In the pantheon of Truly Great American Artists (along with Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Charlie Parker, and a few others), I nominate JOHNNY MERCER, the greatest song lyricist who ever lived.
You might say, "What about Bob Dylan? Or Stephen Sondheim? Or Cole Porter? Or Larry Hart? Or Leonard Cohen?" I say, "Listen to this!"
"Jeepers, creepers! Where'd you get those peepers?"
"Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road."
"You're just too marvelous, too marvelous for words."
"Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive, e-lim-mi-nate the negative, latch on to the affirmative – Don't mess with Mister In-Between."
"We're after the same rainbow's end, waitin' round the bend, my huckleberry friend, Moon River and me."
"We kiss, and the angels sing."
"I'm an old cowhand, from the Rio Grande."
"I'm old-fashioned, I love the moonlight."
"You must have been a beautiful baby, you must have been a wonderful child. When you were only startin', to go to kindergarten, I bet you drove the little boys wild."
"Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread, and so I come to you, my love, my heart above my head ... Fools rush in, where wise men never go, but wise men never fall in love, so how are they to know? When we met, I felt my life begin, so open up your heart and let this fool rush in."
"So you met someone who set you back on your heels, goody goody!"
"That old black magic has me in its spell, that old black magic that you weave so well."
"Hooray for Hollywood! That screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood. ... Hooray for Hollywood! Where you're terrific if you're even good. ... Go out and try your luck – you might be Donald Duck! Hooray for Hollywood!"
"My mama done tol' me, When I was in knee pants, My mama done tol' me – son."
"I'm gonna love you like nobody's loved you, come rain or come shine."
"I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart."
"To see you through, till you're everything you want to be, It can't be true, but this time, the dream's on me."
"The autumn leaves drift by my window."
"Lazybones, sleepin' in the sun, how you 'spec' to get your day's work done?"
"This will be my shining hour, calm and happy and bright ... This will be my shining hour, till I'm with you again."
"My fickle friend, the summer wind."
"Day in, day out, that same old hoodoo follows me about."
"When an irresistible force such as you, meets an old immovable object like me, you can bet as sure as you live, Something's gotta give, something's gotta give, something's gotta give."
And perhaps the greatest lyric ever written:
"When my life is through, and the angels ask me to recall, the thrill of them all, then I shall tell them I remember you."
Even his song titles are sometimes little poems:
"In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" ... "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe"
... "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" ... "I Had Myself a True Love" ... "The Days of Wine and Roses."
John Herndon Mercer (born November 18, 1909 in Savannah, Georgia – died June 25, 1976 in Hollywood, California) has been called "the most quintessentially American of all our songwriters." He certainly was the only prime contributor to what is now generally termed the Great American Songbook who was born in the South. Cole Porter was born in Indiana, and most of the rest – Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, etc. -- were Jewish immigrants, first or second generation.
Johnny Mercer grew up in the Deep South, steeped in Southern music. Although he was from a distinguished family (he was a direct descendent of General Hugh Mercer, a Revolutionary war hero and one of Washington's generals), he gravitated almost immediately towards a life in the less-than-respectable music business. He grew up speaking "Geechee," a local dialect, and spent lots of time with African-American playmates, listening to music in their churches. For whatever reason, Mercer like no other lyricist manages to capture the American vernacular, the sentimental/wise-guy way we have of dealing with life through words.
Mercer was an amazing character. He wrote with 230 different composers. That is not a misprint. Part of it was that Mercer was a genius who could write with anyone. Part of it, I think, was that he was a very nasty drunk who often had to send flowers the morning-after to people – "friends" – he offended. He even drove the love of his life, Judy Garland, to attempt suicide after he humiliated her at a party. But on the weekend that Judy eloped with another man, he wrote her the lyrics to "I Remember You." He said he wrote the song "very fast, ten minutes, half hour at the most." Mercer could hear a melody once – just once – then deliver the perfect lyric months later. He was some kind of genius.
He also founded Capitol Records, wrote the music for some of his hits, had many hit records on his own as a vocalist –
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3jdbFOidds -- ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQpTDtlaS24 -- ONE FOR MY BABY
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkQybG1Cgl -- MOON RIVER
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YFT8MixHSE -- a medley of his hits with Steve Allen
-- was nominated for nineteen Academy Awards and won four: "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe" (music by Harry Warren), "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" (music by Hoagy Carmichael), "Moon River" and "Days of Wine and Roses" (music for both by Henry Mancini).
He wrote some successful movie scores – "The Harvey Girls" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" – but never got the big Broadway hit that he wanted. The closest he got was "L'il Abner." He said, "Frank Loesser passed me in the stretch." Crazy.
As far as his ambition, Mercer said, "I was trying to be as witty as Larry Hart, as sophisticated as Cole Porter, as simple as Irving Berlin, as poetic as Oscar Hammerstein."
I think he succeeded. I absolutely idolize his ability to make truly American art. Basic art.