The quality of Mercer

November 22, 2009 at 6:40 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, music)

I’ve missed the centennial of Johnny Mercer’s birth by a few days (he was born on 18 Nov 1909): sorry!

He was one of the Twentieth Century’s great song lyricists, and was also a fine singer himself. He recorded as a vocalist with Paul Whiteman, Wingy Manone, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden:

 He dueted with Teagarden on what is surely the best jazz Christmas record of all time (not that there’s a lot of competition), “Christmas Night in Harlem.” For a Southern white guy, he was also remarkably enlightened and free of prejudice: he just loved music and couldn’t give a damn about skin pigmentation. When Nat Cole was having a hard time from racists, Mercer rallied round (though, it must be said, Cole was signed at that time to Mercer’s ‘Capitol‘ label, but I like to think he’d have done it anyway).

Mercer’s most famous song is “Moon River” , written (with Henry Mancini) for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Personally, I have to say I don’t find it a very engaging tune or lyric. But I’m glad it brought Johnny some wealth and security towards the end of his life.

I much prefer Blues In The Night, his 1941 masterpiece, written with Harold Arlen. Here’s the Benny Goodman version, with Peggy Lee on vocals. The rather strange falsetto scatting following Peggy’s vocal is by trombonist Lou McGarity (how do I know that? Am I a sad git or what?);  Benny himself, on clarinet,  briefly returns to his wailing Chicago roots in the closing bars of the number:



  1. Jim Denham said,

    I know I’ve posted the Johnny Mercer “Jamborie Jones” Youtube clip twice: for some reason it seems to be that or nothing. iI tried to get rid of the second clip, and the whole lot went. Someone may be able to explain what’s going on, but I can’t.

  2. Laban said,

    It’s Johnny Mercer Month over at Mark Steyn’s – yes, that Mark Steyn. You might prefer his writing on music to his politics.

    He’s got a whole piece devoted to the writing of Blues in the Night. Great stuff.

    There was one more dispute between Arlen and Mercer. Harold Arlen felt the first line – “My mama done tol’ me” – was so strong it should be the title. Mercer wanted “Blues In The Night”. They asked Irving Berlin to adjudicate, and the great man, after listening to the song, came down on the side of “Blues In The Night”. He’s right. “My mama done tol’ me” is a great line and so memorable that for many fans it was the only one they knew. “I remember when ‘Blues In The Night’ became a hit,” wrote Alec Wilder. “All I ever heard the public sing was the ‘My mama done tol’ me’ phrase. That seemed all they needed in order to like and accept it.”

    But, vivid as it is, it’s a small particular image. “Blues In The Night”, by contrast, is large and general. Very few songs could live up to the claims of such a title, but “Blues In The Night” is a bald statement of the obvious: It’s what the song is. Irving Berlin made the correct call.

    It’s not an easy song. It’s never going to be “It Had To Be You” or “The Way You Look Tonight” or those other surefire uber-standards that every middle-aged rocker puts on his Great American Songbook album. But it’s Great and it’s American and it’s for all time. It’s got it all – a woman, train whistles, place names, and at the very end two bars of humming and a final tip of the hat to that eerie sound blowin’ cross the trestle:

    My mama was right
    There’s Blues In The Night.

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