The old black magic: On Johnny Mercer

“Glow little glow-worm, fly of fire, glow like an incandescent wire, glow for the female of the species, turn on the AC and the DC.”

In 2016, Marvin Gaye and Chip Taylor, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an institution founded by Johnny Mercer in 1969. A soul singer and a folk singer: the choice could not have symbolized Mercer’s life, work and legacy better.

1962, The Oscars. Crooner Andy Williams sings “Moon River,” probably Mercer’s best-known song lyric from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.The famous line about the huckleberry friend clearly points to Mercer’s Savannah, Georgia, origins with its allusion to the Southern icon Huckleberry Finn. He was born into a stone-rich family, then impoverished in the Great Depression, growing up in a world where black and white music coexisted without prejudice. “Gypsy airs on accordion or zither, harmonica blues, Broadway gems, the yodels of Jimmie Rodgers, cowboy songs from the prairie, all reached my ears and touched my heart,” Mercer himself described it.

John Herndon Mercer would have turned 100 years old on November 18, 2009. He is one of the most successful songwriters of the 20th century. A few records? His thousand-plus songs earned him 18 Oscar nominations, the first while still under Roosevelt, the last five presidents later under Nixon. He won the Oscar four times and a Grammy for Song of the Year twice, along with Henry Mancini. As a performer, he had four number one hits; as a songwriter, recordings of his songs took him into the charts hundreds of times. In 1943, he once had five songs in the Top 10 at the same time. There is probably no great singer between Bing Crosby and Morrissey, Ella Fitzgerald and Robbie Williams, who did not have a Mercer song in his repertoire, Jose Carreras and R.E.M. included. But one in particular owes him world successes: “Jeepers Creepers,” “One For My Baby,” “Blues In The Night,” “Fools Rush In,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Goody Goody,” “The Days Of Wine And Roses,” “The Summer Wind” – would Frank Sinatra even be imaginable without Johnny Mercer?

“Like painted kites, the days and nights, went drifting by.”

But let’s start from the beginning. The early years of the last century provided an inspiring environment for a budding songwriter. Music was not heard much at home, but mostly made at home, in the Victorian drawing room. Furniture stores sold the first commercial records for the just-invented luxury interior called the gramophone, but shellacs were not standardized to 78 revolutions per minute until 1929, and the vinyl LP was not even introduced until 1948. Songs were published as sheet music at the time, and demand in music stores decided on chart success before sales of records or airplay on the radio determined hit or flop. The commercial target audience was a white upper class who, in an era before television, in the evenings sang to the piano with their families. Their tastes were strongly regional, as no national media yet helped spread a standard sound. In deep southern Georgia, Mercer grew up listening to the early blues of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Much later, he would jibe at the folk movement of the ’60s and its heroes: If you idolize Woody Guthrie and make a saint out of Hank Williams, you catch a Tartar. “For I remember where they ‘borrowed’ their inspirations from.”

In Mercer’s year of birth, the “Copyright Act” put the economic exploitation of a song on a more attractive footing by doubling the protection that had applied since 1790 from 28 to 56 years. In 1914, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded, based on the European model. In 1920, the first radio station went on the air in the U.S., and in 1928, the first talkie The Jazz Singer paved the way for all the musicals that were to follow. With radio, cinema and later TV, the individual performance became more important than the original scores. Audience attention turned from composers to bandleaders, from lyricists to singers. The great era of Benny Goodmans and Frank Sinatras began. If one of them recognized a song as worthy of recording, there was money to be made nationwide.

“But you can’t buy a farm until you’re up in the chips, so the band plays the polka while she strips.”

Jazz was the word of the day. Until the middle of the 19th century, minstrel shows were still the most popular form of out-of-home entertainment in the young USA. Blackfaced white men performed folkloric songs. The best-known songwriter of his time was Stephen Foster. At the turn of the century, the revue-like vaudeville shows that spilled over the ocean from Paris reached their peak with superstar Al Jolson. With gramophone, radio, cinema, and new exploitation rights, the age of Tin Pan Alley began. This street in Manhattan was home to the music publishers in whose offices the evergreens of the Great American Songbook saw the light of day. George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin provided the soundtrack to the Roaring Twenties, Black Friday, and the U.S. entry into two world wars. Social commentary, political satire, and patriotic pathos can be found in abundance on any CD compilation from this productive era.

The most successful bandleader in the 20s was Paul Whiteman. With him, Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden became stars. His million-dollar hit “Whispering” and his first performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” made him so popular that during his tours local radio stations announced talent contests of the AGT type: Who wants to sing with Whiteman? Mercer applied, won the elimination in New York and was hired by Whiteman as a singer in the early 1930s. The boy from the provinces, who had struggled along as an actor, now moved on from Broadway to California with an unerring sense of where it’s at.

In Hollywood, he enjoyed further success as a singer and songwriter, made contacts in the local music scene, got married, began a lifelong affair with Judy Garland, and started drinking. His biography, like that of many contemporaries, is full of stories about alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, homosexuality, depression. As a descendant of Irish ancestry, however, he was spared the Mafia connections that discredited many of the Italian crooners. Throughout his life, Mercer prided himself on being a serious businessman. And he knew something about business; the hard schooling as an errand boy in his father’s bankrupt company taught him more than any university could have. His most successful business venture: Mercer founded Capitol Records, the American record company that would go on to become one of the market leaders in the industry, working with artists like Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. But he was also the founder of Cowboy Records, the label that released Bill Haley’s first single. In doing so, he dug his own grave. Because since then, the industry has marketed its products primarily to young people. Mercer’s art was relegated to the radio format “Contemporary Adult” from Elvis on. Rock’n’roll was not Mercer’s cup of tea.

“You’d never know it / But buddy I’m a kind of poet / And I’ve got a lot of things I want to say / We’re drinking my friend / To the end of a brief episode / So make it one for my baby / And one more for the road.”

Johnny Mercer was a popular singer, radio host, a versatile businessman and representative of his era, but above all he had the knack of songwriting. He was a singer-songwriter and a songwriter’s songwriter (like later Townes Van Zandt, with whom he has much in common) coming from a rich Southern family, a biography filled with bitter agony, alcohol addiction, a penchant for train & pain songs, and a distinctly black blues feeling. A fitting anecdote describes how he – still in the imageless radio era – was voted the most popular “colored singer” in Chicago, of all places. This deep rootedness in Americana is also his key unique selling point over his contemporaries. Today, Mercer is recognized among Broadway and Hollywood writers as the – sole – missing link between Stephen Foster and Bob Dylan.

On his 100th birthday, Knopf Verlag presented Mercer with a complete edition of his works, more than 1,200 song lyrics. The songs can be roughly divided into three categories: First the Novelties, particularly witty lyrics, punch line at the end, puns, bewildering rhymes, blatant parodies, meant to make the listener laugh. Second there are the melancholy male monologues, in which a deep love or deeper meaning is mourned. Third there are a variety of lyrics that build on exactly one good idea and execute it economically. In many bad cases, these songs are now forgotten. In the best cases, Mercer succeeds in creating “ever-blues” that capture moods in just a few words, timelessly, impressively, emotions that can still be felt today.

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

Read more essays on Americana songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie, John Prine and more in this book: Martin Wimmer – A Haven For Songs

Listen to Johnny Mercer’s songs here:

Johnny Mercer Country, Folk & Blues – The Spotify Playlist