“Accentuate the positive” is of course a phrase made famous by lyricist Johnny Mercer, and today is the anniversary of his birth. “Accentuate the Positive” is a song in the guise of a sermon: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-between.”
Those lyrics are so familiar they have become a cliche, but they are followed by the preacher’s concrete, witty, unforgettable example (and a triple rhyme): “To illustrate my last remark, Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark, what did they do just when everything looked so dark?”
Among the 1,500 songs to which Mercer wrote the lyrics are “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” “P.S. I Love You” (not the Beatles song), “Something’s Gotta Give,” “This Time the Dream’s On Me,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Blues In the Night,” “Moon River” and “Satin Doll.” He was an utterly brilliant lyricist.
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.
In his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Philip 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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