The Book on Johnny Mercer.

Skylark Johnny Mercer Philip Furia

The biography of lyricist Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia was recenty recommended on the Songbirds list by eminent jazz critic/historian Dan Morgenstern, and that recommendation alone necessitated my reading it.

My take: I can see why Dan liked the book, while I found some things about it ridiculous or aggravating.

First, the good news. Much of the book’s value is due to Furia’s having had access to an unpublished autobiography by Mercer, which resides with the Johnny Mercer Papers at Georgia State. I never knew the Savannah-born lyricist, supreme commander of the American vernacular — collaborator with Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Richard Whiting, Arthur Schwartz, Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Mancini and many other composers (Mercer would write with anyone he respected, becoming the most promiscuous of the great lyricists) — had written the story of his own life. This is colossal news, and reason enough for the Furia book’s existence. I would love to see Mercer’s tome published someday, even if it is in an unfinished state. It may be the new Holy Grail for us who are into that sort of thing. In the meantime, Furia relies on it heavily and quotes liberally from it, which will do.

He relies as well on interviews and articles contained in the Johnny Mercer Papers, and on an archival interview with Mercer housed atJohnny Mercer Capitol LP Georgia State. And, in the later chapters covering the fifties, sixties, and seventies, decades that yield people still living who knew the pantheon-level lyricist, Furia has collected good material from his own interviews.

But the book suffers a flaw. It has a “thesis.” And Furia, like a caricature of a university academic (he is, in fact, a real one), won’t let go of it: Mercer’s life and work post-1940 were completely shaped by his affair with Judy Garland.

Over and over we read that this or that deeply-felt Mercer lyric owed its existence to his lifelong frustrated love for Garland. That when Mercer wrote (X) in song (Y), he was writing “about” this love. Furia wants us to believe Mercer’s love for Garland informed every yearning lyric he ever wrote and every melancholic bender he ever went on.

It’s reductionist hogwash. Let’s stipulate that Mercer did have an affair with Garland and that he never got over it. (I don’t know that this is so, but let’s stipulate it.) Is there no other way to understand the life and work of Johnny Mercer than through this prism? Could any of Mercer’s love lyrics have been about, say, another woman that he had feelings for along the way, or a yearning for something else entirely? Could any of Mercer’s lyrics rise to the level of poetry, such that they transcend simple decoding? Not according to Furia, who insists on making the Garland affair Mercer’s Rosebud. You sense that Furia feels he has made a major discovery, and his unwillingness to let you forget his triumph is palpable. Over and over he forces everything through his funnel, to a point of such ludicrousness that the reader would laugh if it weren’t such a sin to have an otherwise worthy book marred this way.judy garland sheet music

Furia also cares inordinately about when Mercer and his wife-to-be Ginger first had “sexual intercourse,” as he puts it. I don’t know why, but he insists on reading Mercer’s letters to Ginger with the help of some sort of “sexual intercourse” Ovaltine decoder ring, as if determining the moment Mercer lost his virginity (and yes, Furia has a point to prove about this) matters. Furia teases out the meaning of every word in these letters, barely containing his excitement that he has discovered the occasion of Mercer’s deflowering. Suffice it to say he is unconvincing. The passages that Furia cites can be read in other ways, to mean other things. But let an academic latch onto a thesis and he’s like a dog with a bone…

At any rate, the book is more than worth reading, infuriating flaws and all (hey, I just realized Furia is infuriating’s middle name), and is available from many book dealers in new and used form, both hardcover and paperback, at a wide range of prices including the eminently reasonable and downright cheap, here and here and here.

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8 Comments on “The Book on Johnny Mercer.”

  1. David Bradley says:

    Well said. I think that was a fine description of “Skylark”s strengths and weaknesses.

    I have also had access to Mercer’s as-yet unpublished autobiography, having read and scanned every page of it for the GSU archives, and it is even more interesting than Furia’s book. The good news for Mercer fans is that it is soon to be published, edited– but not redacted– by Dr. Glenn T. Eskew, who has done far more research on Mercer than Furia ever did.

    Furia may be infuriating, but you may be assured that the Mercer/Garland affair was very real, and it went on a long time. They were still hooking up in the 60’s. Ginger hated it. She was aware enough of the relationship to keep “I Remember You” out of a book of lyrics she published with Bob Bach. She also accused him of an improper relationship with Margaret Whiting, daughter of composer Richard Whiting.

    Whatever the inspiration, he did write some beautiful love songs.

  2. Anne Marie says:

    I agree with David Bradley. I just finished reading “Skylark” last night. I thought Furia had quoted a suffcient number of eyewitness sources to move the Mercer-Garland affair from “reductionist hogwash” to the truth. I also agree that Furia may have been a little obsessed with the sexual side of a phenomenal artist, but I have to admit also, that as a woman who, who even though Johnny Mercer has been dead thirty-four years, still thinks Johnny Mercer is attractive, I was interested. It was good reading on both the musical side and on the side of those interested in the dynamics of a man we all commonly think is a genius. From great pain comes great art.

  3. bookchick says:

    Johnny Mercer frequently visited his beloved mother at the nursing home at Tybee Island, GA. He was very charming and loooooved the pretty young staff members there.

  4. Simón says:

    Ted,

    I’m afraid you might never see this, but Mercer’s full autobiography is available for free in PDF format (which you are free to print and bind if you so wish, or enjoy on a tablet).

    The link is here:
    http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/music/id/1522

    Click “download”

  5. Ted Naron says:

    Thanks, Simon! (See, I did see it.) 🙂

    Ted

  6. Ted Naron says:

    Just downloaded it and I’m very grateful. I had no idea this document was possible to obtain. Thanks again, Simon.

    Ted

    • Simón says:

      You bet! I picked up “The Classic Hoagy Carmichael” LPs+booklet (put together by the Indiana Historical Society and the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings) from a Half Price Books this weekend. I was listening to the first side and reading through when I came across the mention of an unpublished Mercer autobiography. Googling led me to your blog post as well as the real thing. The wonders of the internet! I work at a conservatory and we had a great Carmichael tribute earlier this year. I hadn’t been familiar before (I’m 24) but truly great stuff.

      • Ted Naron says:

        It makes me happy that someone among “the young folks” appreciates the greatness of such as Carmichael and Mercer. Hope for the future!


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