Afterglow Jazz and American Popular Song

Too Marvelous With Words: Johnny Mercer, America’s Poet Laureate

A centennial celebration of the lyricist who wrote "Moon River" and many other standards, featuring an interview with Afterglow founding host Dick Bishop.

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Johnny Mercer

Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

Johnny Mercer's songs capture the sound and soul of America, reaching across boundaries of time, gender and race to talk of loneliness, longing, and lighthearted fun.

Think of any American popular-song hit from the late 1930s through the mid-1960s, and there’s a decent chance that Johnny Mercer wrote the words for it. “Accentuate the Positive,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Skylark,” “Satin Doll,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” ”Moon River”…Johnny Mercer’s songs capture the sound and soul of America, reaching across boundaries of time, gender and race to talk of loneliness, longing, and lighthearted fun. They move with the rhythm of trains crossing the countryside, languid strolls along a moonlit lane, and high-spirited cut-ups dancing at a Hollywood shindig. Frank Sinatra, who recorded many of his tunes, once said, “A Johnny Mercer lyric is all the wit you wish you had and all the love you ever lost.”

Afterglow founding host and American popular-song expert Dick Bishop joins me for a career-spanning survey of Mercer’s music, in celebration of what would have been Mercer’s 100th birthday this week. We talk about Mercer’s Savannah, Georgia roots, his songwriting partners and peers, how his abilities as a singer aided his work, his unforgettable imagery, and his longlasting impact on American popular culture. “Johnny Mercer: America’s Poet Laureate” also features interpretations of Mercer’s lyrics by some of the finest performers of American popular song, including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Dick Bishop will join me again next week when I devote my annual Hoagy Carmichael program to Hoagy’s collaborations with Mercer, including some unreleased and rarely-heard Mercer-Carmichael songs.

Turner Classic Movies is presenting a Mercer documentary this month, as well as a 24-hour marathon of films featuring Mercer’s songs on his centenary (Nov. 18).

Savannah on his mind: in his Mercer biography Skylark, Philip Furia quotes an interview that Mercer gave to the Savannah Morning News in 1959:

I suppose the reason for my being a songwriter is largely due to my childhood in Savannah… Savannah was smaller then and sleepy, full of trees and azaleas that filled the parks which make it so beautiful… I can remember so many things about it, all connected with music in various ways… Although I have never written a song directly about Savannah, so many of my lyrics are filled with boyhood images that you might say they all sprang from there.

Watch Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer reminisce about their radio days and sing the Mercer-Walter Donaldson tune “Mr. Meadowlark”:

Music Heard On This Episode

Out of This World
Mark Murphy — Rah (Riverside, 1994)
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Out of This World
Mark Murphy — Rah (Riverside, 1994)
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Blues in the Night
Hot Lips Page/Artie Shaw — Essential Artie Shaw (RCA, 2005)
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I'm an Old Cowhand
Bing Crosby — Bing! His Legendary Years 1931-1957 (MCA, 1993)
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Too Marvelous for Words
Nat King Cole — Vocal Classics 1947-1950 (Capitol, 1996)
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Dearly Beloved
Nancy Wilson — The Great American Songbook (Blue Note, 2005)
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Come Rain or Come Shine
Dinah Washington — Dinah Jams (Polygram, 1990)
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That Old Black Magic
Judy Garland

Notes: 1943 radio performance.

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Day In, Day Out
Ella Fitzgerald — Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook (Polygram, 1997)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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The Air-Minded Executive
Johnny Mercer/Freddie Slack — Mosaic Select (Mosaic Records, 2006)
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Laura
Woody Herman — Columbia Woody Herman Columbia 1945-47 (Mosaic, 2004)
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One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)
Johnny Mercer — Capitol Collectors Series (Capitol, 1989)
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Autumn Leaves
Nat King Cole — Unforgettable (Capitol, 2000)
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The Summer Wind
Frank Sinatra — Nothing But the Best (Reprise/WEA, 2008)
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Moon River
Audrey Hepburn — Music From the Films of Audrey Hepburn (Warner Brothers/WEA, 1993)
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I Thought About You
Billie Holiday — Lady Sings the Blues (Verve, 2007)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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