Johnny Mercer…Poet of American Popular Song
The story: I have found over time that my reading is very often directed by the music I have listened to recently. Last month, I rediscovered (for the umteenth time) the marvelous Benny Goodman/Johnny Mercer recording of the novelty tune “Cuckoo in the Clock.” BG recorded this on February 1, 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.(1) 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.
The clever and so characteristic Mercer lyric to “Cuckoo 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 (Lees) 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.
Many of the lyrics Johnny Mercer wrote in the 1930s were joyous romps through vernacular American English. They were clever, witty and meant to make people smile. Starting in the early 1940s, Mercer began to explore the darker recesses of the human condition. As time passed, Mercer’s scope as a lyricist became broader, and much deeper emotionally. Many of his lyrics from the 1940s on are poetic in every sense of the word.
But the lyric for “Cuckoo in the Clock” is definitely in the first category, a joyous romp, and is prime early Mercer. Here is part of it:
There they were, there they were, He was baby-talkin’ her, And the cuckoo in the clock went “cuckoo!”
Every fifteen minutes he crew, “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!”
“Be a pal, be a pal”, Said the fella to his gal, and the cuckoo in the clock went “cuckoo!
I believe they’re startin’ to woo, woo-woo, woo-woo, woo-woo!”
They didn’t know that everything they said was overheard; They didn’t hear that little birdie givin’ them the bird!
So he said with a sigh, “Who’s your little peachy pie?” And the cuckoo in the clock went “cuckoo!
Though I’m just a little cuckoo, I’m not as cuckoo as you!” So he closed the door and withdrew, “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!”
Mercer careened through the 1930s. From his work as a singer (with Paul Whiteman), to Hollywood (his work at Warner Brothers as a collaborator with composers Richard Whiting and Harry Warren), Mercer seemed to bound from one success to another. His first big Hollywood song, for which he wrote both the lyric and the music, was “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande.” Bing Crosby sang it in the 1936 film Rhythm on the Range. His next hit was “Goody-Goody.” Benny Goodman and his vocalist Helen Ward made a hit recording of it in 1936.
In 1937 Mercer began working at Warner Brothers, with the veteran composer Richard Whiting. Their first hit together was “Too Marvelous for Words,” done for the film Ready, Willing and Able. This was followed by “Hooray for Hollywood,” done for Hollywood Hotel. It was on this film that Mercer and Benny Goodman first worked together, though they had known each other previously. (The photo below right shows L-R: Goodman sidemen Allan Reuss, Ziggy Elman; Mercer; Gene Krupa and Murray McEachern. BG is in the middle eating a hot dog. Hollywood in 1936.)
Despite his success in writing for Hollywood films in the mid to late 1930s, Mercer still loved performing, and often sought out opportunities to sing. A golden opportunity to do that, and at the same time raise his profile as a lyricist/songwriter presented itself in early 1939, when he was paired with Benny Goodman on his long-running radio show, The Camel Caravan. Mercer worked on this show as emcee, comedian, and most importantly, as a singer from January 3, 1939 through the end of May. Out of this association came the hit “And the Angels Sing,” for which Mercer fitted BG trumpeter Ziggy Elman’s melody (originally called “Fralich in Swing”) (1) with an imaginative lyric, sung by BG’s girl vocalist Martha Tilton. But perhaps his most clever and humorous recording with Goodman was “Cuckoo in the Clock,” for which he wrote the lyric for Walter Donaldson’s melody.
“Cuckoo in the Clock”
Music by Walter Donaldson, lyric by Johnny Mercer. Probably arranged by Jimmy Mundy.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor on February 1, 1939 in New York.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Ziggy Elman, first trumpet; Chris Griffin and Irving Goodman, trumpet; Red Ballard and Vernon Brown, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; Ernani “Noni” Bernardi, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Ben Heller, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Buddy Schutz, drums; Johnny Mercer, vocal.
The music: Although is is true that in early 1939, Artie Shaw was gaining national popularity, and tremendous respect at Victor/Bluebird Records largely because of the unexpectedly large sales of his “Begin the Beguine” recording, it would be erroneous to suggest that Benny Goodman was not at that time and through 1939, still a major swing era star.(2) He had just completed a hugely successful year (1938) of personal appearances (including at Carnegie Hall), his recordings for Victor were still good (but not great) sellers, and he continued to enjoy widespread success and recognition as a result of his weekly appearances on the CBS radio network show The Camel Caravan. Any time the Goodman orchestra appeared anywhere on tour, they received top money. But the most important factor to be considered was that the Benny Goodman band of 1939 was still a very potent performing unit.
Benny Goodman at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan – early 1939. L-R: BG; drummer Buddy Schutz; Jerry Jerome; Ziggy Elman; Noni Bernardi.
