Johnny Mercer, the lyrical poet of Savannah, Georgia, passed away 35 years ago this month, marking the end of a five-decade musical career that began early in the Golden Age of Songwriting and extended well into the Rock and Roll era. He wrote the lyrics to more than 1,500 songs, a body of work that captured the spirit and the vernacular of America’s heartland during the 20th century. He was, according to Tony Bennett, “Mr. Americana.”
Mercer, as composer Alec Wilder noted, was a writer whose lyrics evoked the outdoors. Indeed, Mercer’s musical tastes were seasoned by childhood memories of the rustic south. One of his early songs, “Lazybones,” humorously harkens back to the rural South in its language and leisurely lifestyle: “Lazybones sleeping in the shade / How you gonna get your corn meal made?”
In 1936 Mercer turned his satirical eye to Texas in “I’m an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande),” with lyrics that playfully highlighted the contradictions between the state’s mythic traditions and emerging modernity: “I’m a ridin’ fool who is up to date / I know every trail in the Lone Star State / Cause I ride the range in a Ford V-8 / Yippie Yi yo Kayah.”
Mercer’s more sophisticated works were also often set against pastoral backdrops. In “Summer Wind,” for example, Mercer crafted his lyrics within a complex rhyme structure while incorporating Arcadian imagery throughout the tale of romantic loss: “Like painted kites those days and nights went flying by / The world was new, beneath a blue umbrella sky / Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you / and I lost you to the summer wind.”
Perhaps his best known song, “Moon River,” similarly captures the ambient imagery of the countryside, with an erudite nod to Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: “Two drifters off to see the world / There’s such a lot of world to see / We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ‘round the bend / My huckleberry friend, Moon River, and me.” According to the song’s composer, Henry Mancini, Mercer’s lyrics to “Moon River” captured “echoes of America,” an observation that was true of Mercer’s entire oeuvre.
Mercer’s life in the south also exposed him to the styles and rhythms of African-American music. His “Blues in the Night,” for example, begins with the memorable “My momma done tol’ me, when I was in knee pants / My momma done tol’ me, son a woman’ll sweet talk / And give you the big eye, but when the sweet talkin’s done / A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing / Who’ll leave you to sing the blues in the night.”
At times, his inspiration from African-American culture was even more direct. The title of one of Mercer’s biggest hits—as a lyricist and a singer—came from a sermon delivered by Father Divine, who had admonished his congregation to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” The song became a hit in 1944, and Mercer’s title added a new phrase to the American vernacular.
That same year, Mercer received a letter from an African-American organization, The Abraham Lincoln Boys Club of Chicago, informing him that he had “been voted the most successful young colored singer of the year.” In the days before television, the organization had incorrectly guessed his race from his voice, which the music critic Gene Lees described as having “a wonderful, rough exuberance, a countrified quality…infused with the black vocal influences of his youth…” The white Mercer won four Oscars, but described the award for being the best “young colored singer” as his most cherished.
To many of his colleagues, Mercer’s greatest strength was his unfailing felicity with words. Mercer was a master of colloquialism, relying on slang and clever rhymes for humor in works such as “Jeepers Creepers,” “Glowworm,” and “Hooray for Hollywood.”
But Mercer was also a lyrical poet. Tony Bennett cites Mercer’s lyrics from “I’m Old Fashioned”—“This year’s fancies are passing fancies / but sighing sighs, holding hands / this my heart understands…”—as “American Literature” for songwriters. Similarly, Jamie Cullum has praised Mercer’s rhyme scheme in “Midnight Sun,” which improbably includes the lines, “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.”
Mercer’s lyrical expressiveness and poetic versatility are also evident in his “train songs.” In “Blues in the Night,” for example, Mercer mimics train sounds with broad, colorful strokes: “My mama done tol’ me, a-whooee-ah-whooee / Ol’ clickety-clack’s a echoin’ back / the blues in the night.” He relies on a similar device in “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” inserting the expressive “chugga-chugga, hoo-hoo.”
In “I Thought About You,” however, Mercer uses a more subtle effect. As the train pulls from the station, the heart-broken narrator describes his departure: “I peeked through the crack / and looked at the track / the one going back to you / and what did I do? / I thought about you.” Rather than repeat the “clickety-clack effect” from “Blues in the Night,” Mercer simply and deftly employs words with the letter “k” to mimic the sound of the train pulling away.
Mercer’s talents and versatility allowed him to collaborate successfully with more than 200 composers, including Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Henry Mancini, across diverse musical genres—minstrel, big band, Broadway show tunes, and the occasional country or pop crossover.
Although this diversity made it difficult for the Savannah lyricist to develop a unique “Mercer sound,” his work is identifiable by its consistent quality, its inventiveness, and its “echoes of America.”