Here’s this week’s pop culture quiz: What American songwriter with 18 Oscar nominations to his credit was also a singer who enjoyed 13 Top-10 hits and, by the way, also founded a major record company?
The answer could only be Johnny Mercer, who gave us standards such as “Moon River,” “Old Black Magic,” Blues in the Night,” “Satin Doll” and “Autumn Leaves,” eventually publishing some 1,500 songs, for which he wrote either music or lyrics or both, while, as a singer, in his easy-going Southern style, racking up big record sales for titles like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “One for My Baby.” And for Capitol, the record company he co-founded in 1942, Mercer served initially as the A&R guy, which meant he picked the songs and the artists and in this case brought both Nat “King” Cole and Peggy Lee to the label.
In recognition of Mercer’s 100th birthday, Wednesday, Turner Classic Movies will present a 24-hour marathon of films for which Mercer contributed songs, and all this month is running a new documentary, “Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me.”
Even more comprehensive, on the local scene, will be Les Block’s radio tribute to Mercer, to be broadcast in two parts on KFAI, 90.3 FM in Minneapolis, and 106.7 FM St. Paul on Wednesdays, this week and next, 6 to 9 a.m. (The program will also be streamed live on the Internet and subsequently available on the station’s archives at www.kfai.org/rockininrhythm.) A retired academic and a busy pianist around town with considerable radio experience, Block mixes rare recordings of Mercer songs with interviews he has conducted the past few months with the likes of Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Andy Williams, Barry Manilow and Margaret Whiting, all of whom share their memories of Mercer. Along with these come insights from Mercer biographer Phil Furia and music historian Robert Kimball, editor of the recently published “Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer.”
Mercer, who was born in Savannah, Ga. (and died in Hollywood in 1976), didn’t have the formal education that lyricists like Ira Gershwin and Alan J. Lerner had because by the time he was of college age, his father, an attorney, had gone broke.
“But Mercer was an avid reader, and he loved poetry,” Block said. “That’s one of the things that Alec Wilder notes about him in his book ‘American Popular Song.’ He saw Mercer as a true American poet, writing in the vernacular but in a very sophisticated way. He created phrases that became part of the language, like ‘out of this world,’ which was the title of a song he wrote with Harold Arlen.”
In her interview, Margaret Whiting tells Block of her lifelong friendship with Mercer and how she was his barometer on whether a song would work or not. When Mercer and Henry Mancini played “Moon River” for her, she didn‘t like the phrase, “my huckleberry friend.” Mercer told her, “Let me think about it. I’ll get back to you.” He kept the words in, and they became not only the song’s key phrase but one of Mercer’s most characteristic verbal turns.
Bennett shares the story of “I’ll Be Around,” a tale that shows Mercer’s generosity. Around 1957, reading that Ava Gardner had left Frank Sinatra, Sadie Vimmerstedt, a grandmother in Youngstown, Ohio, wrote a song title, “When Somebody Breaks Your Heart,” and added some lyrics, including the words “I want to be around to pick up the pieces,” all of which she mailed to “Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, New York, N.Y.” A couple of years later, Mercer put the lyric together and got in touch with Sadie, and soon Bennett recorded the song, by then titled “I’ll Be Around.”
“Mercer and Sadie began writing to each other,” said Block.
“He thought she was such a sweet old lady that he changed their contract, giving her 50 percent of the royalty, instead of 10, and making her co-author. She eventually became a celebrity in Youngstown and even went on ‘The Today Show.’ She wrote to Mercer, ‘I’m so busy I may have to leave show business.’ “