I missed the anniversary of the birth of Johnny Mercer last week, but we’re still in the right month and it’s not too late to take note. Among the 1,000 songs for which Mercer is known to have written the lyrics are “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” “Accentuate the Positive,” “P.S. I Love You” (not the Beatles song), “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Blues In the Night,” “Moon River,” “I Thought About You,” “I Remember You,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “This Time the Dream’s On Me,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “Satin Doll.” He was an utterly brilliant lyricist.
I owe the estimation of the number of Mercer songs to biographer Philip Furia in Skylark. Furia’s calculation of the hit songs for which Mercer wrote the lyrics is also striking. Between the mid-’30s and the mid-50s, he had at least one or more songs in the pop music top 10 for 221 weeks. Yet by far the most striking aspect of Mercer’s work is its consummate artistry.
His “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)” surely stands as one of the peaks of the great American songbook. Harold Arlen composed the music and Frank Sinatra contributed the definitive performance (on “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,” 1958). Terry Teachout provides an eloquent tribute to Mercer in general and “One For My Baby” in particular in his 2004 Commentary essay “Too Marvelous for Words” (subscribers only).
My personal favorite of Mercer’s songs is “Midnight Sun,” originally an instrumental by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke. Driving along the freeway from Newport Beach to Hollywood and back in 1955, Mercer heard the song on his car radio, called the station and asked the deejay to play the song again, memorized the melody, and wrote the lyrics in his head as he drove. Nancy Wilson does the honors in the video above.
In The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Furia notes that in “Midnight Sun” Mercer pushed the oldest cliches of Tin Pan Alley to baroque extremes precisely as the Tin Pan Alley tradition was expiring: “Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice, warmer than the summer night./The clouds were like an alabaster palace rising to a snowy height./Each star its own aurora borealis,/suddenly you held me tight…I could see the Midnight Sun.” Furia writes: “It’s as if the lyric itself is a midnight sun, a last blaze of an Alley style extinguishing itself…”
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