Johnny Mercer, Moon River and me

The famous songwriter was born 100 years ago this month. He once saved Steyn’s night.

Johnny Mercer, Moon River and meWe’re after the same rain-

bow’s end

Waiting round the bend

My huckleberry friend

Moon River and me . . .

Where is Moon River? Everywhere and nowhere. But, if you had to pin it down, you’d find it meandering at least metaphorically somewhere in the neighbourhood of Savannah, Georgia. At one point, the town’s most celebrated musical emissary was Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah. But then the American Songbook’s huckleberry friend showed up: John Herndon Mercer, born in Savannah 100 years ago, Nov. 18, 1909. The family home, the Mercer House, is the setting for the most famous book written about Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Clint Eastwood’s film made the connection even more explicit with an all-Mercer soundtrack: Kevin Spacey singing That Old Black Magic, k.d. lang Skylark, Diana Krall Midnight Sun, and Clint himself taking a respectable thwack at Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.

Johnny Mercer didn’t linger in Savannah—as a teenager he stowed away on a ship to New York and the bright lights—but a lot of Savannah lingered in him. To mark his centenary, Knopf has produced the latest in its series of lavish, handsome coffee-table “Complete Lyrics.” Mercer’s predecessors in the set are Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein—the Broadway guys who wrote songs for characters and plots. Insofar as there are famous lyric-writers, that’s who they are: Cole Porter “punishing the parquet” (in his words) as he paces his penthouse polishing the polysyllables for a sophisticated triple-rhymed sixth chorus in the second act name-dropping all his Park Avenue pals. Mercer never had a real Broadway hit, but he’s the link between New York’s songwriting royalty and a more rural tradition. Like Hart and Gershwin, he was a fan of W. S. Gilbert and the Savoy Operas. Unlike them, he also had an eye for the great American landscape west of the Hudson River:

From Natchez to Mobile

From Memphis to St. Joe

Wherever the four winds blow

I been in some big towns

Heard me some big talk

But there is one thing I know . . .

Blues in the Night was written for some nothing film in 1941 that didn’t even know what it had. Harold Arlen’s tune is less a 12-bar blues than a 58-bar blues aria, its harmony full of plaintive lonesome sevenths, and Mercer’s lyric eschews the blues device of repetition for a kind of lightly worn vernacular poetry:

Now the rain’s a-fallin’

Hear the train a-callin’


(My mama done tol’ me)

Hear that lonesome whistle

Blowin’ cross the trestle


(My mama done tol’ me . . . )

He loved trains, hated planes. So he wrote great train songs: On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe; (I took a trip on a train and) I Thought About You; “And you see Laura / On a train that is passing through . . . ” Ira Gershwin or Larry Hart would never have heard the music in that “lonesome whistle.” For one thing, it doesn’t even rhyme with “trestle.” It just fits in some strange organic way you can’t precisely define. That’s how he approached the job: music suggests a sound, a sound suggests certain syllables, and eventually a word or a thought will emerge and you’re in business.

In the forties, he founded Capitol Records and became a big pop singer with a lot of Top 10 records and a handful of number ones, not just of his songs but of other folks’ (Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah). It was famously said of Bing Crosby that he sang like every guy in America thought he sounded like when he sang in the shower. But, if anything, that description applies more to Mercer (he and Bing duetted together, lots, from the thirties to the seventies). There’s something about that Savannah drawl that gave him a warm mellow tone that sounds like a regular guy jes’ wandering from the living room to the backyard and maybe out onto the golf course and doing a little warbling along the way. And, in part because he sang himself, his songs have a singable ease. He liked to say that writing music took more talent but writing lyrics took more courage. A tune can be beguiling and wistful and intoxicating and a bunch of other vagaries but the lyricist has to sit down and get specific and put words on top of those notes. Stick an overripe adjective or an awkward image in there and a vaguely pleasant melody is suddenly precious or contrived or ridiculous. Not in Fools Rush In or Jeepers Creepers. With Mercer, you rarely hear the false tinkle of an over-clever word in a love ballad or an obtrusive rhyme in a rural charm song.

