The Songwriter for Month for October, 2016 is Johnny Mercer.
John Herndon Mercer was born on November 18, 1909 in Savannah, Georgia. His father was a prominent attorney and real estate developer. His mother loved music and sang to her son from a very early age. He was given lessons in both piano and trumpet, but realized early on that his talents lay in writing lyrics. As a young man from a well-to-do family, he was one of a few of his peers to have access to an automobile and was known to seek out performances jazz greats including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
Mercer was destined to attend his father’s alma mater, Princeton. However, the stock market crash of 1929 destroyed his family’s fortunes. His father used his own funds to pay as many of his investors in his real estate endeavors, saving only a very modest amount of money for the family.
He moved to New York at the age of 19 and immersed himself in jazz and popular music. He was able to get a day job in a brokerage house and spent his evenings writing music and listening to as many performers as he could. He slowly but surely began to make a name for himself. When Hollywood called in 1935, he answered the call and began working for RKO. He became a friend of Bing Crosby and joined the hard-drinking group of friends of Bing’s. His drinking was beginning to be a problem for him. When sober, Mercer was a nice guy, but was, as they say, a mean drunk. It was during those days he started the habit of sending extravagant bouquets of flowers as an apology for actions.
His friendship with Bing Crosby led to a stable career in Hollywood during the late 1930s. In the early 1940s, he began his collaboration with Harold Arlen, which led to much of his best work. During the 1940s, he was tremendously popular and sought-after by many composers. In addition to songwriting, he opened Capitol Records in 1942. What few knew at the time was that Mercer used the profits from Capitol Records to pay off the remainder of his father’s debts from the stock market crash to pay back all the remaining investors in his father’s real estate development business.
With the 1950s and the rise of rock and roll, popular music was changing, but Mercer attracted some of the best project available such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Days of Wine and Roses and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He was also a frequent guest on television programs.
Mercer died in 1975 from a brain tumor. He is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.
There is a wealth of information about Johnny Mercer available. The Year of Tony Bennett recommends:
- Clint Eastwood’s 2009 documentary film The Dream’s On Me, produced by Turner Classic Movies.
- The Johnny Mercer Foundation website.
- Reference list of all of Mercer’s songs on the Songwriters Hall of Fame website.
- The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, available from Amazon and other book dealers.
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