The top quality of Mercer

November 18, 2017 at 12:51 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, song)

Johnny Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia on November 18 1909; he died in Los Angeles, 25 June 1976.

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 duetted 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 offered him personal support and publicly denounced the racists (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).


Above: Mercer on the Nat ‘King’ Cole TV show

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 bit sad or what?);  Benny himself, on clarinet, briefly returns to his wailing Chicagoan roots in the closing bars of the number:

1 Comment

  1. les said,

    no,jim, it doesn’t make you sad. in fact, just the opposite. without your attention to this level of detail, the names of all these incredible musicians would be lost, their achievements forgotten. writing from the land of social amnesia (i.e. america) it’s great that you want to reclaim this part of the past, and remind us that jazz is a collective phenomenon, which, itself, by the way, is a good antidote to the kind of celebrity culture that has overwhelmed us all.

    anyway, here’s my favorite version of this song by the pointer sisters.

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