The “American songbook,” music written in the half-century 1920-1970 for Broadway, radio, and Hollywood, is dominated by composers: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael. The lyricists who wrote the words for their songs were brilliant too, but are usually granted a smaller helping of fame. Ira Gerswhin excelled at ringing changes on vernacular phrases; Lorenz Hart was the master of impossible rhymes about unrequited love; E.Y. Harburg was deft and whimsical; Oscar Hammerstein II preferred a full assault on the tear ducts. But to enter the pantheon, a lyricist was best-advised to write his own songs, as Berlin and Porter did.
The exception is Johnny Mercer. Mercer was born 18 November 1909, making next Wednesday his centenary. Mercer was the ultimate hired-gun lyricist, writing a spectacular portfolio of standards with the great unattached composers of his day. His 19 Academy Award nominations were shared with eight different composers: Harry Warren, Artie Shaw, Jimmy McHugh, Arlen, Carmichael, Henry Mancini, Marvin Hamlisch, and himself. Sources differ on how many #1 pop hits Mercer wrote, but it’s somewhere between 14 and 20 – sometimes with Mercer himself as vocalist. All of Ella Fitzgerald’s priceless “Songbook” albums feature the work of a single composer (Kern, Ellington, Porter, e.g.) except one: the Johnny Mercer songbook. A Mercer song, alone in the world of jazz standards, is identified with its lyricist, not its composer.
Several of Mercer’s greatest hits are novelty songs: “Jeepers Creepers,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Accentuate the Positive.” Mercer is often rightly identified with wonderful high-energy nonsense like “Glow-Worm”:
Glow, little glow-worm, fly of fire,
Glow like an incandescent wire,
Glow for the female of the specie,
Turn on the AC and the DC.
But his biggest novelty song, a #1 hit and Oscar-winner, shows how readily Mercer could shift into a key of sheer wonder. There are few moments in movie musicals more gorgeous than hearing Judy Garland arrive on “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (composed by Warren):
Back in Ohio where I come from,
I’ve done a lot of dreaming and I’ve traveled some;
But I never thought I’d see the day
When I ever took a ride on the Santa Fe.
Mercer was in love with Garland, which put him in less than exclusive company in the Hollywood of the 1940s. Their brief affair resulted in unforgettable songs, though: “In the Valley Where the Evening Sun Goes Down”, “I Remember You,” and “That Old Black Magic.” Bittersweet, haunting infatuations were Mercer’s stock in trade: “Laura,” “Fools Rush In,” “I Want to Be Around (to Pick Up the Pieces),” “Day In, Day Out,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “One For My Baby” (composed by Arlen):
I got the routine
So drop another nickel in the machine.
I’m feeling so bad,
I wish you’d make the music dreamy and sad.
I could tell you a lot, but you’ve gotta be true to your code.
Make it one for my baby,
And one more for the road.
But he also captured the most difficult thing to put into verse, the complete certainty of love. “You Grow Sweeter as the Years Go By” (composer Johnny Mercer):
Though September takes the place of June,
In September there’s a harvest moon.
Let the leaves start falling, darling,
What care I,
When you grow sweeter as the years go by.
Mercer was unusually successful as a translator of European lyrics, as in “Autumn Leaves,” “Summer Wind,” and in fact “Glow-Worm,” which he liberally adapted from Paul Lincke’s 1902 operetta number “Glühwürmchen.” Mercer wrote “Blues in the Night,” “Mandy Is Two,” “My Shining Hour,” “Travelin’ Light,” “I Thought about You,” “And the Angels Sing,” “Moon River,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” the magnificent “Skylark,” and the incomparable “Too Marvelous for Words.” Much too marvelous, in a lyric that throws the attention back onto Richard Whiting’s music:
You’re much too much,
And just too very, very
To ever be
In Webster’s Dictionary.
And so I’m borrowing
A love song from the birds
To tell you that you’re marvelous,
Too marvelous for words.