Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World

Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World

by Glenn Eskew
     
 

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John Herndon “Johnny” Mercer (1909–76) remained in the forefront of American popular music from the 1930s through the 1960s, writing over a thousand songs, collaborating with all the great popular composers and jazz musicians of his day, working in Hollywood and on Broadway, and as cofounder of Capitol Records, helping to promote the careers of

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Overview

John Herndon “Johnny” Mercer (1909–76) remained in the forefront of American popular music from the 1930s through the 1960s, writing over a thousand songs, collaborating with all the great popular composers and jazz musicians of his day, working in Hollywood and on Broadway, and as cofounder of Capitol Records, helping to promote the careers of Nat “King” Cole, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee, and many other singers. Mercer’s songs—sung by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, and scores of other performers—are canonical parts of the great American songbook. Four of his songs received Academy Awards: “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” Mercer standards such as “Hooray for Hollywood” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” remain in the popular imagination.

Exhaustively researched, Glenn T. Eskew’s biography improves upon earlier popular treatments of the Savannah, Georgia–born songwriter to produce a sophisticated, insightful, evenhanded examination of one of America’s most popular and successful chart-toppers. Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World provides a compelling chronological narrative that places Mercer within a larger framework of diaspora entertainers who spread a southern multiracial culture across the nation and around the world. Eskew contends that Mercer and much of his music remained rooted in his native South, being deeply influenced by the folk music of coastal Georgia and the blues and jazz recordings made by black and white musicians. At Capitol Records, Mercer helped redirect American popular music by commodifying these formerly distinctive regional sounds into popular music. When rock ’n’ roll diminished opportunities at home, Mercer looked abroad, collaborating with international composers to create transnational songs.

At heart, Eskew says, Mercer was a jazz musician rather than a Tin Pan Alley lyricist, and the interpenetration of jazz and popular song that he created expressed elements of his southern heritage that made his work distinctive and consistently kept his music before an approving audience.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Allows us to conceive of ‘Southern music’ as an expression of the Southern diaspora, and thereby opens up new ways to think about Mercer and about the broader landscape of American music.”—Gavin James Campbell, author of Music and the Making of a New South

“Johnny Mercer, one of Georgia’s—no, one of America’s—greatest natural resources, is astutely celebrated by this valuable addition to his growing bibliography.”—Stanley Booth, author of The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones

"This engaging biography brims with fresh insights about southern culture and its relationship to American music. Eskew reveals Johnny Mercer as a carrier of the South’s interracial culture to the nation and the world. This book is the most original and carefully documented contribution I have seen to understanding the role of a creative southerner in the global culture. Readers will appreciate Eskew’s re-creation of Mercer’s world that intersected with so many seminal entertainment figures. It is altogether successful in sketching the regional context that produced Mercer’s music."—Charles Reagan Wilson, Editor-in-chief of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

"Eskew brings to life the vibrant music scene around the musician from the 1930s to the 1960s and uncovers the collaborations, friendships, and struggles that made Mercer a success. This thoroughly researched and compelling biography will appeal to scholars and students of popular American music."—Emily Hamstra, Library Journal

"In this smart and meticulously researched biography, Georgia State University historian Glenn T. Eskew ac-cent-tchu-ates another of Mercer’s roles: architect of popular music during the late 1940s and the ’50s, which Eskew calls the Age of the Singer." —Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post

"'No other songwriter appears as successfully involved in so many facets of America's entertainment industry in the twentieth century,' Glenn T. Eskew claims convincingly in Johnny Mercer. . . . Although Johnny Mercer is ponderous at times, it does justice to the giant accomplishments of the 'pixie from Dixie.'" —Ken Emerson, Wall Street Journal

"[T]his biography [is] a little daunting because of the sheer volume of details, and the writing occasionally veers too far into academic territory. But nothing detracts from the richness and depth of Mercer's life story." —Teresa Weaver, Atlanta Magazine

