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December 2007

Johnny Mercer
Mosaic Select: Johnny Mercer
Mosaic Records

Who, among American musicians, was the most influential force of the 1940s? Some, with fair justification, would argue Sinatra. Others might say Goodman or Ellington. But others might vote for Johnny Mercer. At decade’s dawn, Mercer was already established as one of the industry’s most gifted lyricists, having partnered with the likes of Richard Whiting, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren and Hoagy Carmichael to produce such wide-ranging classics as “Hooray for Hollywood,” “I Thought About You,” “Jeepers Creepers” and “Lazy Bones.” During the 1940s (and, of course, well into the ’60s), his status as a songwriter would reach iconic heights.

In 1942, Mercer teamed with music retailer Glenn Wallichs and Paramount Studios executive Buddy DeSylva to form Capitol Records, future home of Sinatra and the Beatles and, throughout the ’40s, springboard for the careers of Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Martha Tilton, June Christy and countless others. But Mercer was also a recording star, regularly landing atop the charts with such self-penned delights as “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “Personality,” “Strip Polka” and “Glow Worm.”

Yet there was far more to Mercer the performer than charming novelty numbers. As celebrated throughout this triple-disc, 79-track set, Mercer, with his honey-dipped voice, innate Southern warmth and lifelong adoration of the culture surrounding African-American music (so much so that the Savannah-born, gap-toothed charmer was often mistaken by listeners as black), had a deep appreciation for jazz. Here, with Mercer working primarily with the Goodman outfit and Capitol’s stellar house orchestra led by Paul Weston, the hits (widely available on other CD compilations) are de-emphasized in favor of standards and lesser-known songs of the day, along with a healthy helping of flag-waving tunes produced by Capitol to support the war effort.

Of the nearly seven dozen tracks, including 20 rare radio transcriptions, only 10 feature Mercer lyrics. The rest demonstrate his dexterous ability to handle everything from the infectious silliness of “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” (vocally teaming him with Nat Cole) and sun-dappled optimism of Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day,” to the simmering bluesiness of “My Sugar is So Defined” and sophisticated lilt of “Hooray for Love.” Indeed, to twist a famous Mercer lyric, he was too marvelous for not only his own words but also those of just about every other lyricist along Tin Pan Alley.

Originally published in December 2007
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