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: