by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I had recorded the Turner Classic Movies special Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me when it was on Wednesday night and I ran it for Charles last night. It was directed by Bruce Ricker, who had previously done a special on Tony Bennett and therefore had a feel for the kind of music Mercer wrote lyrics for (and occasionally composed songs as well). It was produced by Clint Eastwood, whose connection benefited the film in that he’s long since shown his feel for jazz (he is, after all, the director of the best jazz biopic of all time, Bird) but who hurt it by dragging out his kids, son Kyle and daughter Morgan, to perform. Kyle is a not-bad bass player but Morgan, who seems to be about 14, is a totally incompetent singer who managed to get her rendition of “This Time the Dream’s on Me” on national TV only because her dad is a superstar and a Hollywood legend. The first I heard her little voice squeaking its way through a song Ella Fitzgerald recorded superbly (other people have done it, too, including Earl Coleman, but Ella’s is my favorite) I thought, “This is what it would sound like if Yoko Ono did a standards album” — though that’s being unfair to Yoko, who’s a good enough musician she’d at least try to phrase adequately.
Later on another, almost as incompetent young girl named Maude Maggart came out and croaked and pouted her way through a Mercer song — and her presence on this show didn’t even have the excuse of a nepotistic family connection! Aside from Audra MacDonald, who sang superbly, none of the modern-day singers showed much appreciation for this music or talent to bring it off — but fortunately, as the show progressed they stopped showing that many modern singers and started showing clips of the vocal greats of the past, back when Mercer was still alive and his musical style was the lingua franca of American pop. I love Johnny Mercer, though I did find it odd to lionize him the way this show did given that he was mostly a lyric writer (he tried his hand at composing but did not make the permanent change from lyricist to composer-lyricist the way Stephen Sondheim did) and one could argue that the true greats of his songs were the people who wrote their melodies: Hoagy Carmichael (who actually suggested the last line of the “Lazy Bones” lyric), Harold Arlen and (on one project, the 1942 film You Were Never Lovelier) Mercer’s long-time idol, Jerome Kern, as well as less legendary but still incredibly talented people like Richard Whiting and Harry Warren.
One thing that set Mercer aside from most of the songwriters of his generation was that he was a great vocalist himself; like his frequent collaborator Hoagy Carmichael, he had a voice that wasn’t especially pretty but his complete understanding of musicianship and phrasing allowed him to project a song vividly. (Mercer’s own recording of “One for My Baby” ranks with the classic versions by Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra; where Astaire made it angry and Sinatra made it sad, Mercer’s made it rather lighthearted — Astaire’s protagonist literally trashed the bar, Sinatra’s was probably going to fall asleep in his cups, while Mercer’s was going to go home, sleep it off and wake bright and refreshed the following day.) I remember hearing Johnny Mercer on black-label Capitols (he, songwriter turned movie producer Buddy de Sylva and record-store owner Glenn Wallichs founded Capitol in 1942) well before I realized he was a songwriter — and he was able to have hit records even on songs he hadn’t written.
Mercer actually came to Hollywood hoping to make it as an actor, and appeared in two “B” musicals at RKO — Old Man Rhythm and To Beat the Band — and in Old Man Rhythm he was an appealing on-screen personality (though basically just playing himself) and he also wrote the songs for both those films, though with less illustrious collaborators than he had later (though two of the songs from To Beat the Band — “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” and “If You Were Mine” — survive, largely because Billie Holiday recorded them). But his real fame had come from radio broadcasts with Paul Whiteman before his first Hollywood stint and Benny Goodman afterwards.
The show told me a few things about Mercer I’d known before (like his illustrious ancestry from the Southern aristocracy — he was from Savannah, Georgia, famous as the locale for the movies Gone With the Wind and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — the protagonist of Midnight lived in a house built by Mercer’s grandfather and where Johnny himself had grown up, and though Mercer died in Los Angeles his body was shipped to Savannah and buried in the famous cemetery within eyeshot of the legendary statue that became the logo for both book and film of Midnight, complete with an accompanying bench on which was chiseled the line from “One for My Baby,” “You’d never know it/But buddy, I’m kind of a poet,” while the headstone itself contains the phrase “And the Angels Sing” from his hit co-written with Goodman trumpeter Ziggy Elman and recorded by the Goodman band with Martha Tilton singing) and a few I hadn’t (like his early-1940’s affair with Judy Garland — her biographers, at least the ones I’ve read had never mentioned him in that connection, though her romantic entanglements with Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Tyrone Power have been almost too well documented).
Mercer’s skill was in writing lyrics that sounded complicated and frequently dredged up incredibly obscure words (one line in “Too Marvelous for Words” stumped a librarian, who ultimately discovered that the last published use of that word before Mercer got hold of it had been in 1792!) but still fell easily off the tongues and throats of the singers, and which engaged in dazzling wordplay but didn’t call attention to their brilliance the way Cole Porter’s and Lorenz Hart’s did. Mercer was an incredible talent — one of those who wasn’t Black or Jewish but who instinctively realized that at the root of the Great American Song Tradition were the Black and Jewish cultures (when the show presented the scene from the film Blues in the Night where that famous song was originated — by a stentorian African-American Paul Robeson wanna-be named William Gillespie — I pointed out that the appropriation of a Black style by a Jewish songwriter, Harold Arlen née Hymie Arlick, who’d actually been the son of a cantor was really what the Broadway and Hollywood musical styles were all about!) and who had learned from (and daringly socialized with, given that he grew up at the height of Jim Crow) Savannah’s Blacks as a child and had picked up the Jewish end of the American musical tradition from working with Jewish collaborators. The show had a bittersweet quality as it wound on, mainly because the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950’s did to Mercer what it did to just about all of the surviving greats from the previous era of American pop music — it rendered him largely irrelevant — though unlike a lot of other pre-rock composers, lyricists and performers, Mercer got a comeback with the song “Moon River” and the movie theme songs that followed it.
Mercer was a literate man who kept the common touch — as a singer, the most effective part of his personality was his swagger; his record of “Personality” from the film The Road to Utopia has a completely different affect from Dorothy Lamour’s performance in the movie, not just because he’s a man and she’s a woman but because he gives it a ballsy quality whereas she just seems to be toying with the song. Mercer’s greatest monuments are not only his songs but his recordings of them — his version of “Blues in the Night” with Jo Stafford for Capitol’s Americana subsidiary is one of my two favorites (the other is Artie Shaw’s with the great singer-trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page) — and also, as the show pointed out, the great array of talent he signed to Capitol (many of them rejects from Mercer’s former record company, Decca — including Freddie Slack, Nat “King” Cole and Stan Kenton — as well as Jo Stafford and Peggy Lee, who came to him by accident: Lee had retired from singing when she married guitarist Dave Barbour, who was doing session work at Capitol on a jazz history album, and when the producer said he needed a female singer on two of the songs, Barbour said, “My wife used to sing with Goodman … ” — and Mercer’s former boss, Paul Whiteman); at a time when major musical talents usually didn’t get involved in the business area of recording, Mercer in effect paved the way for future generations of rock ’n’ rollers who’d form their own labels, and he did it in an era in which starting a record company was considerably more difficult than it became in the 1960’s or is today. Despite its deficiencies — including the usual fault of music documentaries, giving the performances in bits and pieces and only offering a few seconds of most of the songs — Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me is an engaging tribute to a major triple-threat (songwriter, singer, businessman) musical talent.