Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
by Philip Furia

St. Martin's Press, August 2003
ISBN: 0312287208
review by F. Norman Vickers
copyright © 2003 F. Norman Vickers

Johnny Mercer, (1909-1976), born in Savannah, Georgia, just 44 years after the end of the Civil War, was one of America's outstanding lyricists and composers. Mercer, a man who could not play piano or read music, composed music and lyrics to some tunes. ''Dream" comes immediately to mind.

For most songs, he would collaborate with the composer and come up with the lyrics. In addition, Mercer became a radio personality and sang his own tunes and those of others. The biographer, Philip Furia, summarized Mercer's prowess by indicating his authorship of lyrics, and sometimes music as well, to 1,088 songs. Eighteen would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song, and four would win the Oscar. Furia noted that during two weeks in 1942, Mercer had four of the ten songs on the Hit Parade and during some years he had a song in the Top Ten for every week of the year.

Furia describes the carefree boyhood of Mercer and his playing with pals along the Vernon River, since renamed Moon River after Mercer's hit lyrics to Mancini's movie theme for "Breakfast at Tiffany's." As an aside here, there had been some question as to the meaning of the phrase in the song 'huckleberry friend.' Mercer explained that the boys would search for huckleberries along the river bank, hence the term. Mercer went to boarding school at age 13 but was unable to finish college due to his father's financial reverses.

Mercer's successes in New York and in Hollywood are described in interesting detail. Of special interest was the description of Mercer's collaboration with the Hollywood songwriters. Mercer would lie on the couch and the composer would play the songs on the piano. He might lie there for an hour or so, trance-like, and then get up and leave, barely saying goodbye. At a later time, sometimes hours but more like days or weeks, he might come up with great lyrics.

'I'm An Old Cowhand' was composed in his head and he wrote the lyrics on the back of an envelope in 15 minutes. This inspiration came to him in the 1940s during a drive across Texas from Hollywood back to Savannah. He noted that the cowboys had forgone their horses for pick-up trucks.

Considerable attention was given to Mercer's change of personality when he drank. He had the reputation of being a 'mean drunk' who might even insult the hostess at a party given in his honor. The next day, he would remember, be filled with remorse and send apologies in the form of roses. One hostess is quoted as saying, ' Johnny I don't want any more of your damn roses!'

Yet, in spite of Mercer's dark side, he was universally liked. When he would travel on the train from Hollywood to New York or Savannah, all the train staff, black and white, knew and liked him. Later in his life, during a train trip from Hollywood to New York, all the train staff and the New York hotel staff pitched in and paid for his entire trip.

The book provides insight about the founding of Capitol Records during WWII. Mercer was its first president. They put out a quality product and had a stable of performers who included stars such as Peggy Lee, Nat Cole, Margaret Whiting and Frank Sinatra.

Furia has previously published books about Irving Berlin, lyricist Ira Gershwin and other great American lyricists. He draws on Mercer's own unpublished biography and a book, "Our Huckleberry Friend: The Life, Times and Song Lyrics of Johnny Mercer," written after Mercer's death by his widow, Ginger and his friend, author-photographer Bob Bach. Furia interviewed hundreds of people who knew Mercer -- relatives, family friends, people in show business and ordinary people who happened to cross paths with Mercer in ordinary ways. Furia's background knowledge of lyricists and show business allow him to explain some aspects of movies and theater which would not be otherwise known to the average reader. Furia previously taught at the University of Minnesota for two and a half decades. He currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

One aspect of Mercer's life which was not generally known was his long-time involvement and romance with actress-singer Judy Garland. Furia indicates that Garland functioned as Mercer's muse for many of his lyrics. Furia quotes Gerald Clarke's biography, "Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland" (Random House, 2000) for many details of this relationship. Furia worked out other details of the Mercer-Garland relationship by examining letters, diaries and interviews. Mercer's own marriage was rocky at times but it lasted until his death in 1976 from a brain tumor and post-surgical complications.

This book is a valuable addition to our knowledge of Johnny Mercer, one of America's greatest lyricists. It's interesting, informative and readable. Although scholarly, the reader is not slowed by footnotes and numbers. There are intelligible endnotes, a bibliography and a detailed index.


F. Norman Vickers is Executive Director of the Jazz Society of Pensacola and a past president of the American Federation of Jazz Societies. He is a retired physician and an amateur musician with a lifelong interest in jazz.


C o m m e n t s

Johnny Mercer 1 of 1
Stephanie August 06, 07

Did Johnny Mercer have anything to do with the founding of Mercer College in Georgia? If you know, comment with your answer. Thank you!

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