Much commentary over the years has been to the effect that in the wake of the departures of drummer Gene Krupa (in early 1938), and trumpeter Harry James (in early 1939) from the BG band, the band they left was as 1939 began no longer great. That, in my opinion, is inaccurate. If one is able to listen to recordings of the 1938 Goodman band with Dave Tough in the drummer’s seat, it becomes immediately obvious that his playing swung the Goodman band as hard or harder than Krupa’s had. And after James left, trumpeter Ziggy Elman stepped up to do some of the finest playing in his career for BG. The young and exciting tenor saxophone soloist Jerry Jerome became a part of the Goodman organization late in 1938, and performed with distinction with Benny for the next 20 months. Similarly, drummer Buddy Schutz replaced Tough in the fall of 1938, and immediately began to drive the Goodman band with both strength and color. Finally, Benny himself was playing superbly, with a consistently high level of inspiration.
But no matter how hard Benny strived to keep his band as strong musically as possible, he also exerted a huge amount of effort to make his radio show as good as it could be, both from the musical standpoint, and with respect to its various guests. Periodic changes were made to the show, usually to good result. The addition of singer/lyricist Johnny Mercer to the show at the beginning of 1939 was one such salutary change. The shows produced during the time Benny Goodman was featured on The Camel Caravan (mid-1936 to the end of 1939–many of which were recorded) contain a lot of the best playing of the Goodman band of that era, and in many ways are windows into the pop culture (especially jazz) of the late 1930s. And the money Benny made working on that show allowed him to build and maintain an excellent band through those years. (Above: The Goodman band is shown performing on the Camel Caravan in early 1939.)
I have tried to ascertain who arranged “Cuckoo in the Clock” for Benny Goodman, but have not been able to do so. My informed speculation is that it was arranged by Jimmy Mundy (shown at right -1939), who wrote many arrangements for BG in the 1930s, though it is also possible that Fletcher Henderson could have written it.
This performance opens with a bright introduction which leads directly into Johnny Mercer’s vocal. Mercer may have been primarily a lyricist, but he was definitely a professional singer as well. He had a strong voice, a fine sense of swing, and brought great wit to his performances, especially those of his own lyrics. His rhymes with the word “cukoo” in this lyric are particularly humorous: crew/woo/withdrew. Mercer loved playing with the English language, and was a master at it. The unity and swing of the Goodman band in supporting Mercer’s singing throughout this performance is impressive.
The instrumental dialogue between Benny and tenor saxophonist Jerry Jerome after the first vocal is a rare treat. Goodman’s sound is brilliant in his brief solo, and his swing is intense. Ziggy Elman leads the biting brass, Hymie Shertzer the fluid reeds. Drummer Buddy Schutz drives the ensemble (and BG) with playing that is at once muscular and vibrant. This performance is an example of the great ensemble virtuosity and high enthusiasm of this particular band.
(1) Mercer’s lyric for Ziggy Elman’s melody “Fralich in Swing,” under the new title “And the Angels Sing,” was also recorded by Benny Goodman on February 1,1939. It became a substantial hit for BG later in 1939. But by then, Benny had left Victor. Note: The music for Ziggy Elman’s Bluebird recording of “Fralich in Swing” (made on December 28, 1938), was arranged by Noni Bernardi. The arrangement for Benny Goodman’s recording of “And the Angels Sing,” with Mercer’s lyric, was done by Abe Osser.
(2) It is accurate however to say that as 1939 began, Benny Goodman’s relationship with Victor Records began to deteriorate. Artie Shaw’s success at Victor/Bluebird, which eclipsed Goodman’s in early 1939, elevated him over Benny there, and BG was not happy about that. In addition, it seems that someone suggested that Benny make a record that included stylistic elements of Shaw’s monster hit “Begin the Beguine.” The result was a very pleasant and beautifully performed arrangement done by Noni Bernardi on “Estrellita,” which was recorded by BG for Victor on February 9, 1939. It gathered dust on the shelves of record stores, while Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine,” and increasingly many other of Shaw’s Bluebird recordings, sold like hotcakes. Benny’s frustration with Victor soon turned to disenchantment. He left Victor in May of 1939.
The recording presented here was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Mike Zirpolo has provided an incisive and even handed review of the great Johnny Mercer and the two other large biographies on the subject. A stellar lyricist Johnny Mercer also was a dedicated vocalist and a fun introduction to both his talents can be found on You Tube showing an old clip from the Steve Allen show where he and Steve trade off singing with Johnny who was asked to do only his compositions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YFT8MixHSE
Mercer cut an album with Bobby Darin 1960. “Indiana” was an outstanding cut. Billy May was the arranger. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etXEtU3WbAk
Mike, excellent as always! I wonder how many of your readers know that Johnny Mercer is runner-up (with 18 Oscar Nominations as lyricist) to my dear late friend Sammy Cahn, who won 26 Oscar Nominations as a lyricist. They both won four Oscars for their lyrics.