John Herndon Mercer was born November 18, 1909 into a prominent family Savannah, Georgia. He became known to the world simply as Johnny and liking music as a small child was exposed this parents singing, minstrels, vaudeville shows. Growing up with Black playmates and servants he gained further exposure to Black music listening to the fishermen and vendors, Black church music. Having no formal musical training he was singing in a choir by six and by eleven years old had memorized almost all of the songs he had heard and became curious about who wrote them.
Mercer’s talent was in creating the words and singing, he listened to Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong, and with his natural sense of rhythm easily learned to dance from Arthur Murray. He attended Woodberry Forest boys prep school where he was a member of the literary and poetry societies, and the hop committee that booked musical entertainment on campus. He became the stamp of approval on all orchestra and new productions and quickly learned the powerful effect songs had on girls.
Though headed for Princeton University as a legacy, his hopes were dashed with the Great Depression but eventually escaped Savannah and moved to New York in 1928, when he was 19. Jazz and blues, were booming in Harlem and Broadway was bursting with musicals and revues from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. He got small acting parts, wrote lyrics, met Eddie Cantor who encouraged him and finally got a song, composed by Everett Miller, into the Garrick Gaieties in 1930. His first song was recorded by Joe Venuti and his New Yorkers.
At 20 he began hanging out with other songwriters to learn the trade, traveled to California on a lyric writing assignment for the musical Paris in the Spring, met Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong returned to New York and got a job as staff lyricist for Miller Music for a $25-a-week draw. He would go on to win a vocal position with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, then make his vocal recording debut with Frank Trumbauer’s Orchestra, and o apprentice with Yip Harburg on the score for Americana. But it was his chance pairing with Indiana-born Hoagy Carmichael that his fortunes improved dramatically with Lazybones, which became a hit one week after its first radio broadcast, and each receiving a large royalty check of $1250.
Mercer became a member of ASCAP and a recognized “brother” in the Tin Pan Alley fraternity alongside Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter among others. As the demand for the stand alone song diminished he set his sights on Hollywood and landed a job with RKO and claiming his first big Hollywood song I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande was performed by Crosby in the film Rhythm on the Range in 1936. The demand for him as a lyricist took off and his second hit that year was Goody Goody followed by a move to Warner Brothers studio in 1937.
He would go on to write hits like Jeepers Creepers, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, Day In, Day Out, Fools Rush In, One for My Baby (and One More for the Road), That Old Black Magic and Come Rain or Come Shine, Skylark, In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, as well as lyrics for the established instrumental hits Laura, Midnight Sun, Satin Doll and Autumn Leaves among others.
By the mid-1940s enjoyed a reputation as one of the premier Hollywood lyricists. With the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s and the transition of jazz into “bebop” Mercer’s natural audience and venues for his songs dwindled. He continued to write a string of hits for some MGM films, made occasional television appearances, teamed up with Henry Mancini and wrote the wrote the lyrics to Moon River, Days of Wine and Roses and Charade. He would go on to write I Wanna Be Around and Summer Wind and the lyrics for I Remember You which was the most direct expression of his feelings for the affair he had in 1941 with then 19-year old Judy Garland.
Over the course of his career Johnny would team up with Richard Whiting, Harry Warren and Johnny Mandel, have his lyrics recorded as part of Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook series, received eighteen Oscar nominations, winning four for Best Song, founded Capitol Records, and helped establish the National Academy of Popular Music’s Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Diagnosed was an inoperable brain tumor, lyricist Johnny Mercer passed away on June 25, 1976 in Bel Air, California. Posthumously, the Songwriters Hall of Fame established the Johnny Mercer Award, he was honored with a postage stamp, received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, given tribute in the book and film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a statue was unveiled in Ellis Square in Savannah, and The Johnny Mercer Collections, including his papers and memorabilia, are preserved in the library of Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA.
Ernest Brooks Wilkins Jr. was born on July 20, 1922 in St. Louis, Missouri. In his early career he played in a military band, before joining Earl Hines’s last big band. By 1951 he began working with Count Basie but after four years, in 1955 he began freelancing as a jazz arranger and writer of songs and was much in demand at that time.
By the Sixties Ernie’s success declined but revived after working with Clark Terry. This led to his touring Europe and his eventual settling in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he would live for the rest of his life. There he formed the Almost Big Band so he could write for a band of his own. The idea was partly inspired by his wife Jenny as the city had a thriving jazz scene with several promising jazz musicians as well as an established community of expatriate American jazz musicians that formed in the 1950s and included Kenny Drew and Ed Thigpen who joined the band along with Danish saxophonist Jesper Thilo.
