John Herndon Mercer (1909-76) was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia where he acquired a deep, self-trained knowledge of and love for popular music of all types, especially, and importantly, the blues, gospel, and jazz of his home surroundings. His southern roots were relatively unique among his contemporary songwriters, and his penchant for church gospel and early blues and jazz would serve him well throughout his career.
In 1928 Mercer moved to New York to become an actor. He also sang, composed, and wrote lyrics, and connected with others in “the business” from whom he learned, such as Yip Harburg, a singing gig on a Paul Whiteman radio broadcast, and a collaboration on a tune for Garrick Gaieties. It was generally hard-going for him until a chance encounter with Hoagy Carmichael resulted in their joint composition in 1933 of “Lazybones” which drew upon Mercer’s comfort with authentic Southern black dialect. The song became on instant hit.
In 1935, RKO Studios brought Mercer to Hollywood to write and act in films, and his career skyrocketed. His first Hollywood success was 1936’s tongue-in-cheek “I’m An Old Cowhand”, which was introduced by Bing Crosby in Rhythm On The Range and for which he wrote both words and music (although he was principally a lyrcist and entertainer, he composed as well, as he did with 1944’s “G.I. Jive”). “Cowhand” was followed later that year by “Goody Goody”, and the year after by “Too Marvelous For Words” and “Hooray For Hollyood”. In 1938 he wrote the Best Song Academy Award nominated “Jeepers Creepers” with Harry Warren, as well as “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby”. This was followed in 1939 with two Alley hits “Fools Rush In” and “Day In, Day Out”.
In the early 1940s Mercer’s sophisticated lyric-writing connected with the bluesy musical style of Harold Arlen, and together they wrote some of the best of popular song of the age—“Blues in the Night”, “That Old Black Magic”, “One For My Baby”, “My Shining Hour”, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and more. Other smash his of the early ‘40s incuded “Skylark” (with Carmichael), “You Were Never Lovelier” (with Jerome Kern), and “Tangerine”.
Elected to the ASCAP board in 1940, Mercer co-founded Capitol Records in 1942, and working with a stable of talent that included Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole. During these early war years, he began to entertain troops in California and to make recordings for the AFRS including Command Performance, Mail Call, Song Sheet, V-Discs, and his Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop AFRS radio show.
Mercer wrote nearly 1,500 songs, received 18 Best Song Oscar nominations, and won 4, for “On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe” (1946, with Harry Warren), “In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening” (1951, with Hoagy Carmichael), “Moon River” (1961, with Henry Mancini) and “Days Of Wine And Roses” (1962, also with Henry Mancini).