We wrap up Johnny Mercer Week on the same day that we honor the anniversary of the birth of Hoagy Carmichael, who was born on November 23, 1899 in Bloomington, Indiana.
Of the several songs they wrote together, my favorite is “Skylark,” which was published in 1941. Johnny Mercer is said to have worked on the lyrics for “Skylark” over a year. It is also said that he wrote the lyrics to express his feelings for Judy Garland, with whom he had been involved. Whether true or not, the song and the lyrics are outstanding and it easily became a jazz and popular standard.
This Tony Bennett recording of “Skylark” is from the 1961 album with Ralph Sharon Tony Sings For Two.
In 1942, Mercer co-founded Capitol Records, with Buddy DeSylva and Glen Wallichs. The studio was quite successful, with artists including Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Dean Martin and more. Mercer made enough money that he was able to return to Savannah and pay back the remaining funds owed to those who had lost money when his father’s business had gone under.
Like many composers and singers, the musical landscape began to change drastically for Mercer in the 1950s as popular music drifted to rock and the jazz idiom was bebop. That said, some of his best work was done in the 1950s and 1960s, including the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for MGM and Li’l Abner and Saratoga on Broadway.
In the 1960s, he wrote the lyrics some of his most beloved songs, including “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” And, of interest to Tony Bennett fans, the story of “I Wanna Be Around” is a classic. You read about that here. In 1964, Ella Fitzgerald recorded a volume of his music for her Verve songbook series, the only volume devoted to a lyricist.
Johnny Mercer died on June 25, 1976 in California from an inoperable brain tumor. He is buried in hometown of Savannah at the Bonaventure Cemetery.
He will always be remembered as one of America’s greatest and most successful lyricists.
Mercer’s papers and archives were donated to Georgia State University. You can find out more about the Johnny Mercer Collection here.
The Johnny Mercer Foundation is his official website. The foundation serves educators, researchers and songwriters.
As we said earlier, Hoagy Carmichael was born on this day in 1899. During his career, he was a composer, pianist, singer, bandleader and even an actor — I saw him in the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movie To Have and Have Not just recently and he was a natural.
His canon includes favorites including “Skylark,” “Stardust,” “The Nearness of You” and “In The Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”
Carmichael died in California on December 27, 1981 and is buried in his home town of Bloomington.
His papers and archives were donated to his alma mater, Indiana University, which established The Hoagy Carmichael Collection and the Hoagy Carmichael Room to display elections. You can read about and explore the collection here.
His official website, created by his son, can be found at hoagy.com.