The band released four albums, but after 1991 he became too ill to do much with it. He was responsible for orchestral arrangements on 1972’s self-titled album by Alice Clark, on Mainstream Records, that is a highly sought-after collectible today. He has a street named after him in southern Copenhagen, Ernie Wilkins Vej.
Tenor saxophonist, arranger and songwriter Ernie Wilkins, who wrote for Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Dizzy Gillespie, in addition to being the musical director for albums by Cannonball Adderley, Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, and Buddy Rich, passed away on June 5, 1999 of a stroke in Copenhagen.
Born August 26, 1943, Dorival Tostes Caymmi, the son of famous Brazilian musicians Dorival Caymmi and Stella Maris. He began playing piano at age eight, studied music theory at the Conservatorio Lorenzo Fernandez and in 1959 made his professional debut accompanying his sister, Nana.
In 1960 Dori became a member of Groupo dos Sete, writing music for plays aired on Brazilian television. He co-directed and played viola in the play Opinião, an important transitional work between the styles of bossa nova and MPB and directed the play Arena Conta Zumbi. For a time he produced Edu Lobo, Eumir Deodato and Nara Leao, co-wrote the prize winning song “Saveiros” with Nelson Matta, a collaboration that lasted many years and produced some of Brazil’s biggest hits.
Caymmi played and toured with Paul Winter, arranged and directed albums by Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil, and was involved with the tropicalia movement of the late 1960s, but did not record in this style himself due to his distaste for Euro-American pop music. He wrote scores for numerous films and television shows in the 1970s and 1980s, moved to Los Angeles, California in 1989 and has since played or recorded with Dionne Warwick, Toots Thielemans, Marilyn Scott, Oscar Castro-Neves, Eliane Elias, Richard Silveira and Edu Lobo; was a collaborator celebrating Tom Jobim at Carnegie Hall and arranged the music for Spike Lee’s film, Clockers.
Dori Caymmi has been nominated for Latin Grammys several times and is a two-time Grammy Award winner for Best Latin Song and Best Latin Samba Recording. The Brazilian singer, guitarist, songwriter, arranger, and producer has an extensive discography dating back to 1964 and he continues to perform and record.
Cole Albert Porter was born into wealth on June 9, 1891 in Peru, Indiana. His musical training began at an early age, learning the violin at age six, the piano at eight and wrote his first operetta, with help from his mother at 10. His father, an amateur poet, may have influenced his son’s gifts for rhyme and meter. He matriculated through Yale writing student songs went on to Harvard law, switched to the music faculty, where he studied harmony and counterpoint.
Classically trained, he was drawn towards musical theatre. After a slow start, he began to achieve success in the 1920s, and by the 1930s he was one of the major songwriters for the Broadway musical stage. Unlike most successful Broadway composers, Porter wrote both the lyrics and the music for his songs.
After a serious horseback riding accident in 1937, Cole was left disabled and in constant pain, but he continued to work. His shows of the early 1940s did not contain the lasting hits of his best work of the 1920s and 30s, but in 1947 he made a triumphant comeback with his most successful musical, Kiss Me Kate.
Porter wrote numerous songs that have come to be jazz standards such as Night and Day, Anything Goes, I Get A Kick Out Of You and I’ve Got You Under My Skin, It’s De-Lovely, Begin the Beguine, Just One of Those Things and In The Still of the Night. He also composed scores for films from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Cole Porter, composer and lyricist, noted for his sophisticated, suggestive lyrics, clever rhymes and complex forms, contributed to the great American songbook, passed away of kidney failure on October 15, 1964.
Irving Gordon was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 14, 1915 and as a child, studied violin. After attending public schools in New York City, he went to work in the Catskill Mountains at some of the resort hotels in the area. While working the resorts, he took to writing parody lyrics to some of the popular songs of the day. He has been credited with writing “Who’s On First” made famous by Abbott and Costello, according to his son William.
In the 1930s, he took a job with the music-publishing firm headed by talent agent Irving Mills, at first writing only lyrics but subsequently writing music as well. Together they wrote two songs for Duke Ellington – Please Forgive Me and Prelude To A Kiss and co-wrote Blue Prelude with Ellington.
After writing Mister and Mississippi, a Patti Page hit, Irving decided he enjoyed puns on state names, and some years later wrote Delaware, a Perry Como hit. He also went on to write for Bing Crosby, Eddy Arnold and Billie Holiday. But he is perhaps best known for his song, “Unforgettable” recorded by Nat King Cole in 1951 and then three Grammys in 1992 by his daughter Natalie Cole, in which Gordon himself received a Grammy. Nat’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000.
In the 1940’s he moved to Los Angeles where he spent the rest of his life continually writing and composing and is noted for his contribution in music and lyrics of the Americana genre. Songwriter Irving Gordon passed away in his home of cancer on December 1, 1996.
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