by W. Kim Heron
You may not know the name, but chances are you've got Johnny Mercer bouncing around in your skull. "Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home," "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," "Laura," "I'm an Old Cowhand," "Satin Doll," "My Shining Hour," "Jeepers Creepers," "Skylark," "The Summer Wind," "Blues in the Night," "Days of Wine and Roses" ... in fact, from "Lazybones" in 1933 to, at least, "Moon River" in 1958, Mercer was the pre-eminent American song lyricist, collaborating with (or adding post-hoc lyrics to the tunes of) melodists from Hoagy Carmichael to Duke Ellington to Henry Mancini. Yet, even if you recognize the timeless Mercer lyrics, you're less likely to know of his career as a timely hit-making singer in the 1930s through the early 1950s or be prepared for the pictures in this new box set. Mercer looks like a businessman doing a sales call on the cover. In one of the booklet pictures, he's even more disconcerting: Eyes closed, sporting a sweaty T-shirt, he's singing into a microphone and looking for all the world like Gilbert Gottfried on a rant. This is a talent for the ages?
Yes, although contradictions, as always with talent, are part of the package. Mercer was a charmingly relaxed singer vaguely in the Bing Crosby mold though with a voice neither so rich nor mellifluous but reveling in jivey affectations. At their worst, those affectations sound Amos and Andy-ish today; on the other hand, black Broadway pioneer Eubie Blake hailed Mercer back in the day as "the greatest" of all the white rhythm singers.
This three-disc set draws exclusively from the early years of the little upstart indie label Mercer started with a couple of partners in 1942. You've probably heard of the label, Capitol Records, the first West Coast outfit to challenge the virtual monopoly of the New York-based Big Three (Columbia, RCA Victor and Decca). And Mercer the singer was no small part of Capitol's success; by 1944 he had sold 12 million discs for the label. The collection selections include the Top 10 hit "One for My Baby," the No. 1 hit "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" (both are his words, Harold Arlen's music) and "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" (a collaboration with Harry Warren that was No. 1 for two months).
Befitting Mosaic as a jazz label, jazzier material is the focus here you don't get, for instance, the hit "Strip Polka" with such collaborators as Paul Whiteman, Jo Stafford, Jack Teagarden, Cootie Williams, Nat King Cole and Benny Goodman. Disc 1 is heavy on Mercer-penned material from cornpone collegiate humor ("Jamboree Jones") to such largely forgotten World War II wonders as "G.I. Jive" (a masterpiece of rhymed acronyms) and "Sam's Got Him." Discs 2 and 3 are almost entirely the words and music of others, which throughout the set includes then-new material and decades-old stuff (even a revamped "Camptown Races" on Disc 1).
The Mosaic package liner notes by Margaret Whiting and Billy Vera just scratch the surface of the Mercer story. Beyond those, there's Gene Lees' 2004 bio, Portrait of Johnny, which paints him as child of a once-prosperous white Southern family that was close enough to black culture for him to speak the Geechee dialect. He grew to be a confounding mix of gregarious humanitarian, free spirit, miserable cuss and mean-ass drunk. He seemed at times to pull lyrics out of his own life ("That Old Black Magic" and "One for My Baby" are said to reflect the highs and demise of an affair with Judy Garland) or pluck them from conversation the way others might pick lost coins off the floor ("Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" was originally a line from the preacher Father Divine) or seemingly snatch them from thin air like a magician. A younger lyricist who became a friend of his hero, Lees can't avoid the mess of Mercer's life, even if he can't entirely make sense of it. But it's Mercer as wordsmith that Lees is most interested in, and it's hard to imagine touring Mercer's lyrics with a guide more astute.
W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.