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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Books We Like to Give and Get: The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer

It's a shame that the American lyricist Johnny Mercer is less well known today than Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, and many of the songwriters who were his Tin Pan Alley contemporaries.

Johnny Mercer, the composer
and Capitol recording star

If he is remembered at all, it's usually for a group of hit songs he composed, later in his career, with
Henry Mancini for films like Breakfast at Tiffany's ("Moon River"), Days of Wine and Roses, and Charade.

It was a different story during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s when Mercer was as popular as Gershwin, Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter and the other greats who shaped American popular music in the first half of the 20th Century.

He wrote dozens of standards – "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)", "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Blues in the Night," "This Time the Dream's on Me," "I'm Old Fashioned," "Tangerine," "That Old Black Magic," "Too Marvelous for Words," "Fools Rush In."

As if those weren't enough to assure his place in the Pantheon of great songwriters, Mercer gave us the sultry jazz standards "Skylark," "Satin Doll," and "Midnight Sun" in which he rhymed ruby chalice with alabaster palace and aurora borealis

He could also produce clever rhymes that were catchy, disdainfully amusing, and topical at the same time. In his show business anthem "Hooray for Hollywood," from 1937's Hollywood Hotel, Mercer observed:

Hooray for Hollywood!
Where you're terrific if you're even good.

Forty years later the pianist and cabaret singer Blossom Dearie swung these lilting lyrics:

I dig Modigliani,
Jolson doing "Swanee,"

Several maharanees are my intimates, too.

I played with Mantovani,
And that's a lot of strings to get through.

But anyone can see
My new celebrity is you!

Mercer's novelty numbers, some with his own music, have endured, as well, even if we've forgotten who wrote them. "Jeepers Creepers (Where'd You Get Those Peepers?)", "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)" "Goody, Goody," and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive (E-lim-mi-nate the negative)" are as familiar to us today as they were to previous generations.

Johnny Mercer made other significant contributions to American popular music.

In 1942 he founded and for many years was the driving force behind Capitol Records, home to Paul Whiteman, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Stan Kenton and, later, The Kingston Trio, Dean Martin, and The Beatles. As a singer, he was one of the label's first and biggest recording stars. In the 1940s, sales of Mercer discs were on par with those of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Mercer the performer and music industry giant are forgotten, and today we celebrate him for the marvelous words he wrote.

They've all been collected and annotated in The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, by Robert Kimball, editor of earlier volumes on the works of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser, and Lorenz Hart.

This large-format book contains every lyric Mercer wrote, more than 1500 in all. It includes his first song, "Out of Breath (and Scared to Death of You)" along with the complete scores for L'il Abner, St. Louis Woman, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Mercer's unsuccessful musicals are here, too: Saratoga, Top Banana, the infamous Bert Lahr flop Foxy.

We love leafing through this book, revisiting beloved standards and discovering unknown gems. Anyone who is a fan of the Great American Songbook will find hours of enjoyment within its pages, too.