Huck Finn in Hollywood - Johnny Mercer's American Style

I’ve always loved the deeply romantic songs of Johnny Mercer. I was first introduced to his work through the records of Michael Feinstein and Ella Fitzgerald’s classic Johnny Mercer Songbook. I always thought it was the best of what is known as ‘The Great American Songbook’. Throughout the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s Johnny Mercer had a huge impact on American popular culture and on the music industry. He possessed a great deal of southern charm, and as an artist I always admired his mid-century patrician American look. Here is a brief summary of the man, his style, and his music.

The battle of Princeton. The figure lying on the fallen white horse is Johnny Mercer's Ancestor, General Hugh Mercer

Johnny Mercer stood apart from the other great lyricists and composers of the twentieth century. There is a particularly poetic blend of sentimentality, emotion, and humor in his songs. And something else too, a deeply atmospheric sense of a bucolic America. It has to do with who Johnny Mercer was, and where he came from.

John Herndon Mercer was born into prominent southern family that could trace its ancestry back to Revolutionary War. He was a direct descendant of Brigadier General Hugh Mercer, a Scottish soldier / physician whose heroic death at the battle of Princeton helped the Colonial Army believe that they could beat the British, and for whom New Jersey's Mercer County home to the state capitol Trenton and Princeton University is named. Hugh Mercer's descendants also include General George S. Patton Jr. who helped defeat the Nazi's in WWII.

General George S. Patton Jr.

Mercer's childhood home

Mercer grew up in Savannah Georgia in a prominent family with substantial holdings in real estate. They were one of the oldest families in Savannah and lived in a stately house on East Gwinnett Street. They had domestic help and in the summer would relocate to a barrier island of Savannah called Vernon View to escape the oppressive heat and enjoy the ocean breezes. The summer ‘cottage’ was close to the African American colony of Pin Point where descendants of slaves earned their living shucking oysters for the local fishery.

Johnny Mercer at age five

Spanish Moss near Vernon View

the Vernon View Summer Cottage

The Mercers employed several women from the colony as household help and Johnny played with their children exploring creeks and woods on the island. Johnny’s classic ‘Moon River- wider than a mile’ refers to these experiences collecting Huckleberries in the brambles along the riverbank. His famous association with songbirds can also be traced back to these days.

The residents of Pin Point were part of the Gullah - Geechee West African culture and spoke their own dialect which had been developed by slaves to prevent their masters from knowing what they were saying. A key part of their culture was the ‘praise houses’ where nightly services would be held and where spirituals would be sung in the dialect. Young Johnny loved to go and would sneak away and sit outside the windows and listen to the music.

a Geechee Praise House near Savannah

an authentic recording of a Geechee preacher to give you an idea of what the praise houses sounded like. Start at .35 seconds to skip the intro

John’s future as a southern patrician was laid out before him. He attended Woodberry Forest like the other men in his family and it was assumed he would attend Princeton University as his father and grandfather had and follow them into the family landowning finance firm. Fate however had other plans. With the 1929 stock market crash and resulting financial depression his father's business failed. The senior Mercer being a gentleman and man of personal integrity insisted on making all of his client’s whole depleting his personal finances. Princeton was no longer an option. It was agreed the boy who was passionate about jazz and bands could turn his ambitions to music.

the exclusive Woodberry Forest prep school in Virginia

Louis Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan, and John on the set of the 1938 film Going Places

album cover for G.I. Jive

From the time he sang along with the black nannies at Pin Point absorbing the rhythms of African American spirituals and blues, Johnny had been obsessed with songs. His childhood coincided with explosion of jazz and the golden age of the big bands. As a teenager John would haunt the stores of West Broad Street in the black part of Savannah spending hours listening to the latest hot jazz records from Bix Beiderbecke and Bessie Smith, always buying a record to assure he could listen as long as he liked.

John and his wife ginger in the early years of their marriage (left), and in middle age

Johnny & Ginger with Hoagland (Hoagy) Carmichael and his wife

A great video clip of Bing Crosby and Johnny reprising some of their great radio work. Turn up your volume, it's a little quiet

In 1927 Johnny’s family arranged for a trip to New York so he could experience Broadway, the locus of show business at that time. It didn’t take long for Johnny to decide that he wanted to be an actor in Broadway musicals. His father arranged for a job in a music publishing company in 1930, and he moved to New York. Acting, however, was not to be Mercer's destiny. He got a few bit parts, and took other jobs to survive, including a stint as a Wall Street runner, but his first small break came in 1930 when a song for which he had written the lyric was sung on Broadway.

a caricature of Johnny in his check jacket

Johnny on the Warners lot

An 18 year old Garland on set for Meet Me in St Louis, the year she began her affair with Mercer


It has been said that Johnny Mercer was in love with the ‘idea of being in love’ and his lyrics are without doubt some of the most romantic ever written in the English language. In his personal life there were two women who dominated his passions. Johnny met his wife Ginger Meehan when he was starting out and an aspiring actor in NY. She was a chorus girl on Broadway and native New Yorker who had grown up in Brooklyn. They married in 1931 and stayed together until his death in 1976. She was always the first to hear his lyrics and encourage him, but she wasn’t the muse to some of his greatest love songs.

