My Huckleberry Friend
It’s been said that if you removed the lyrics of Johnny Mercer from the American songbook, you’d be left with a gaping silence.
Imagine clubs and concert halls without the ineffably poetic words for “Skylark” and “Laura,” “One for My Baby” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Old Black Magic” and Autumn Leaves,” “I Remember You” and “Satin Doll,” “Charade” and “Moon River,” “Blues in the Night” and “Fools Rush In” and “Too Marvelous for Words.”
It is nearly impossible to do a comprehensive post on the life of the prolific lyricist and songwriter Johnny Mercer, who published some 1,600 songs, four winning Oscars and eighteen nominated for the distinction.
As if that were not enough of a contribution, Mercer’s cultural influence stretched well beyond lyrics. In 1942 he co-founded the famed Capitol Records, becoming its first president and signing Nat “King” Cole, Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting and Stan Kenton. So dominant was the label in the 1940’s it boasted one-sixth of total record sales in the United States.
In recognition of Mercer’s 100th birthday, tomorrow, Wednesday, November 18, a centennial honoring his legacy is being celebrated in Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me, which premieres at 8 ET/9 PT on Turner Classic Movies (along with a 24-hour movie marathon of films featuring his music). What a perfect way to spend a chilly autumn day. The documentary executive-produced by Clint Eastwood, is just a small part of the month-long Mercer commemoration. Other tributes are planned across the country, from nightclubs and concert halls in New York to Beverly Hills, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosts a sold-out event on Thursday.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to his nearly five decade career, however, is Knopf’s critically acclaimed The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer with 1,200 of his lyrics, several hundred of them published for the first time.
Stories and anecdotes abound — one of them concerning the Oscar-winning song “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a song that according to Mercer, that was originally entitled “Blue River,” depicting a characterization of the river as his “huckleberry friend” and a reference to the color of the water as well as to Mark Twain’s adventure-loving, river-traveling boy and the dreams of youth.
Moon River is actually the name of a tiny rivulet that runs out of the Vernon River, where Mercer’s family kept a summer home during the teens and ’20s. It has been described as practically a stream compared to the Wilmington, but to a little boy playing there, it must have looked “wider than a mile.”
Audrey Hepburn breaking hearts with a ukulele, a fire escape and a neighbor wearing a smile with a future.
“He comes from the Heartland.
Someone once said,
‘He always had the South in his mouth’ …
and it inspired him for the rest of his life.
The other songwriters
who wrote about the Swanee River
were New Yorkers.”
What distinguished Mercer from other first-rank American lyricists of his era, such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Lorenz Hart was his ability to craft lyrics that fell easily from the lips since he, himself, was a performer. His Southerness, which he is widely noted for, is more audible in his singing than his songwriting. Although he tended to disparage his vocal abilities, Mercer had a very winning way with a song. When he sang, he sounded smooth, unhurried, joshing, like the crooning of his good buddy, Bing.
Take a listen to the classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” a duet he sang with Margaret Whiting.
Or this other favorite “Personality.” You remember — Madame Pompadour and Madame DuBarry? The two mistresses of King Louis XV of France forever immortalized in song?
“When Madame Pompadour
Was on a ball room floor,
Said all the gentlemen … obviously,
The Madame has the cutest per-son-ality.”
Mercer and Hollywood were a match made in cinematic and musical heaven. Writing songs for movies offered two distinct advantages. The use of sensitive microphones for recording and of the lip-synching of pre-recorded songs that liberated songwriters forever more from dependence on the long vowel endings and long sustained notes required for live performance. Performers such as Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth could now sing more conversationally and more nonchalantly. Mercer, as a singer, was attuned to this shift and his style fit the need perfectly.
With Jerome Kern, Mercer created You Were Never Lovelier for Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in the movie of the same name, as well as “I’m Old Fashioned”.
And finally, one of Mercer’s masterpieces written with Harold Arlen, “One For My Baby.” A short story or even a one man play in rhyme depicting the progression of one man’s emotions late at night, from melancholy to maudlin, aggression to remorse.
Wordsworth insisted that poetry is the “overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity.” At the end of “I Remember You,” (written for the love of his life, Judy Garland) Mercer’s version takes him to death’s door:
“When my life is through
And the Angels ask me to recall
The Thrill of it all,
I Shall tell them I remember you.”