Supposedly, in a moment of frustration in the early 1950s, Sam Phillips told his business partner, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Only a few years later, Phillips would record Elvis Presley and more or less prove the point. But for all the savvy of his label boss, the King wasn’t the first white boy to bring a firsthand love of black culture to the American musical mainstream. A generation earlier, another Southerner—this one entirely un-Presley-like in his sound and upbringing—drew from the same tradition and made, if not quite a billion dollars, certainly an inexhaustible fortune, and left behind a half-dozen of America’s most indelible melodies besides.
Johnny Mercer arrived in New York in 1928, at the height of Tin Pan Alley. George Gershwin had premiered “Rhapsody in Blue” four years prior, and Cole Porter was at work on what would become his first hit musical, Paris. The Roaring Twenties were American music’s debutante ball, the historical moment when urbane sophisticates wed jazz idioms and orchestral ambition. Before, the young nation boasted only regional music: minstrelsy, Dixieland, cowboy tunes, shape note. Now it had the Great American Songbook.
Mercer was eighteen at the time and had listened to songs by Gershwin, Porter, Irving Berlin, and their New York colleagues for years during his rollicking yet privileged adolescence in Savannah. But coming from a moneyed Georgia family, with ancestors who fought in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, his musical background included more than just their pop hits. In an unpublished memoir—written in 1973, three years before his death—Mercer begins his life story with a description of the commute to his family’s summer home in the country: “The roads were still unpaved, made of crushed oyster shell, and as they wound their way under the trees covered with Spanish moss, it was a sweet, indolent background for a boy to grow up in.” Even more than the rural Georgia scenery, he recalls “the help,” who lived in nearby houses on the property and came over regularly to do their own domestic upkeep—laundry, cooking, bathing—in addition to serving the Mercers:
Having all those colored people around meant having a lot of music also, and not only did we get the traditional lullabies and work songs, but we’d get to hear their church services upon an occasional Sunday. As a matter of fact, I can hardly ever remember there not being music, in town or out. My Aunt Hattie swears I hummed back at her at the tender age of 6 months, and she always used to take me to see the minstrel shows which were so popular then in the South as well as the big Northern cities.
At the country property, on the banks of the Vernon River—a landscape that inspired “Moon River,” for which Mercer would later win the third of his four “best original song” Oscars, in 1961—he heard these same black families speak Geechee, the Carolina dialect that Gershwin appropriated for Porgy and Bess. But Mercer’s cross-cultural education was fostered in the city as well. His father, a banker who lost his fortune right as Johnny set out for Manhattan, sang along to his sizable collection of race records at home. As soon as Johnny was old enough, he did his own record shopping, showing a particular appetite for Louis Armstrong. With his parents and brother, he was a regular attendee of the famed Savannah Easter parade, a vibrant showcase of black dance, music, and fashion. His black nurse sang him spirituals in between lullabies. (Decades later, Mercer would pay to repair the roof of her church.) As a boy, he took regular walks through town, peeking in the city’s black churches, grabbing a seat if a pew was open. His regular stops included the United House of Prayer for All People, where he heard the controversial Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace preach during the faith healer’s regular trips to town.
“George Gershwin could go up to Harlem to hear jazz and blues,” wrote biographer Philip Furia, but “Johnny Mercer, alone among the great songwriters of his generation, was, from the day he was born, influenced by the music of blacks.”
Relative to Elvis, Mercer’s most famous songs bore little of that influence on the surface. He wrote the lyrics for an unbelievable run of hits in the late 1930s and ’40s, often recording his own popular versions as a vocalist: “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” “Laura,” “Fools Rush In.” But his very first commercial success, a lesser-known 1933 Hoagy Carmichael collaboration called “Lazybones,” which was a hit for Mildred Bailey (and later Louis Armstrong himself), was a direct homage to the voices he’d heard as a boy:
Long as there is chicken gravy on your rice,
Everything is nice.
Long as there’s a watermelon on your vine,
Everything is fine . . .
Lazybones, sleepin’ in the shade,
How you ‘spec’ to get your cornmeal made?
Never get your cornmeal made,
Sleepin’ in the evenin’ shade.
“Lazybones,” recorded the same year that Gershwin’s Geechee opera premiered, depicts “taters” in the ground, the hot noon sun, and a fishing line hanging in the water—a Southern pastoral so Edenic that it’s nearly pastiche. It’s also, despite black artists’ embrace of the song, a borderline-racist depiction of Southern blackness, a cousin of Disney’s Song of the South, from the next decade. But “Lazybones” is of a piece with Mercer’s better-known, more universal compositions, which, while always clever, were never more complicated than they needed to be. His melodies don’t leap and dash—they glide along conversationally, as if he made them up on the spot. Lyrically, he never used two syllables when one would do, and he returned to Southern nature scenes over and over again, letting his images quietly speak for themselves. In “Skylark,” one of his most-recorded songs, he asks the title bird,
Have you seen a valley green with spring,
Where my heart can go a-journeying?
Over the shadows and the rain,
To a blossom-covered lane.
And in my favorite of his songs, the 1939 Jimmy Van Heusen tune “I Thought About You,” he finds uncommon emotional complexity in an uneventful nighttime ride:
I took a trip on a train
And I thought about you.
