because it doesn’t really fit. The accent is all different. I just think there’s some kind of fate connected with it.Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive
Harold Arlen: "The words sustain your interest, make sense, contain memorable phrases and tell a story. Without the lyric, the song would be just another song."That Old Black Magic
Johnny Mercer meant his 1942 lyric, set to Harold Arlen’s tune, to refer specifically to Judy Garland, with whom he was having an affair. The song consists of the famous line: “I should stay away, but what can I do?”That Old Black Magic
Harold Arlen called this song one of his “tapeworms,” because the melody sort of wanders along. Arlen credited Mercer with much of the success of the song: “[It’s] a wandering song. Johnny took it and wrote it exactly the way it fell. Not only is it long—forty-eight bars—but it also changes key. Johnny made it work.”One for My Baby
Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael won $1,250 each from ASCAP for the song. Red Norvo recalled, “Mildred [Bailey] and I were living in Queens at the time. Johnny phoned me on a Friday. He said he’d just got this check from ASCAP and couldn’t cash it. We told him to come out to our apartment. When he got there, Mildred told him to call Ginger and tell her to take a cab. She said we’d pay for it. Ginger came and we spent the weekend with them and on Monday morning, Mildred went to her bank and got the check cashed for him.”Lazybones
Hoagy Carmichael: "[Johnny Mercer] walked in one day and I was sitting in the chair, the door was open, summertime. He knocked, and I said, “Come in!” And I’m sitting in the chair, half-dozing. This is the absolute truth. I said, “What’s on your mind?” He said, “Well, I thought we might try to write a song.” I said, “Have you got any idea?” He said, “I thought I’d like to write a song called ‘Lazy Bones.’ What do you think of that title?” I said, “With this kind of summer we’re having in New York, and what with the Depression, and nobody working, it sounds mightly logical.”Lazybones
Johnny Mercer: "I recall one time when my wife, Ginger, was away on a trip and I naturally desired to write to her. Taking pen in hand, ol’ massa Mercer wrote a long letter dealing with just the sort of trivia that occurs to one lonely for another. There it was, completed. I’d written many a love song, and I read it over. I’d left out the real reason I started the letter. So below the great message, I scrawled ‘P.S. I Love You.’ Immediately, the thought of that phrase as a song title struck me and I dashed off what later, thanks to forgetful me and lucky fate, became a hit tune."P.S. I Love You
This song was a favorite with B.G. De Sylva, so he hired Mercer to work at Paramount and later, De Sylva, Glen Wallichs, and Mercer started Capitol Records.Bob White (Watcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)
The tune was adapted from Rube Bloom’s instrumental, “Shangri-La.” The title came from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism: Part II.Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)
The song “Laura,” so beautiful that both Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wished they’d written it, originally had a lyric by Irving Caesar. If David Raksin hadn’t adamantly rejected Caesar’s original lyric, Johnny Mercer’s life might have been radically different.
Johnny Mercer: If a fellow plays me a melody that sounds like something, well, I try and fit the words to the sound of the melody. It has a mood, and if I can capture that mood, that’s the way we go about it. Laura was that kind of picture. It was predesigned, because Laura was a mystery. So I had to write “Laura” with kind of a misterioso theme. That’s hard, because there are so few notes. And because the intervals are tough, the key changes are strange. And at the time it came out, it was most strange. But since it has become so popular, it’s easier now. That kind of song is always difficult because you have to write a lyric that’s going to be a hit, and you don’t have many notes to work with.Laura
Hoagy Carmichael: As I was driving down the highway, coming into Palm Springs, to join Johnny [Mercer] to write this score, I happened to think of an old old joke, not a very funny joke. But it was about a jackass. And it seemed that the king of the jungle, the lion, sent an emissary to the jackass to say, “Jackass, are you coming to the king’s big party?” And the jackass, sitting with a pipe in his mouth and his legs crossed, said, “Tell the king in the cool, cool, cool of the evening, I’ll be there.” Well, I told this joke to Johnny Mercer and in two days we had the song.In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening
Johnny Mercer: "A lady sent me this title, she worked at a cosmetic counter in Youngstown, Ohio. I told her we had a record by Tony Bennett and she was thrilled. She said, 'You’ve changed my life, Mr. Mercer. People are coming in the store and asking for my autograph. Next week I have to go on the radio in Cleveland.' Two weeks later she said, 'I’m going to Cincinnati, I’m getting to be so famous.' Finally, she came to New York and she was on To Tell the Truth and then she went to Europe. She said, 'I’m tired, I’m going to get out of show business.'"I Wanna Be Around
A preview of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in San Francisco didn’t go so well. At the meeting afterward, producer Marty Rakin said, “I don’t know what you guys are gonna do but I’ll tell you one thing, that damn song can go.”Moon River
Johnny Mercer: "I completed it in nine minutes. I had it all in my mind and couldn’t get the words down fast enough. Gene Lees did an article about me in a magazine. He noticed that that song was written with only two sentences. Well, that’s true. But I didn’t do it on purpose. I mean, it wasn’t like a crossword puzzle or anything. I just followed where the melody went. As a matter of fact, I don’t feel too responsible about this song, although it’s one of my very favorites. Because Ernest Dowson wrote, 'They are not long, the days of wine and roses.' And that’s where the picture title comes from, and the television show, so I don’t take too much credit for that."The Days of Wine and Roses
“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