Today is the anniversary of the birth of Johnny Mercer. With the publication of The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer during the centennial of his birth in 2009, Mercer’s place in the pantheon of artists responsible for the great American songbook was newly secured.
Mercer was an utterly brilliant lyricist. Among the more than 1,000 songs for which Mercer is known to have written the lyrics are “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.” Among the many composers to whose work he contributed the lyrics are Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy Van Heusen, Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, Jerome Kern, Gordon Jenkins and Henry Mancini.
My estimate of the number of Mercer songs Mercer wrote derives from biographer Philip Furia in Skylark. Furia’s calculation of the popularity of Mercer’s songs 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 nor its success, but rather 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 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).
Mercer wrote so many great songs that it’s hard to pick a favorite. My favorite, I think, 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. The first time I heard the song was in Sarah Vaughan’s 1978 recording with Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, and Louis Bellson (video below). This is special.
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…”