Johnny Mercer Biography Page

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by Patrick McAndrews:

Johnny Mercer
Born: Nov. 18, 1909, Savannah, GA
Died: June 26, 1976, Los Angeles, CA

John Herndon Mercer, a true giant of the recording industry. He had many hit recordings as a singer. As a lyricist he wrote over a thousand songs and he won 4 Academy Awards. If that wasn't enough, he helped found Capitol Records where he left an indelible stamp on the music business.

He was born on 1909 in Savannah, Georgia. Little Johnny sang in the church choir and showed a great interest in acting. He wrote his first song at age 15, a tune called "Sister Susie Strut Your Stuff." After graduating from high school, he joined a local acting club which ventured to New York and won an acting competition. It was there that he got his first taste of the big city and where he would soon begin to forge his career.

Returning home, he found his fathers real estate ventures collapsing with the great depression, and with it, any hopes of going to college (if he had had any hopes at all.) Around 1929, he stowed away on a boat to New York (he was caught) but set out to make his fortune as an actor. One of his auditions was for the popular stage show "Garrick Gaities". As it turned out, the show didn't need actors, but they did use what turned out to be his first professional song, "Out Of Breath, And Scared To Death Of You" sung by cast member Sterling Holloway. The song didn't exactly propel him into the limelight, but it was a start.

As a young man in New York, Mercer mingled with various people in the city's vast musical landscape and he made acquaintances that would prove invaluable later in his career. At this time, he also met his future spouse. She was New York native, Elizabeth "Ginger" Meehan, a dancer with the Garrick Gaities troupe.

Johnny got a few acting parts, in "Valpone", "Marco Millions", and "House Party", but he needed a Wall Street job as a runner to make ends meet. A job at a music publishing company taught him sound songwriting habits, but it was his singing that got him started professionally. In 1932, bandleader Paul Whiteman's vocalists "The Rhythm Boys" (Al Rinker, Harry Barris and a 29 year old Bing Crosby) departed, leaving an opening. Whiteman then staged a contest for unknown singers. Mercer won it, was hired, and ended up being featured singer, emcee, and songwriter for Whiteman's orchestra. It was Mercer's dry southern drawl that gave his singing a distinctively good natured character.

It was through Whiteman that Mercer met another young performer- songwriter Howard "Hoagy" Charmichael, who at the time was having trouble writing a song. Mercer added lyrics to the music of "Lazybones" which became the first real hit for both of them. Mercer was then 23 and Charmichael was 33. The song was a reflection of his southern background, an element he used effectively throughout his career. As he continued with with the Whiteman orchestra, he introduced many tunes which he wrote and sang himself, an important springboard for future success.

People he met during his formative years in New York developed into top notch talent along with Mercer. For instance, while in a theatre auditioning for a part, he met Epsil "Yip" Harburg and Harold Arlen. They both turned out to be important collaborators later on. Paul Whiteman took a continuing interest in his talents and promoted his success. Jack Teagarden, a trombonist in Whiteman's orchestra, recorded with vocally with Mercer on some of his early records. The duo had a few charted hits. Mercer also sang and composed for Benny Goodman's orchestra and he worked frequently on radio with another acquaintance, Bob Crosby, singing for his orchestra.

By 1933, Mercer had become one of the most successful lyricists in the business. His Jack Teagarden recordings led to a job at RKO Pictures (1934-40) writing songs for the movies, as well as a little singing and acting. His reputation as a songwriter soared when he wrote the music for the 1936 Bing Crosby film "Rhythm On The Range." In 1937 he worked with Richard Whiting, composing songs for the film "Hollywood Hotel" with Benny Goodman. Afterward became a regular guest on Goodman's radio show "Camel Caravan". In the early 1940's he was soon hosting his own radio show, "Johnny Mercer's Music Shop". In 1940 he collaborated with Hoagy Carmichael to write "Walk With Music" a musical with a short Broadway life.

In 1942, while his variety radio show was popular, Mercer, with businessman Glen Wallichs and film producer-songwriter Buddy De Sylva, co-founded Capitol Records. (The firm later erected the round building on Hollywood's Vine St. that looks like a stack of records.) Mercer used his radio show as a vehicle to promote some of the early Capitol performers. The young record company managed to get off to a good start during WWII despite the rationing of shellac which was needed for producing records at the time. They were able to produce records using recycled scrap discs.

Capitol's first records were Mercer's "Strip Polka" and Freddy Slack and Ella Mae Moorse's "Cow Cow Boogie". With Mercer as the company's top singer and the radio show spotlighting the label's new stars, Stan Kenton, Jo Stafford, (and her Pied Pipers) The Nat King Cole Trio, Margaret Whiting and The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring his new vocalist Frank...something or other, the new company began to take off. By 1946, Capitol had sold 42 million records which was a sixth of the total record sales in America at the time.

Along with the success of Capitol, Mercer still found time to write songs for Broadway. During the 1940's, he worked with Harold Arlen, Hoagy Charmichael, Jerome Kern, Richard Whiting, Rube Bloom, Vernon Duke, Jimmy McHugh, Jimmie Van Heusen, Gordon Jenkins, Arthur Shwartz and Bernie Hanigen, which yielded the musicals, "St. Louis Woman" and "Free And Easy", and movie scores for "Dangerous When Wet", Laura, "Daddy Long Legs" and Here Come The Waves". He also won an Oscar for On The Atcheson, Topeka And Santa Fe. Mercer certainly was a busy man in the 1940's with over 250 songs published, nearly 60 hits (several sung by him), a few hit films and Broadway musicals, a top radio show, an Academy Award, and a successful record label, which he used as a platform for his seemingly endless creations.

In the 1950's, Mercer's output showed no signs of letting up. Early in the decade, in 1951. he won another Oscar with his buddy Hoagy Charmichael for In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening. That same year he penned one of his greatest stage scores, "Top Banana" starring Phil Silvers, in 1951. In 1954, he teamed with Gene DePaul on "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers". Two years later he wrote "L'il Abner". In 1955, Mercer sold his interest in Capitol, which left him free to create at his leisure without the burdens of ownership in a large corporation.

During the 1960's, Mercer still had a couple of blockbusters left in him. Collaborating with Henry Mancini in 1961, he wrote more music. The biggest songs were Moon River and The Days Of Wine And Roses, which won him two more Oscars. The duo also wrote the film scores for "Darling Lili" and "The Great Race". While composing at the piano, Mercer tried several times to use both hands, but kept reverting back to tapping out tunes with one finger. There were stories of his helping new talent and his generosity. One involved a woman from Ohio, a cosmetician named Sadie Vimmerstedt, who sent him the line "I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody's breaking your heart." Mercer wrote I Wanna Be Around and gave Vimmerstedt co-authorship credit, which was worth about three thousand dollars a year after Tony Bennett had a hit with it in 1963.

In the early 1970's, Mercer moved to England for a period of time and worked with composer Andre Previn and wrote his last score, "The Good Companions", in 1974. On June 26, 1976, Mercer died from complications from brain tumor surgery in Los Angeles, thus ending one of the truly great careers in musical history.

A partial list of Johnny Mercer Songs

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