“[Eskew’s] immersion in pertinent secondary literature likewise is impressive. The endnote section of the book reads like an engaging narrative in itself.. . . Grounded in the ways of southern gentility while transitioning from Victorianism to Modernism, a nostalgia-prone Mercer emerges as a modest, well-read, and carefree jazz-loving ambassador who disseminated to the world songs that captured the syncopated rhythms indigenous to the South.” —Michael T. Bertrand, Georgia Historical Quarterly

author of Music and the Making of a New South - Gavin James Campbell

Allows us to conceive of ‘Southern music’ as an expression of the Southern diaspora, and thereby opens up new ways to think about Mercer and about the broader landscape of American music.

author of The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones - Stanley Booth

Johnny Mercer, one of Georgia’s—no, one of America’s—greatest natural resources, is astutely celebrated by this valuable addition to his growing bibliography.

Editor-in-chief of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture - Charles Reagan Wilson

This engaging biography brims with fresh insights about southern culture and its relationship to American music. Eskew reveals Johnny Mercer as a carrier of the South’s interracial culture to the nation and the world. This book is the most original and carefully documented contribution I have seen to understanding the role of a creative southerner in the global culture. Readers will appreciate Eskew’s re-creation of Mercer’s world that intersected with so many seminal entertainment figures. It is altogether successful in sketching the regional context that produced Mercer’s music.

Library Journal
11/15/2013
Eskew (But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle) chronicles the life of great American singer and songwriter Johnny Mercer (1909–1976; "Moon River," "Hooray for Hollywood," "Days of Wine and Roses"), shedding light on both his personal life and musical career. Born in Savannah, Mercer remained true to his Southern roots even as he lived and worked in New York City and Hollywood and traveled around the world. Whether on the stage, on the radio, on television, or in film, he appealed to an ever-growing audience as many Southerners moved to other areas of the country. The author describes the major bands and musicians with whom Mercer worked, including Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Nat "King" Cole, Judy Garland, and many others. In doing so, Eskew brings to life the vibrant music scene around the musician from the 1930s to the 1960s and uncovers the collaborations, friendships, and struggles that made Mercer a success. VERDICT This thoroughly researched and compelling biography will appeal to scholars and students of popular American music.—Emily Hamstra, Univ. of Michigan Libs., Ann Arbor
Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-14
A painstakingly researched biography of Johnny Mercer (1909–1976), one of the great songwriters of the classic era of American popular music. Eskew (History/Georgia State; But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle, 1997, etc.) works from the proposition that Mercer's Southern origins gave him a special grasp of the many varieties of music that comprised the dominant American style roughly from the beginning of the Jazz Age to the arrival of rock. Mercer was a product of the upper crust of Savannah, with Confederate officers and respected professionals among his immediate ancestors. He attended private school in Virginia and vacationed in upper-class watering holes like Asheville, N.C. Eskew misses no opportunity to connect elements of this upbringing to the songs Mercer eventually wrote--e.g., citing his family's church attendance as a reason angels appear frequently in his songs or noting that Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first stars of county music, performed in Asheville around the time a teenage Mercer was vacationing there. Unfortunately, the narrative lacks flow, often reading more like a list of famous people that Mercer encountered, especially in the early days when he was still establishing himself as a lyricist. The story is probably at its best when recounting Mercer's important role in launching Capitol Records, when he had an important hand in building the careers of such artists as Peggy Lee, Nat "King" Cole and other jazz-tinged pop stars. However, the author's insistence on calling Mercer a jazz musician seems off-target. Mercer certainly appreciated jazz and wrote songs that have entered the jazz singer's repertoire, but Mercer himself would probably have laughed at the notion that he was doing the same kinds of things as, for example, Duke Ellington or Gil Evans. The book will be valuable to anyone doing research on its subject, but most readers will probably find it dry and dense. An important subject that deserves a more accessible treatment.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780820333304
Publisher:
University of Georgia Press
Publication date:
11/15/2013
Series:
Wormsloe Foundation Publication
Pages:
568
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

GLENN T. ESKEW is a professor of history at Georgia State University. He is the author of But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle, editor of Labor in the Modern South, and coeditor of Paternalism in a Southern City.

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