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Johnny Mercer Biography

Johnny Mercer

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Born: 1909. Died: 1976. Lived in: United States

John Herndon "Johnny" Mercer was an American lyricist, songwriter and singer. He was also the founder of Capitol Records.

He is best known as a lyricist, but he also composed music. He was also a popular singer who recorded his own songs as well as those written by others. From the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, many of the songs Mercer wrote and performed were among the most popular hits of the time. He wrote the lyrics to more than fifteen hundred songs, including compositions for movies and Broadway shows. He received nineteen Academy Award nominations, and won four Best Original Song Oscars.

Writing songs for movies offered two distinct advantages. The use of sensitive microphones for recording and of the lip-synching of pre-recorded songs liberated songwriters from dependence on the long vowel endings and long sustained notes required for live performance. Performers such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could now sing more conversationally and more nonchalantly. Mercer, as a singer, was attuned to this shift and his style fitted the need perfectly.

Mercer's first Hollywood assignment was not the Astaire-Rogers vehicle of which he had dreamed but a B-movie college musical, Old Man Rhythm, to which he contributed two undistinguished songs and even worse acting. His next project, To Beat the Band, was another flop, but it did lead to a meeting and a collaboration with Fred Astaire on the moderately successful Astaire song "I'm Building Up to an Awful Let-Down".

Though all but overwhelmed by the glitter of Hollywood, Mercer found his beloved jazz and nightlife lacking. As he wrote, "Hollywood was never much of a night town. Everybody had to get up too early... the movie people were in bed with the chickens (or each other)." Mercer was now in Bing Crosby's hard-drinking circle and enjoyed Crosby's company and hipster talk.

Mercer was invited to the Camel Caravan radio show in New York to sing his hits and create satirical songs with the Benny Goodman orchestra, then becoming the emcee of the nationally broadcast show for several months. Two more hits followed shortly, "Day In, Day Out" and "Fools Rush In", and Mercer in short order had five of the top ten songs on the popular radio show Your Hit Parade.(26) Mercer also started a short-lived publishing company during his stay in New York. On a lucky streak, Mercer undertook a musical with Hoagy Carmichael, but Walk with Music (originally called Three After Three) was a bomb, with story quality not matching that of the score. Another disappointment for Mercer was the selection of Johnny Burke as the long-term songwriter for the Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures. Mercer was thirty and his life and career were riding high.

Shortly thereafter, Mercer met an ideal musical collaborator in the form of Harold Arlen whose jazz and blues-influenced compositions provided Mercer's sophisticated, idiomatic lyrics a perfect musical vehicle. Now Mercer's lyrics began to display the combination of sophisticated wit and southern regional vernacular that characterize some of his best songs. Their first hit was "Blues in the Night" (1941), which Arthur Schwartz claimed was "probably the greatest blues song ever written."