Remembering Johnny Mercer

Documentary, book, seminar and concert celebrate his life.

Johnny Mercer, the Savannah songwriter with the gap-toothed smile, wrote songs with everyone from Duke Ellington to Sadie Vimmerstedt.

Ellington you’ve heard of. Vimmerstedt, his unlikeliest partner, was a 58-year-old grandmother who sold cosmetics in Youngstown, Ohio.

She sent Mercer a fan letter in 1957 suggesting he write a song called “I want to be around to pick up the pieces after someone breaks your heart.” Mercer wrote the words and music to “I Wanna Be Around,” gave it to Tony Bennett, who made it a hit, and sent Vimmerstedt 50 percent of the royalties. Her share was worth perhaps $50,000.

“That’s called fairness,” said Glenn T. Eskew, writer of a new biography, “Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World,” published last month. “Despite being born to wealth and privilege, he was all about being fair.”

A fascinating image of Mercer has emerged this year, the centenary of his birth, highlighted by Eskew’s book and Clint Eastwood’s new documentary film, “Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me.”

Premiering Wednesday on Turner Classic Movies, the film arrives with a host of other events celebrating the 100th anniversary of Mercer’s birthday, Nov. 18. (Mercer died at age 66 in 1976 from complications after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor.)

What the centenary may do — and what the film is intended to do — is place Mercer’s name in the pantheon with Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and the Gershwins as one of the greatest American songwriters ever, said producer/director Bruce Ricker.

For one reason or another, Ricker added, Mercer’s name is often missing, perhaps because he was primarily a lyricist, or because of his lack of a Broadway blockbuster.

Musicians were quick to recognize his genius, however, particularly jazz musicians. He wrote “Jeeper Creepers” for Louis Armstrong and wrote the first song Billie Holiday ever recorded, “Riffin’ the Scotch.” He gave the nod to jazz artists such as Holiday and Nat King Cole when he started his own hugely successful record label, Capitol.

Capitol also issued Mercer’s own recordings – featuring his swinging, casual vocals — and in two years sold 12 million of his records.

When EMI bought most of Capitol in 1955, Mercer cashed in his share, for several million dollars.

Despite his successes as a radio performer, vocalist and businessman, it is the astonishing catalog of songs that he created that puts Mercer in a league of his own.

He was compelled to write and collaborated with more than 230 composers, said Robert Kimball, author of “The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer.”

Estimates vary, but Kevin Fleming, archivist at GSU, guesses Mercer wrote 1,700 songs. Others place the total at 1,900. They include:

● “Hooray for Hollywood,” the tongue-in-cheek Tinseltown anthem, with composer Richard Whiting.

● “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” with Harry Warren.

● “Come Rain or Come Shine” with the immortal Harold Arlen.

● The lilting “Skylark” with fellow jazz fan Hoagy Carmichael.

● “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” also with Arlen, described by critic Stephen Holden as “the greatest alcoholic torch song ever written.”

● “The Days of Wine and Roses,” with Henry Mancini, another Oscar winner. He cribbed the title from an obscure Victorian poet named Ernest Dowson.

Though Mercer lit out for New York City when he was still in his teens and spent most of his adult life in California, his music always retained the sound of the South, not just in subject matter, but in the casual language. (Just one example: The character from his song “Lazy Bones” is reprimanded: “How you ‘spect to get your day’s work done?”)

“He is the great American songwriter because he had his ear to the colloquialisms of the people,” said his niece and godchild, Nancy Gerard, of Savannah.

Gerard serves as a sort of tour guide for Mercer’s Southern side in the new movie, describing how he paid off his father’s debt after earning his millions from Capitol.

“He was a genius, and he was also a very good man,” she said.

He took responsibility for his niece after her father died, and even paid to have her teeth straightened, removing that front-tooth gap, a Mercer family trait. “Now I’m sorry I did it,” she jokes.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.