Most articles about legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer end up being all about his list of memorable songs, which is understandable because it’s an impressive collection that totals more than fifteen-hundred. But even though he looked more like a songwriter than a crooner he was actually a pretty good singer too, and I thought we might look a little closer at that side of the Georgia native.
John Herndon Mercer was the son of a prominent Savannah attorney and also had lots of elite military men in his family history, but none of that held much appeal for him. Instead, he was all about music and as a child he learned from every possible source, including his family, church, and traveling minstrel shows. Oddly enough, he encountered difficulty learning to play the piano and he was always a little iffy about reading music, but even as a child he talked about becoming a composer. (As it turned out, he was mostly a lyricist during his career but he did some composing too, using his own system of writing music.)
In the late 1920s Mercer, who was still just 19, moved to New York to try his luck in the music business, and even though he was able to sell the occasional song it was as a singer that he began to find his most success. His style combined a warm Georgia drawl with a smooth and pleasant singing voice, and it translated to a very appealing sound for listeners. For most of the 1930s he was a busy performer, doing a little acting and singing too, eventually doing duets with drinking buddy Bing Crosby in addition to singing on radio with Benny Goodman.
By the 1940s Mercer had become a renowned songwriter and had also helped found Capitol Records, which gave him a platform for many of his singing hits, like “Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” (the first of his four Oscar-winners), “Candy,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” and “Personality.” During this period he again teamed up with Crosby and others, and also sang with the Pied Pipers. But as the years passed, his songwriting activities and the ongoing promotion of his record company took more and more of his attention. Although he still sang from time to time — working with Bobby Darin at one point — he was mostly known as a songwriting legend in his later years. He was 66 when he died from an inoperable brain tumor in 1976.