I passed a shadowy lane
And I thought about you.
Two or three cars parked under the stars,
Moon shining down on some little town,
And with each beam, the same old dream.
Is the singer sad or happy, regretful or horny? He claims to feel blue, but that’s as much as we’re told about his internal state. Instead, we’re presented with one fleeting, unpeopled scene after another, all described with an absolute minimum of words and only the slightest up-and-down incremental melody. When Yip Harburg, the celebrated lyricist and Mercer mentor, described his protege as “one of our great folk poets,” this was the kind of song he surely had in mind.
Beyond his lyrics’ rural and black affectations—the dropped g’s, the cornpone scenery—Mercer brought a distinctly Southern stillness to American pop. Economical yet vivid in his natural descriptions, he kept his songs’ emotions at a cool simmer and rarely told stories, instead opting for calm, wistful dioramas like the one he arranges in “Early Autumn”:
When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
And touches with her hand the summer trees,
Perhaps you’ll understand what memories I own.
There’s a dance pavilion in the rain all shuttered down,
A winding country lane all russet brown,
A frosty windowpane shows me a town grown lonely.
Mercer wrote nearly 1,500 songs, so maybe it’s unfair to point out that three of the four I’ve quoted so far include mention of a “lane,” an easy (and easily rhymeable) symbol for escapist romance. But I wouldn’t be the first to acknowledge his complacent streak; prolific as he was, Mercer garnered a reputation as a bit of a lazybones himself.
He preferred to write lyrics while supine, eyes closed, “as if he could dream songs into existence,” according to the critic Wilfrid Sheed. His entire public persona was built around this same aloofness; onstage (a rare occurrence, though he became better known for live performances in the 1970s), his mind seemed to be elsewhere, and even his Tinseltown reminiscences seem muted, obligatory. While Mercer worked consistently for decades, for every great pop composer of the era, he was strongest on the scale of individual songs. No major Broadway success, no film soundtrack, no grand artistic statement ever sprung from those naps with the muse. His tower of song was built verse by casual verse.
His singing voice, too—like that of another Southern-bred, Hollywood-friendly master of concision, Randy Newman, who resembles Mercer more than any songwriter since at least the Brill Building era—could blur the line between “relaxed” and “soporific.” He made his friend and early creative partner Bing Crosby sound over-caffeinated.
But he roiled inside. When he drank, which he did often, he got blackout hammered and became infamously abusive. He spewed insults at good friends, dumped cocktails on his wife’s head, urinated in a hostess’s shoes, and once tried to force himself on his own niece. In the mornings he was always contrite, sending remorseful notes of apology, and most recollections of Mercer are besotted, not angry. In Savannah now, he is remembered as a classic Southern gentleman, an inspiration for museums, historical walks, and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. You’d think he owned the place. But in fact, he tended to keep the town at arm’s length, as he did most things.
Asked by the state legislature to compose a new official Georgia song, he came up with a rare seven-verse epic that slathers on the good-ole-summertime hokum and never reveals anything meaningful about his attachment to the place:
Georgia, Georgia, where do I start?
Words can sing but not like the heart;
There’s no land in all this earth,
Like the land of my birth.
Georgia, Georgia, careless yield
Watermelons ripe in the field;
Pine trees full of red-bird song,
River rollin’ along.
Georgia nights when twilight is done,
Smell of peaches long in the sun,
Breeze comes blowin’ through the shade
Like a cool lemonade.
The song, according to his memoir, was ultimately rejected for being “too Savannah” to reflect the whole state, but that might grant it too much credit. Rare for Mercer, he lifted a few lines from another source, in this case Stephen Vincent Benét’s “John Brown’s Body,” though he borrowed none of Benét’s galloping intensity. Instead, this ode to Georgia is positively generic, proof that Mercer’s genius was for sly gesture and restrained emotion, not heart-swelling pride and love, and certainly not for unabashed sentimentalism.
Perhaps this is Johnny Mercer’s true legacy—he not only smuggled a genuine Southern musical sensibility into the Great American Songbook, he brought along the whole breadth of regional contradictions that have historically fed so much of the South’s art and angst. He was both a manor-born gentleman and a venomous alcoholic; a prolific natural talent and, according to many who knew him, a bafflingly unambitious artist; he had black music and speech in his marrow, yet never had a close black friend. He may have been the first writer to bring Southern identity to American pop, yet one of his most famous songs claimed, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home.”
Like any pioneer, Mercer bridged worlds as a matter of course. He made the exotic seem natural and welcome, and never more so than in “That Old Black Magic,” written in 1941 and inspired by Cole Porter’s line, “Do do that voodoo that you do so well,” from “You Do Something to Me.” Mercer transformed the idea from mere wordplay to a whole motif, envisioning black magic as a welcome sensual trance:
That old black magic has me in its spell,
That old black magic that you weave so well.
Icy fingers up and down my spine,
The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.
The same old tingle that I feel insideD
When that elevator starts its ride.
Down and down I go, ‘round and ‘round I go,
Like a leaf that’s caught in the tide.
Mercer’s words conjured new voices, new vistas, but they always seem to beckon: don’t fear. No big words here, no artsy posturing. Even witchcraft is as natural as the water and the leaves. I may drink too much, but I’ll always apologize. Come on in.