John Herndon Mercer was born on November 18, 1909 in Savannah, Georgia. In celebration of Johnny Mercer’s 103rd birthday, The Year of Tony Bennett will be featuring songs written by Johnny Mercer and sung by Tony Bennett all week long. We are big fans of Johnny Mercer and are very proud to pay this tribute to him. We will feature Johnny Mercer songs all week for the Song of the Day.
Johnny Mercer was the son of a Savannah attorney and real estate developer, who like many, fell on hard times in the late 1920s, at the time Johnny was due to start college. Instead of college, the young Johnny Mercer moved to New York and began his career writing lyrics for variety shows, including The Garrick Gaieties, where he met and married Ginger Meehan, a dancer. They remained married for the rest of Johnny Mercer’s life,
In addition to his vast talents as a lyricist, Mercer had a very nice voice and was a gifted performer. He won a singing contest staged by Paul Whiteman, which put him in a position to write for and perform with many jazz musicians. He performed with Jack Teagarden and wrote lyrics for Hoagy Carmichael and Billy Holiday. He wrote the lyrics for Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll.
His success in New York led him to Hollywood, where he worked with all the major studios. During the 1930s, he worked with composers including Jerome Kern (I’m Old Fashioned), Harold Arlen (Blues in the Night), Jimmy Van Heusen (I Thought About You) and Rube Bloom (Day In, Day Out).
In 1942, Mercer was a co-founder of Capitol Records, with Buddy DeSylva and Glen Wallichs. Early on, Capitol signed Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee, ensuring the success of the new venture. In the documentary film The Zen of Bennett, Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole discuss the Nat Cole’s time at Capitol, which Bennett calls “The House That Nat Built.” Capitol Records was acquired by the British EMI. It is worth noting that after the sale of Capitol, Mercer sent $300,000 back to Savannah to cover the lost investments from the collapse of his father’s firm from 1927.
In 1946, Mercer and Harold Arlen authored the Broadway musical St. Louis Girl, which included major hits for the team: Blues in the Night, Come Rain or Come Shine and Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home.
By that time, the Hollywood musical had fallen out of favor. Mercer continued to work in Hollywood, though, on projects including The Harvey Girls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Americanization of Emily, among others. This period culminated in one the great hits of this period, his work with Henry Mancini in 1961 for Breakfast At Tiffany’s and the song Moon River.
When we examine the works of Johnny Mercer in terms of his association with Tony Bennett, I Wanna Be Around may be among his better songs. The story this song sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie. A woman from Ohio named Sadie Vimmerstedt was great fan of Mercer. One day these two lines came to her: “I Wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” She thought that they sounded like a Johnny Mercer song and so she put them in an envelope addressed to “Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, Los Angeles, California.” Thankfully, the letter reached Mercer and he not only finished the lyrics but also, in a rare move, composed the music. Tony Bennett recorded the song in 1962 and it became a huge hit for the album of the same name. Mercer shared 50 percent of the royalties with Sadie Vimmerstedt, which allowed her to retire and travel in style. Mercer is on record as stating that Bennett’s version was his favorite interpretation of any song he ever wrote.
Johnny Mercer was diagnosed with brain cancer and died from that on June 25, 1976 in Bel Air, California. He was buried in the family plot in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, which may be familiar to those who have seen the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) which was directed by Clint Eastwood and featured a wonderful score of Johnny Mercer songs, including Tony Bennett’s version of I Wanna Be Around from 1962.
We recommend the following web sites for those who want to learn more about Johnny Mercer:
The Johnny Mercer Foundation website (requires Flash)
The Johnny Mercer Foundation Facebook Page
Johnny Mercer Educational Archives
The New Georgia Encyclopedia
Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me is a film about the life and career of Johnny Mercer and is available at Amazon.
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia was released in 2003. It does not seem to in currently in print, but used copies are available from Amazon, Powell’s City of Books and other vendors of used books.