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Johnny Mercer Biography

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John Herndon "Johnny" Mercer (November 18, 1909 – June 25, 1976) is regarded as one of America's greatest songwriters.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, on November 18, 1909, Mercer liked music as a small child. His aunt told him he was humming music when he was six-months old. He never had formal musical training but he listened to all the music he could and by the time he was 11 or 12 he had memorized almost all of the songs he had heard. He once asked his brother who the best songwriters were, and his brother said Irving Berlin, among the best of Tin Pan Alley.

Mercer moved to New York in 1928, when he was 19. His first few jobs were as an actor but he soon gravitated toward singing and lyric writing. He was eventually hired as a singer and lyricist for Paul Whiteman's Band. His first lyric appeared in a musical revue in 1930 and after than he met many writers and composers, including Hoagy Carmichael. Later he quit working altogether to concentrate on writing songs exclusively. He met Siggie Nordstrom who was recently widowed and forming a sister act with her sister Dagmar and the pair used several of his songs in their routine in 1939 at the Ritz in London.

This was the golden age of the sophisticated popular song, like those of Cole Porter. Songs were put into revues without much regard for integrating the song into the plot. Mercer was generally a lyricist; to him the song was the thing. Mercer felt confined by the Tin Pan Alley formula which had long relegated authentic southern vernacular to comedy songs. Mercer was a naturally casual lyricist, preferring to use regional colloquialisms. During the 1930s there was a shift in musical theatre from musical revues to musicals that used the song to further the plot. There was less of a demand for the pure stand-alone song. After the success of Oklahoma!, Broadway began to shut out lyricists like Mercer who thought in terms of the song rather than its integration into the show. When Mercer was offered a job in Hollywood to write songs and act in low-budget musicals for RKO, he took it.

Mercer won four Academy Awards for Best Song:

Lyrics by Mercer, unless noted.

He wrote many other songs, some of which have entered the Great American Songbook:

Furia, Phillip (1990). Poets of Tin Pan Alley. Oxford University Press. ISBN.

Furia, Phillip (2003). Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer. St. Martin's Press. ISBN.

Lees, Gene (2004). Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer. Hal Leonard. ISBN.

Wilder, Alex (1990). American Popular Song. Oxford University Press. ISBN.

Will, Max (1997). They're Playing Our Song. Da Capo Press. ISBN.
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