Raised in Savannah, Johnny Mercer brought a quintessentially southern style to both his life in New York and to his lyrics, which often evoked the landscapes and mood of his youth (Moon river, In the cool, cool, cool of the evening).
Mercer also absorbed the music of southern blacks—the lullabies his nurse sang to him as a baby and the spirituals of Savannah’s churches—and that cool smooth lyrical style informed some of his best-known songs, such as That old black magic.
Mercer took Hollywood by storm in the midst of the Great Depression; putting words to some of the most famous tunes of the time, he wrote one hit after another, from You must have been a beautiful baby to Jeepers creepers. But it was also in Hollywood that Mercer’s dark underside emerged. When he drank, Mercer tore into friends and strangers alike with vicious abuse.
During World War II Mercer served as America’s troubadour, turning out such uplifting songs as My shining hour. He also helped to create Capitol Records, the first major West Coast recording company, where he launched the careers of many talented singers, including Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. During this period, he also began an intense affair with Judy Garland, which rekindled time and again for the rest of their lives. Garland became Mercer’s muse and inspired some of his most sensuous and heartbreaking lyrics, such as Blues in the night, One for my baby, and Come rain or come shine.
This according to Skylark: The life and times of Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
Today is Mercer’s 110th birthday! Above, a publicity shot from around 1947; below, the Moon river sequence from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.