We Remember Lyricist and Composer Johnny Mercer

Johnny Mercer. Photo by William P. Gottlieb.

This week on All Night Jazz, we honor the legacy of composer and lyricist Johnny Mercer on the anniversary of his birth.

WUSF”s Jackson Harpe has more:

Johnny Herndon Mercer was born in Savannah, Ga. on November 18, 1909 and first tried to make a career for himself as an actor in New York when he was 19 years old.

His first jobs involved small acting roles in local theater, but he caught his first break when he wrote lyrics to a song that premiered on Broadway in the show, “The Garrick Gaieties of 1930.”

In 1932, Mercer was hired as a singer for the Paul Whiteman band and was introduced to Hoagy Carmichael, another songwriter. In the following year, Carmichael and Mercer wrote “Lazybones,” the first of many collaborations they would do.

In 1933, Mercer moved to Hollywood and was hired as a songwriter for films and found work as a singer.

Though Mercer’s career was mainly defined by his compositions and lyrics, he also sang alongside notable artists and groups of the time: Jack Teagarden, Bing Crosby, and the Benny Goodman Band.

Mercer eventually met Bud De Silva and Glen Wallichs and together they founded Capitol Records in 1942, which became one of the titans of the record industry.

Some of the first artists they signed included Nat “King” Cole and Stan Kenton. Mercer sold his share of ownership in 1955 and used a portion of the money to pay off debt that were still owed by his deceased father.

Johnny Mercer’s lyrical prowess earned him four “Best Original Song” Oscars, out of 18 total nominations.

His first win was in 1946 for writing the lyrics to the song “On the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe,” which was sung by Judy Garland in the film, “Harvey Girls”.

He also won for “Moon River” in 1962 and “Days of Wine and Roses” in 1963 which were co-written by Henry Mancini. And he won for a song co-written with Carmichael,  “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening”

In all, Mercer wrote over 1,400 songs over the course of his career, some of which are considered jazz standards like: “Autumn Leaves” and “Skylark.”

These and many other Mercer songs are regularly played on WUSF’s All Night Jazz.

Mercer died in Los Angeles in 1976.

Mercer is widely regarded as a legend in composition and lyricism. Between his lyrics and his collaborations with many legendary artists, Mercer immortalized himself and is still considered one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

Songwriting legend Jimmy Van Heusen told author Gene Lee for his book “Portrait of Johnny” “As far as lyric writers are concerned, I don’t think there’s any body near him.”

On his career as a lyricist, Mercer was fond of saying, “Writing music takes more talent, but writing lyrics takes more courage.”

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