Last week — on November 18 — we should have marked the centennial anniversary plus one of the birth of Johnny Mercer. With the publication of The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer last year, Mercer’s place in the pantheon of artists responsible for the great American songbook seems more secure than ever.
Among the more than 1,000 songs for which Mercer is known to have written the lyrics are “I Remember You,” “That Old Black Magic,” “How Little We Know,” “Hit the Road to Dreamland,” “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,” “Day In–Day Out,” “Moon River,” “I Thought About You,” “I Remember You,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “This Time the Dream’s On Me,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” and “Satin Doll.”
He was an utterly brilliant lyricist. Among the composers to whose work he contributed the lyrics are Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael (whose birthday was yesterday), Jimmy Van Heusen, Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, Jerome Kern, Gordon Jenkins and Henry Manicini.
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 neither its volume not its success, but rather its artistry.
His “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)” 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 provided 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; Teachout excerpted his essay last year in his commemorative post “A kind of poet”) .
I think my own 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. He promptly pulled off the road to call the station and ask for the song to be played again. Back on the road, he memorized the melody and wrote the lyrics in his head as he drove. Ella Fitzgerald performs the song in the video above with an arrangement that recalls the song’s instrumental origin. (Ella recorded the song several times; this version can be found on For the Love of Ella. I heard the song for the first time on Sarah Vaughan’s breathtaking How Long Has This Been Going On? backed by Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Louis Bellson, and Ray Brown.)
In The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Furia observes that in “Midnight Sun” Mercer pushed the oldest clichés 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…”