Johnny Mercer: Too Marvelous For Words

Comprehensive survey of the songwriter and singer shows that while he was often regarded as a collaborator his talent stood alone

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Arguably the most inspired and prolific songwriter throughout the golden middle years of 20th century American popular music, winning several Oscar and Grammy awards, Johnny Mercer was also a talented and versatile vocalist, besides composing several hit songs (including I’m An Old Cowhand, Dream and Something’s Gotta Give). He also wrote and composed for films, became a popular radio personality and founded Capitol Records.

In this well-deserved and thoughtfully researched tribute compilation, 55 tracks recorded 1933-62 (he died in 1976) provide a comprehensive representation of many of his major achievements. These are separated into two strands on the album, as songwriter (CD1) and singer (CD2).

A trawl through the 28 titles on CD1, lyrics all penned by Mercer, shows awe-inspiring versatility and close association with famous songwriters (Harry Warren, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Mancini), vocalists (Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Fred Astaire, Jo Stafford, Judy Garland) and swing musicians (the Goodman, Dorsey, Bob Crosby and Glenn Miller orchestras).

In the perceptive and knowledgeable notes, Digby Fairweather, no mean wordsmith himself,  points out some of the technical literary devices used to enhance the impact of the lyrics – skilled wordplay, witty rhyming, alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia, with helpful sample quotes. These devices supported a wide spread of expressive style, ranging from yearning poetic romanticism ( I Remember You, Skylark, Dearly Beloved, Moon River) to lighthearted witty jauntiness (The Waiter And The Porter And The Upstairs Maid, In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening, The Old Music Master, Lazybones). It’s all infused with genteel old-fashioned southern charm and Mercer’s enduring love of the Savannah countryside lifestyle and wildlife of his youth.

CD2 focuses on his recorded vocal legacy. Mercer began singing with Paul Whiteman (and writing for him) in 1932. Lazy Bones was a number 1 hit in 1933. He befriended Bing Crosby, and there are elements of Crosby’s mellow, urbane style in his singing. His quick-witted repartee and timely responses made him a very effective accompanist, and his classic duets with Crosby (Small Fry, Mr Crosby And Mr Mercer) sparkle memorably.

Other fine duets are included, with Teagarden (Christmas Night In Harlem, The Old Music Master), Jo Stafford (Blues In The Night, Candy), Nat King Cole (Save The Bones For Henry Jones), Margaret Whiting (Baby It’s Cold Outside) and Bobby Darin (Mississippi Mud). Of his single vocal outings, One For My Baby (words by JM himself) is particularly impressive.

Whilst not all of the tracks on this album could be described as jazz performances, the standard of the music is consistently high, and with Mercer around the jazz content is rarely totally obscured.

Besides some swinging orchestral support from top orchestras of the day, there are fine solo passages to enjoy from Jimmy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong (Jeepers Creepers), Benny Goodman, Ziggy Elman, Jack Teagarden and Billy Butterfield.

Mercer is often remembered in the context of his collaborations with famous composers and performers, but he was a remarkably talented and versatile artist in his own right, whose influence and input was truly enormous. He certainly deserves an individual tribute to his exceptional talent and here it is. A very welcome and commendable release.

