While Johnny Mercer had the talent, Georgia provided the inspiration that made him one of America’s most popular and successful songwriters of the twentieth century. Between 1929 and 1976 Mercer penned lyrics to more than 1,000 songs, received nineteen Academy Award nominations, wrote music for a number of Broadway shows, and cofounded Capitol Records. Perhaps best known for the 1961 Academy Award–winning song “Moon River,” Mercer also took Oscars for “Days of Wine and Roses,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” and “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.” These movie hits reflected Mercer’s ties to the Hollywood studios, but the lyricist also wrote songs that became popular because of their commercial appeal, including “Jeepers Creepers,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Glow-Worm,” “Goody Goody,” and “Hooray for Hollywood.” Time and again Mercer drew upon his Georgia heritage for song ideas.
John Herndon Mercer was born into the fourth generation of Mercers living in Savannah. His family’s origins reach back into the colonial era, and he boasted links to the city’s postbellum immigrant experience as well. His grandfather George Anderson Mercer Sr. practiced law in Savannah, held the rank of colonel in the Confederate army during the Civil War (1861-65), sat in the Georgia General Assembly during Reconstruction, and served on the local school board. Mercer’s father, George Anderson Mercer Jr., played baseball at the University of Georgia in Athens and returned to Savannah to join his father’s law firm. After the death of his first wife, George Jr. married Lillian Barbara Ciucevich and started a second family with the birth of Johnny on November 18, 1909. From his mother, Mercer inherited an entirely different heritage: the Ciucevich family first appeared in Savannah in the 1870s, when two Croatian brothers (who apparently had lived in Charleston, South Carolina, before the Civil War) immigrated to the United States from the Austrian Empire.
Having such a well-connected family granted Mercer access to many of the cultural institutions in the city. As a choirboy at Christ Church and a student at Chatham Academy, he received the best education possible in Savannah. He attended concerts, minstrel shows, and lectures as well as the theater and cinema. He also received ample doses of folk culture; for example, he witnessed the Black cult leader Bishop Daddy Grace return to his flock at the United House of Prayer for All People on the Ogeechee Road. He listened to his father sing turn-of-the-century standards like “In the Gloaming” but also bought the “race records” of Louis Armstrong and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Into this mixture of metropolitan and vernacular culture came the radio broadcasts that opened up a whole new world of popular music to Savannah. Mercer absorbed it all.
Following family tradition, Mercer attended Woodberry Forest School in Virginia but still retained an active social life in Savannah. In the thick of the Jazz Age during his teenage years, he danced the Charleston at the DeSoto Hotel and at Barbee’s Pavilion on the Isle of Hope while drinking bootlegged liquor with his older brothers and Ciucevich cousins at Tybrisa on Tybee Island. With friends he sang and played the ukulele and participated in Savannah’s Little Theater.
In 1927 the collapse of the Florida real estate boom brought down the family’s fortunes. Mercer’s father placed his company under receivership to pay off a $1 million loss. The reversal ended Johnny’s formal schooling, and instead of going to college, he joined a troupe of amateurs competing in New York City’s New Amsterdam Roof Theater in 1927. Their performance placed first. Convinced that he had a future in show business, Mercer moved to New York.
At first Mercer won character roles in traveling performances, but he soon made his mark composing lyrics and songs for variety shows. Despite the stock market crash of 1929, he found enough work to survive, publishing his first lyric, “Out of Breath (and Scared to Death of You),” for the show The Garrick Gaieties, where he met Ginger Meehan. The two were married, and remained so for the rest of Mercer’s life.
Winning a singing competition staged by the big band leader Paul Whiteman at New York’s Hotel Biltmore set Mercer’s career on its successful trajectory. He not only performed with but also wrote for the most popular jazz musicians of the day. He sang opposite trombonist Jack Teagarden and penned lyrics for such songs as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazybones,” Bernie Hanighen’s “When a Woman Loves a Man,” and Matty Malneck’s “Pardon My Southern Accent.” He wrote lyrics to “Trav’lin’ Light” for Billie Holiday, “Midnight Sun” for Lionel Hampton, and “Satin Doll” for Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Mercer’s southern heritage brought a genuine sound to New York’s songwriting district, Tin Pan Alley, as the nature of America’s popular culture was changing from a world of sheet music to one of radio broadcasts, sound recordings, and movie musicals.
Hollywood provided Mercer with numerous opportunities as a lyricist for several studios, including Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount, RKO, and Twentieth Century Fox. He worked with all the great composers of the time, including Jerome Kern on “I’m Old Fashioned,” Richard Whiting on “Too Marvelous for Words,” Harry Warren on “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” Harold Arlen on “Blues in the Night,” Jimmy Van Heusen on “I Thought about You,” Hoagy Carmichael on “Skylark,” and Rube Bloom on “Day In—Day Out.” Often Mercer crafted lyrics for particular actors, including Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. He wrote the lyrics to signature songs for several big bands, among them Benny Goodman’s “And the Angels Sing” and Tommy Dorsey’s “Fools Rush In.”
