Johnny Mercer…Poet of American Popular Song
I have found over time that my reading is very often directed by the music I have listened to recently. Last month, I rediscovered the marvelous Benny Goodman/Johnny Mercer recording of the novelty tune “Cookoo in the Clock.” BG recorded this on February 2, 1939 for RCA Victor at the time he was being overwhelmed at that company by Artie Shaw’s newfound success, which was centered around the unprecedentedly high sales of Shaw’s recording of “Begin the Beguine,” made the prior summer for RCA Bluebird. Although Goodman was playing splendidly, and leading an excellent band, it seemed that whatever he did at Victor in early 1939 simply could not compete sales-wise with what Shaw was then doing. He would soon terminate his relationship with Victor. Fortunately, Benny was still performing on the Camel Caravan network radio program through this time, which also featured Mercer as a “personality” and more importantly as a singer. This allowed Goodman to maintain a first-rate band. I will be posting “Cookoo in the Clock,” with Johnny Mercer singing his own lyric, here at swingandbeyond.com in the future.
The clever and so characteristic Mercer lyric to “Cookoo in the Clock” led me to pull the two biographies of Johnny Mercer I have in my library off the shelf, and re-read them. They are: Skylark..The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, by Philip Furia; and Portrait of Johnny…The Life of John Herndon Mercer, by Gene Lees.
Mr. Furia’s book, which was published in 2003, is excellent and comprehensive. At the time he wrote the book, he was a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The quality of his writing is high. He did a marvelous job of capturing the essence of Johnny Mercer as a man and as one of the few supremely gifted and enormously successful lyricists in the history of American Popular Song. He also traced Mercer’s personal and professional lives from when he was a hyperactive teenager who grew up in Savannah,Georgia in the 1910s and 1920s, to his last years in the 1960s and 1970s as a wealthy elder show business statesman in Hollywood. (Mercer co-founded Capitol Records in the early 1940s, and sold his interest in Capitol in the mid-1950s thus acquiring great wealth.) By then, Mercer who had written dozens of successful song lyrics that had become a part of the fabric of American pop culture, was deeply depressed by the changes he saw in the pop music scene. Mercer was strongly affected by his idealized and nostalgic recollections of the Savannah of his early youth, where he enjoyed the privileges of being white in the Jim Crow south, and the son of a successful businessman from a prominent family. Despite the rigid segregation of races in the Georgia of Mercer’s youth, he mingled with Afro-Americans as a boy, and absorbed many of their musical traditions. This greatly influenced his later work. Mercer was also an unrepentant romantic, as many of his greatest lyrics show.
I recommend Mr. Furia’s book without reservation, and suggest that it be read before the Lees book.
Mr. Lees’s book, which was published in 2004, is part biography, and part reminiscence, since he knew Johnny Mercer for a number of years before Mercer’s death in 1976 at age 66. Mr. Lees was involved in the world of music, jazz, and lyric writing for a part of his career, from the 1950s into the 1980s, and he was capable of writing about these subjects with great insight. Starting in the 1980s, he began to write and publish a series of marvelous essays on musicians whom he admired, in a periodical he called Jazzletter. Mr. Lees died in 2010 at age 82.
Mr. Lees was an excellent writer, but his biography of Johnny Mercer suffers from a number of faults, paramount of which are his tendencies to inject himself into the story of Johnny Mercer too much, and occasionally to be pedantic. Also, Mr. Lees undertook to analyze at some length the character and personality of Johnny Mercer’s mother, no doubt to try to explain some of Mercer’s behavior, especially in his relationship with his wife Ginger, their two adopted children, and the Mercer family that remained in Savannah. Mr. Lees’s rather lengthy professional analyses of many of Mercer’s lyrics may be illuminating to some, but to most will smack of pedantry. He also used a considerable number of pages at the end of the book to review the various activities, relationships, and behaviors of Mercer’s widow, whom he clearly did not like.
Despite these faults, I recommend Mr. Lees’s book. But it will make much more sense, and be more enjoyable, if it is read after one reads the Furia book.