Of all of the great American lyricists, Johnny Mercer is probably the most beloved. The words that he wrote to the songs of others are consistently poetic, witty, insightful and colorful. For 40 years he wrote some of the most memorable and catchy lyrics ever heard, and he contributed his words to more than 1,500 songs, many of which were debuted in movies and Broadway shows. In his career, Mercer received 19 Academy Award nominations, winning four times.
Johnny Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia in late- 1909. Both of his parents sang at home and he was also exposed at an early age to the music of African-Americans. He never had a music lesson but sang in a choir by the time he was six and learned the words to a countless number of standards. Mercer was a jazz fan by the mid-1920s and wrote humorous article for his school’s papers. Although it was planned that he would attend Princeton, due to his father’s financial problems, that never happened.
Instead Mercer moved to New York in 1928 where he had small parts in plays, worked at a brokerage house, and sang in clubs at night. He also began to write lyrics for songs. His words for “Out Of Breath (And Scared To Death Of You) appeared in a musical revue in 1930, were published, and recorded by violinist Joe Venuti. When he was 20, he spent a brief time in California writing for the musical Paris In The Spring. Back in New York, Mercer became a staff lyricist for Miller Music. In 1932 he joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as a singer and made his recording debut with Frank Trumbauer.
Johnny Mercer had his first successes in 1932 with “Pardon My Southern Accent” and especially “Lady Bones” which he wrote with Hoagy Carmichael. In 1935 Mercer returned to Hollywood to write songs and occasionally act in RKO musicals. He appeared in a couple of forgettable movies (Old Man Rhythm and To Beat The Band) and collaborated with Fred Astaire on “I’m Building Up To An Awful Let-Down.” After writing “I’m An Old Cowhand From The Rio Grande” for Bing Crosby in 1936, he became in great demand as a lyricist, giving up his attempts to be an actor.
From that point on, Mercer had hit after hit. Among his most popular songs from the second half of the 1930s were ”Goody,” “Hooray For Hollywood,” “Jeepers Creepers,” and “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby.” “Jeepers Creepers,” which was written with Harry Warren, was originally introduced by Louis Armstrong in the film Going Places; he sang it to a horse! Mercer also penned the words to an instrumental by trumpeter Ziggy Elman that became “And the Angels Sing.”