Discovering a Gem: Johnny Mercer

I you’re like me and you hear a name enough times that you’re intrigued, wondering “who is this person?” you pull out your credit card, jump on over to and search away. 

 This happened to me with Howlin’ Wolf. I read a lot of bios about musicians and his name kept coming up as an influence. Then I watched a bio of him on TV and that was it. I bought the only book that B&N had in stock about him. It wasn’t one of the better musician bios I’d read, but, at least now I knew who he was and something about his life.

Probably the best musician bio I’ve ever read was “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone”, which is obviously a biography about the Carter Family.

Over the last few years I’ve heard the name Johnny Mercer here and there, and this guy sounded like an important person in the music world. So finally, I ordered the book that some viewers (readers) said was the premier biography on Johnny Mercer. It’s called “Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer” by  Gene Lees. I would say this is the second best bio of a musician I’ve read, and there are about 30 up on the bookshelves.

If you’ve seen “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” you’ve heard the name and seen the house his grandfather lived in, so you’d know right off that Johnny was no Arkansas sharecroppers son, nor was he raised in a Kentucky holler. He came from good breeding in Savannah, Georgia. The Mercer name was creme de le creme in Savannah.

So when Johnny moved to New York to pursue his dream of being a famous musician or Broadway star his family wasn’t exactly thrilled. But when he brought home his wife to be, a Jewish woman of not-so-good looks back home to meet the family his mother said “NOOOOO!!!”

Johnny and his mother were very close, and his mother was most definitely in charge of her childrens lives. She even told one of her daughters to divorce her husband, even though they already had a daughter, and the daughter obeyed. The husband moved to another state not to be heard from again for a long time. The little childs name was Nancy, and she has a lot of input into this book.

Against his mothers wishes Johnny married Ginger, the Jewish girl from New York, who was also an aspiring star. There are letters in the book from John to his mother, so loving and doting, even into his adult years. And although his mother eventually forgave him I suppose, she never liked Ginger and Ginger never felt welcomed in Savannah. So after awhile she stopped accompanying Johnny.

John went back to visit Savannah and his mother quite often all throughout his life because he loved the place so much and missed home. Savannah was the inspiration of so many of his lyrics: his childhood memories, the beauty of the morning, a long lost love.

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The book features remarks about Johnny from so many composers he’d worked with and other lyricists he knew. And he knew them all. Johnny was a social butterfly and the consensus seems to be that everybody liked him. But likewise, everybody agreed that when he drank he became very nasty. He’d usually pick on one person at a party and would take them down with one line.

There’s some minor dirt in the book, such as his ongoing affair with Judy Garland when they were both married, and the Oh so surprising (NOT!) tidbit about Robert Mitchum smoking pot at a party. But the saddest dirt dished is about Johns marriage to Ginger. You’re left wondering, just as the author admits, if Johnny really ever loved her or not. He did whatever it took to make her happy. And, altho they lived a very comfortable life, it wasn’t an extravangant one commensurate with the amount of money they had from all those lovely royalties.

Ginger was….frugal. She was according to all accounts in the book a boring person and not very well liked among the friends they hung out with. She was actually Bing Crosby’s girlfriend when John met her. And she’d had others before Bing. But Bing wasn’t interested in any lasting relationship and Ginger held a grudge against him because of that and was constantly comparing Bing’s success to Johnny’s. Bing had a bigger house, Bing had a better pool. It must’ve been awkward being around Bing and his wife so much. And Johnny wrote lyrics for some of Bing’s hits.

Some people recounted that when John was drunk he’d often choose Ginger as his target, once telling her “Who are you? Just some ugly old woman who keeps hanging around.” Yet they stayed together until his death, altho, near the end, Ginger got her revenge. Johnny was stricken with brain cancer and could no longer talk. Ginger set up a bed in the guest house for him where nurses cared for him 24/7. Ginger never went in there once to see him and never even asked how he was doing.

Ahh, I’ve given you the beginning and the end, but in the middle is where the really good stuff is. His work with so many famous composers is documented so beautifully it almost seems like music itself. His love and dedication for his work is unquestionable. What I found the most interesting is his concern about how music was changing. He didn’t like Elvis and all that came after him. He felt at that stage good music was finished until at some point in the future when the public would reach a critical mass of disgust and there would be a renewed effort to bring back good composition with meaningful lyrics. Are we there yet?

3 thoughts on “Discovering a Gem: Johnny Mercer”

  1. And thank you, Tom for giving me the opportunity! Don’t know why my post consumed the entire page. I expected just a short intro. What happened?

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