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.

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“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.”


Debbie Reynolds was the presenter in 1962 when Johnny Mercer (right) and Henry Mancini won Oscars for “Moon River’’ from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’

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.

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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.”

 

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Fred_rita
Fred Astaire Dancing with Rita Hayworth in Scene from “You Never Were Lovelier”

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.”

 

 

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~ by eaesthete on 11/17/09.

12 Responses to “My Huckleberry Friend”

  1. I wasn’t aware – thanks.

  2. Wonderful post…!

  3. Joy – and emotion – in the morning! Thanks for bringing Mercer into focus and into hearing range. What an interpretation with Frank and “One for My Baby.” Do you know where it comes from? He really seems to be a Hopper Night Owl come to life.

    • The letters 13 on the screen, as well as the staged set, suggest a television station, but I know nothing more than that.

    • The number on the screen (13 I think) and the studio set of the time period suggests a television station. Sinatra could have been a guest on a variety show that were very common in those early days of television. Maybe one of my readers can identify.

  4. I love these songs- I grew up with both my parents singing them at any given point in the day- Mother had and still does the voice-Dad lacked-but made up in heart. My Mum gets misty now and sings one through-I am sure Remembering. on the other side- Wow isn’t Rita absolutely mindlessly beautiful with Fred. Beautiful post. la

    • LA,

      I must admit, my own affection for the south increased tenfold in doing this post on Mercer. He was such an exquisite wordsmith. It is a rare gift, indeed, to have that versatility with words. And the memories the words evoked … as mentioned in Moon River. The idea that the actual river was little more than a stream, but to a young boy, it would appear “wider than a mile,” well, it’s just poetic. I read somewhere that his lyrics are filled with down-home turns of phrase, train whistles and bird calls. Especially for a time and place described as “a slow, kind of easy, genteel demeanor that people just grow up with.” Like your parents no doubt.

      And a heartfelt yes on the mindless beauty of Rita and Fred.

  5. oh- I wish there was a way to sign up to receive your posts-maybe there is- help me-your devoted but errant (because I don’t know any better) reader. la’G

    • You’re too kind.

      I believe I have an RSS feed, but I’m hopeless on these matters. Let me make a few inquiries. If any enterprising and kind-hearted reader would care to intervene and
      help the marginally challenged errant aesthete out, it would be most appreciated.

  6. when I was little – before realizing that b&w movies were really old and most of the stars were already dead – I was desperately in love with Fred Astaire – hardly normal for a 7 year old when you think about it.I wanted to marry him when I grew up. I still would, at that.

  7. This is a wonderful post. I, too, grew up listening to artists like Margaret Whiting and Frank Sinatra sing Johnny Mercer’s songs on the radio. My brother was even named after Jerome Kern. While my tastes broadened through the years, I never lost my affection for what is called “the great American songbook.” Many of those old favorites, and a lot of Johnny Mercer ballads, are in some of my favorite playlists on my iPod. Who knew that Mercer had been so prolific? And had done so many different things?

    Thanks for Audrey, too. I had a crush on her when I was growing up, and the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” video brought it all back. There is a story that after viewing a rough cut of the film one of the studio execs said to cut the song. Fortunately, wiser (or more perceptive) heads prevailed, so this evening I can kick back with a cocktail and listen to Audrey sing Moon River.

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