That said, he gave the movie industry its theme song and summed it up in a single couplet:

Hooray For Hollywood

Where you’re terrific if you’re even good.

And how about this rhyme? Spring, Spring, Spring is a catalogue song, a laundry list of the joys of the mating season when “the barnyard is busy / In a regular tizzy.” But, after getting through the various habits of the birds and the bees, the fish and the fowl, Mercer throws in this:

To itself each amoeba

Softly croons “Ach, du liebe . . .”

A biological and bilingual rhyme: that’s positively Porteresque.

Mercer wrote Spring, Spring, Spring and Summer Wind and always wanted to write a Christmas standard but never managed it (though his recording of Jingle Bells is terrific). But what he really liked was autumn. Lyric-wise, he got old early, and intimations of mortality hang over a lot of his work from the late forties on. Yes, the days grow short when you reach September and dwindle down to a precious few and whatnot, but Mercer chose to embrace (as one of his titles has it) an “Early Autumn.” Thereafter came Autumn Leaves and When the World Was Young and . . .

The Days of Wine and Roses

Laugh and run away

Like a child at play . . .

The lonely night discloses

Just a passing breeze

Filled with memories . . .

Memories that, as in Laura, “you can never quite recall.” Mercer became near obsessed with the elusiveness of memory, of love and youth. Along the way, there was a lot of wine at night, and roses the morning after. He was the nicest guy, and the nastiest—once the bottle got south of two inches from the bottom. The following day, he’d feel bad about being a mean drunk to a close friend or a casual acquaintance or the cocktail waitress, and many florists benefited from his guilt. But, as Jo Stafford said to him as he staggered up to her one evening, “Please, John. I don’t want any of your roses in the morning.” If he’d been sober, he’d have written that down as a potential title, the way he did with Goody Goody and P.S. I Love You. But he was sufficiently self-aware to get more than a few songs out of it:

“Drinking Again

And thinking of when you loved me

Having a few

And wishing that you were here

Making the rounds

And buying the rounds for strangers . . . ”

Sinatra liked that one, and he loved Mercer’s all-time great saloon song:

It’s quarter to three

There’s no one in the place except you and me

So set ’em up, Joe

I got a little story you oughtta know . . .

Supposedly he wrote that as catharsis after a doomed affair with Judy Garland, but we only found that out years later. Like he said:

Could tell you a lot

But you’ve got

To be true to your code

Make it One For My Baby

And One More For The Road . . .

Thinking about Mercer songs for this column, I remembered a night long ago when, a mere slip of a lad, I took a gal I adored to a country club dance I couldn’t really afford. Johnny Mercer saved the night for me: the master of ceremonies announced a competition. To win, you had to answer a simple question:

“How wide is Moon River?”

“Wider than a mile,” of course. We won a magnum of champagne, and the waiters treated us like royalty. A magical night. But the days of wine and roses laugh and run away toward a closing door, a door marked “Nevermore . . . ” Conjuring up that evening for the first time in years, I wondered about my lost love, and whether that country club was still there. But then I remembered Mercer had got to all that, too:

There’s a dance pavilion in the rain

All shuttered down . . .

Not long before his death in 1976, he said that in 50 years’ time the best of Porter and Hart and Gershwin will be “studied and taught in schools, and collected . . . and forgotten.” But we’re getting mighty near 2026, and we’re still singing Johnny Mercer. It’s quarter to three, and somewhere out there Willie Nelson’s promoting his new record of Come Rain or Come Shine and Michael Bublé’s doing his hugely successful if somewhat vulgar revival of Mercer and Mancini’s Meglio Stasera from The Pink Panther.

Set ’em up, Joe . . . and drop another nickel in the machine.