Discography
CD1: (1) Too Marvelous For Words; (2) Goody Goody; (3) I’m An Old Cowhand From The Rio Grande; (4) Bob White, Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight; (5) You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby; (6) Jeepers Creepers; (7) And The Angels Sing; (8) Day In, Day Out; (9) I Thought About You; (10) Fools Rush In; (11) This Time’s The Dream’s On Me; (12) The Waiter And The Porter And The Upstairs Maid; (13) I Remember You; (14) Tangerine; (15) Skylark; (16) Dearly Beloved; I’m Old-Fashioned; (17) That Old Black Magic; (18) Hit The Road To Dreamland; (19) Autumn Leaves; (20) Laura; (21) Dream; (22) Come Rain Or Come Shine; (23) In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening; (24) The Glow-Worm; (25) Something’s Gotta Give; (26) Moon River; (27) Days Of Wine And Roses (78.07)
CD2: (1) Lazybones; (2) Doctor Heckle And Mister Jibe; (3) Christmas Night In Harlem; (4) The Bathtub Ran Over Again; (5) Small Fry; Mister Crosby And Mister Mercer; (6) Cuckoo In The Clock; (7) The Old Music Master; (8) Blues In The Night; (9) Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive; (10) Candy; (11) The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fé; (12) It Ain’t Necessarily So; (13) A Gal In Calico; (14) Personality; (15) One For My Baby And One More For The Road; (16) Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah; (17) Huggin’ And Chalkin’; (18) A Fine Romance; (19) Sugar Blues; (20) Save The Bones For Henry Jones; (21) Baby It’s Cold Outside; (22) At The Jazz Band Ball; She’s Shimmyin’ On The Beach Again; (23) OK For TV; (24) Memphis In June; (25) Mississippi Mud (78.33)
CD1 (all lyrics by JM): (1) Bing Crosby & Jimmy Dorsey Orch. 1937. (2) Helen Ward & Benny Goodman Orch. 1936. (3) Bing Crosby & Jimmy Dorsey Orch. 1936. (4) Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby & John Scott Trotter Orch. 1937. (5) Bing Crosby & Bob Crosby Orch.1938. (6) Louis Armstrong with his orch. 1939. (7) Martha Tilton & Benny Goodman Orch. 1939. (8) Helen Ward & Bob Crosby Orch. 1939. (9) Mildred Bailey & Benny Goodman Orch. 1939. (10)Tony Martin & Ray Sinatra Orch. 1940. (11) Ray Eberle & Glenn Miller Orch. 1941. (12) Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Jack Teagarden and his orch. 1941. (13) Bob Eberly & Jimmy Dorsey Orch. 1941. (14) Bob and Helen O’Connell & Jimmy Dorsey Orch. 1941. (15) Dinah Shore & Rosario Bourdon Orch. 1942. (16) Fred Astaire & John Scott Trotter Orch. 1942. (17) Judy Garland & David Rose Orch. 1942. (18) Margaret Whiting & Freddie Slack Orch, 1942. (19) Jo Stafford & Hal Mooney Orch. 1950. (20) Dick Haymes & Victor Young Orch 1945. (21) The Pied Piper’s Vocal Group & Paul Weston Orch. 1944. (22) Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest & Victor Young Orch. 1946. (23) Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford & Paul Weston Orch. 1946. (24) The Mills Brothers & Hal McIntire Orch. 1952. (25) Sammy Davis Jr. & Sy Oliver Orch. 1955. (26) Danny Williams & Geoff Love Orch. 1961. (27) Henry Mancini Orch and chorus.
CD2: JM (v) on all tracks with: (1) Rube Bloom (p). 1933. (2) Dorsey Brothers Orch. 1933. (3) Jack Teagarden (v, tb) & Paul Whiteman Orch. 1934. (4) Victor Young Quintet 1934. (5) Bing Crosby (v) & Victor Young Small Fryers 1938. (6) Benny Goodman Orch. 1939. (7) Jack Teagarden (v, tb) & Paul Whiteman Orch. 1942. (8) Jo Stafford, Pied Pipers & Paul Weston Orch. 1943. (9) Pied Pipers & Paul Weston Orch. 1944. (10) Jo Stafford, Pied Pipers & Paul Weston Orch. 1944. (11) Pied Pipers & PaulWeston Orch. 1944. (12) Billy Butterfield Orch. 1944. (13) Pied Pipers & Pal Weston Orch. 1945. (14) Pied Pipers & Paul Weston Orch. 1945. (15) Paul Weston Orch. 1946. (16) Pied Pipers & Paul Weston Orch. 1946. (17) Paul Weston Orch. 1946. (18) Martha Tilton & Paul Weston Orch. 1946. (19) Paul Weston Orch. 1947. (20) Nat King Cole (v, p) and his trio 1947. (21) Margaret Whiting & Paul Weston Orch. 1949. (22) The Skylarks & Ben Pollack’s Pick-a-Rib Boys 1950. (23) Dick Leonard’s (?p) (TV show, 1951). (24) Billy May Orch. 1952. (25) Bobby Darin & Billy May Orch. 1960. (Full discography given, except for orchestra personnels.)
Retrospective RTS 4401