Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Huckleberry Friend

Last night we watched a 90-minute special on the life of the great lyricist, Johnny Mercer. Honestly, it was Friday night and I put the show on thinking we'd watch for a while and doze off. An hour and a half later, after being glued to the screen listening spellbound to a parade of one great American hit after another, we finally went to bed wondering how so much talent could be packed into one small package. What are the odds of a young man born into a wealthy Savannah banking family becomming arguably the best lyrics writer the world has ever known.

The show was interesting enough from a musical perspective alone, but just as fascinating was the story of Mercer's life. His father and grandfather grew wealthy in the banking business, and Johnny was sent to the same private schools on the assumption he would follow in their path. The Great Depression put those plans to rest. His father's bank failed and the senior Mercer disposed of all his personal wealth, close to $1 million (serious dough in the 1920s) in an effort to pay back the bank's investors out of his own pocket. Think for a moment what type of honor-bound man it took to do that. Then think of the greedy scum who nearly bankrupted the country a few years back. My, how things have changed.

Down to his last $2,000, Johnny's father gave him $1,000 to make a career for himself. Johnny was thankful and promised to someday pay his father back. Always a gifted jazz and pop musician, he moved to New York and began honing his craft. His first big hit was a catchy tune called "Jeepers Creepers", a phrase uttered by a very young Henry Fonda in a forgetable western of the day. Johnny had a gift for words. His southern-flavored vocabulary gave his lyrics a relaxed, easy sound, perfect for the first big artist to fall in love with Mercer tunes, Mr. Bing Crosby.

Mercer had a performing side as well, and starred on the very popular Paul Whiteman radio program. Hit followed hit as Johnny collaborated with so many gifted music writers. They say he wrote at least one song with over 200 separate partners including the talented Harold Arlen, his most prolific partnership. Soon Hollywood beckoned, and Mercer began writing memorable music for some of the top films of the day. He collected fans of his music among tinsletown's top movie stars and recording artists including Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. Johnny, despite being married, fell in love with Judy Garland and carried a torch for her the rest of his life.

One day, unhappy with his lack of control over what kind of records he could record and distribute, he and a friend started Capitol Records with a loan of $10,000. Johnny didn't really care what kind of music the public wanted, he recorded only what he liked. Along the way he nurtured the careers of headliners-to-be Nat King Cole, Rosie Clooney, Jo Stafford and Lena Horn. He wrote with giants in the business like Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Henry Mancini. Evidently Johnny's taste in music was shared by the public, as Capitol Records took off. He subsuquently sold his shares in the company and grew very wealthy.

It would have been easy to kick back and enjoy his money and fame, especially after people's musical tastes changed as rock began to eclipse pop on the American music scene. Instead Johnny traveled to Europe where he collaborated with new partners like Andre Previn and Michele Legrand, and gained new fans. By the way, being an honorable Southern gentleman, he also returned to his home in Savannah and settled all the debts his bankrupt father could not square so many years past. WOW! Sit back now and enjoy what has become the signature song of the great Johnny Mercer. Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany's


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

'Moon River' was our class graduation song in 1964! It was and still is a great inspirational song that has stayed with me for all these years. Mercer was the center of the musical universe int those days.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

By the way, that was a great blog!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Thanks Joe, I'm glad you're a fan of the great Johnny Mercer.

The Whiner said...

I could be wrong but I believe he wrote the song Laura, for whom your favorite child is named? And lot's of other great songs too. I didn't know anything about his life, thanks!

Jim Pantaleno said...

When they asked a number of famous songwriters what song they wished they had written, they said "Laura". It was Johnny's and he wrote the lyrics having never seen the movie. We love that song.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you, your lovely wife and children and all the grandkids!