In his stunning video recorded in 1962 of the Arlen-Gershwin standard written for the movie A Star is Born, you can feel the crushing heartbeak and dissapointment of her stifled love affair with Mercer

Here is Mercer's side of the affair in a song he wrote at the beginning of their doomed love affair which he gave her as a love letter sung by the incomparable Nat King Cole

Bing & Judy

a great candid shot from the 40's or 50's. Johnny did not play the piano

Johnny & one of his best collaborators, Harold Arlen

His big break in show business however came in 1932, when he entered and won a national talent competition to sing for The Paul Whitman Orchestra on the radio. The role which gave him national exposure showcased his combination of African rhythm, Geechee dialect, and feel for jazz and blues in a good looking gap toothed southern, educated white guy and was irresistible to the mainstream white audience. Like Elvis a generation later, Johnny allowed white audiences to enjoy the lusty soul of black jazz and blues in a socially acceptable pop singer.

Johnny used to do this caricature with his signature

Johnny in the studio

Capitol lineup of stars

As a singer Johnny was constantly looking for new great songs and made it his business to get to know all of the good songwriters working in Tin Pan Alley. It wasn’t long before he started working as a lyricist in the songwriting business. He brought the same feel for the rhythms of jazz and blues to his lyrics as he did his singing. Unlike the other lyricists writing popular songs at this time like Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin both of whom were Jewish urbanites, he had this connection with a pre industrial American landscape and nature.

Of course it wasn’t just his unique background that led to his success. Maybe his with his Scottish ancestry he had something of Robert Burns in his feel for the poetry of the English language, not to mention his discipline and fierce determination to achieve perfection in his rhymes and phrasing. Also unlike his fellow lyricists he didn’t find one collaborator, have a hit and stick with him. Circumstances including the early death of his first successful partner, Richard Whiting led him to write songs with a series of America’s best composers including; Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Richard Whiting, Victor Schertzinger, Jerome Kern, and Henry Mancini.

Johnny in summer mufti

The famous gap-tooth grin

Johnny in a popover shirt making a record with bobby Darin in the 60's

Singer and daughter of writing partner Richard Whiting, Margert Whiting

Johnny’s fellow lyricists considered him the best among them. Bing Crosby called him ‘The Huck Finn of the publishing industry “and Tony Bennet referred to him as “Mr. Americana”.Johnny’s catalog of popular music from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s is staggering. He wrote the lyrics to over 1,400 popular songs. He had 27 hit vocal records between 1938 and 1952 and was one of the biggest vocal stars of the radio era. 18 of his movie scores were nominated for Academy Awards and 4 won Oscars.

Johnny & Richard Whiting

Johnny in the late 60's in front of his Savannah home

In addition to his achievements as a popular singer and songwriter Johnny was instrumental in developing the record industry when he founded Capitol Records, the first west record label in 1942 with Buddy De Silva and Glenn Wallichs. His impact on the music business and on American popular music was huge. He served as owner, producer, A&R man, and talent scout for the company and set a new standard for quality in the record industry. In keeping with the rest of his career he promoted black musicians and performers to a white crossover audience including Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Miles Davis, and Shirley Bassey.

radio Buddies Bing and Johnny on TV in the 60's

Johnny in the 1960's

In 1935 Johnny got the call from Hollywood to write songs for the movies working for the Warner Brothers studio. He wasn’t in Hollywood long before he fell hard for young starlet Judy Garland while working on the score for Meet Me in Saint Louis. Fresh off her breakout role as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. There was instant chemistry between the two. John was thirty and Judy was eighteen but he was married, and she was engaged to another band leader and composer, David Rose.

Both of them were extremely ambitious with very wholesome public images. They did not believe their careers could survive going public with their affair. This thwarted love affair would produce some of the most classic love songs of the twentieth century. The story behind one of them ‘ I Remember You’ is that early in their affair after Judy married Johnny wrote the lyrics with composer Victor Schertzinger and gave them to her as a love letter. Another classic ‘That Old Black Magic’ that Johnny wrote the lyrics for with Harold Arlen was supposedly inspired Garland’s oral talents, and so in its own way was your grandfather’s precursor to today’s hip hop booty songs.

Nat King Cole and Johnny

The two continued to have an on again, off again thing throughout his marriage until her untimely death from a drug overdose in 1969 at the age of 47. Friends believe the unrequited love contributed to Johnny’s heavy drinking which turned into dark episodes and verbal abuse of Ginger in public.

Mr. Song

Southern gent

Academy Awards with Hoagy Carmichael, Donald O'Conner, and Henry Mancini (right)

Johnny’s career had resurgence in the 1960’s when he teamed up with upcoming composer for film scores, Henry Mancini. They scored two academy awards with Moon River and Days of wine and roses. Johnny continued to work in his home studio in Hollywood California until his death from a brain tumor in 1976.

commemorative stamp and statue in Savannah

Ella's wonderful recording of Mercer's best songs, arranged by Nelson Riddle

The master lyricist