With the outbreak of World War II (1941-45), Mercer was involved with such propaganda films as The Fleet’s In (1942), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), The Sky’s the Limit (1943), and Here Come the Waves (1944). Despite their unabashedly patriotic plots, the films contained Mercer such gems as “I Remember You,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “My Shining Hour.” Many of these songs, including “Tangerine,” “How Little We Know,” and “Hit the Road to Dreamland,” remained popular in the postwar period as standard fare for lounge singers.
In 1942 Mercer cofounded Capitol Records in Hollywood with movie mogul Buddy DeSylva and music store owner Glen Wallichs. The company survived a wartime shortage of shellac (which was necessary for manufacturing phonograph records) to produce several hits, including Mercer’s “Strip Polka” and “G. I. Jive.” By signing Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and other new talent the fledgling company successfully challenged the big three record producers: RCA Victor, Columbia, and Decca. Under Mercer’s presidency, Capitol’s innovative marketing strategies revolutionized the recording industry. As a symbol of its success, the company built a new office to look like a stack of 45 rpm records just off Hollywood Boulevard on Vine Street. With the sale of Capitol to EMI, the three partners made millions. Out of his share of the proceeds, Mercer sent a check for $300,000 to a Savannah bank in 1955 to pay off the remaining debts from the failure of the G. A. Mercer Realty Company. He explained his actions as clearing his father’s name, but the settlement reflected a deep sense of southern honor. At his core he remained—in spite of his drinking and womanizing—a gentleman “true to his code,” as reflected in his song “One for My Baby.”
After conquering Hollywood and establishing his own record company, Mercer stood at the pinnacle of his career, yet the goal of a Broadway success remained elusive. In 1946 he partnered with Harold Arlen to turn St. Louis Woman, a Harlem Renaissance play by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen, into an all-Black show. Despite the hits “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” the bluesy musical flopped in part because of a boycott that convinced singer Lena Horne to drop out of what the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People described as negative stereotyping. Mercer’s next efforts, Texas L’il Darlin (1949), Top Banana (1951), Saratoga (1959), and Foxy (1964), proved equally dismal and perhaps less inspired. Only the 1956 Li’l Abner, which, like Al Capp’s comic strip, pokes fun at the South, is still performed on occasion. His last big show, The Good Companions, written with André Previn in 1974, recalled his early days in the traveling theater, and was produced in London.
Although the golden age for Hollywood musicals had passed with World War II, Mercer continued to write songs for the occasional production, including The Harvey Girls (1946), The Belle of New York (1952), Dangerous When Wet (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Darling Lili (1970). For television and Bobby Darin he wrote “Two of a Kind.” He also penned lyrics for David Raksin’s popular tune “Laura” (1945) and “Forever Amber” (1947) as well as words to the French “Autumn Leaves” and Russian “Song of India.” Increasingly Mercer wrote the theme songs for such movies as Love in the Afternoon (1957), The Americanization of Emily (1964), and Barefoot in the Park (1967). Indeed his collaboration with Henry Mancini in the 1960s on the films Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and Charade (1963) netted him three nominations and two Oscars for best song. A wistful Mercer watched as the advent of rock and roll swept the American popular song aside. Several of his later lyrics conveyed a feeling of nostalgia, for example “Early Autumn” and “When the World Was Young.” So did “Summer Wind,” his last big hit parade success as sung by Frank Sinatra.
Throughout his career Mercer drew on a sense of place to localize his lyrics. Uncomfortable in airplanes, he crisscrossed the country by train, and imagery of the railroads often figured in his verse. He peppered his songs with mockingbirds and meadowlarks. The evocative “Moon Country” describes opossums in the pines, and other songs describe singing crickets, lovers peeping around chinquapins, and moaning polecats.
Mercer often returned to Georgia, having purchased a house near Vernon View on Burnside Island as a Savannah retreat. When the Georgia General Assembly asked Mercer to compose a new state song, he drew on Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem John Brown’s Body for inspiration. Although his contribution lost out to “Georgia on My Mind,” written by his former collaborator Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, Mercer’s lyric recalled the rural greatness of the Empire State. Later, Georgia’s politicians distinguished Mercer when they renamed the Back River—which flowed past Bethesda down to his house on Burnside Island—the Moon River.
After receiving a diagnosis of brain cancer, Mercer underwent surgery, from which he never fully recovered. He died June 25, 1976, and is buried in the family plot in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah. His widow donated his papers to Georgia State University in Atlanta, which maintains a Mercer Web site and interactive museum in his memory. The city of Savannah named its municipal theater in his honor. Family and friends created the Johnny Mercer Foundation to introduce school children to American popular song.
In 1995 the Georgia legislature declared April 19, 1995, to be Johnny Mercer Day in the state for Mercer’s “outstanding contributions to the field of music.” He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and posthumously inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2011.