Friday, 1 February 2013

The More the Mercerer


A quick note about the latest Bazza programme, this time about lyricist Johnny Mercer. No, Baz didn't play the Astaire version of One For My Baby, but there was a high proportion of archive recordings featured this time; he even said at one point that he preferred the older recordings, liked to imagine Mercer hearing his songs on record for the first time.


There were two Bings: the first was I'm an Old Cowhand - not the charming soundtrack version from Rhythm on the Range reproduced below (dig the dancing), but certainly lively:



The second was Too Marvelous For Words, which was remarkably languid: a real opportunity to savour the words and a reminder, lest we forget, of the easy power of Der Bingle. Probably not the first recording of the song, but made in the year of its composition. There are hints in the verse of Crosby's earlier, impassioned style, but then he sails, or rather floats, through the rest of the song. Anyway, good choice, Mr M.



The singer of the I Remember You which was played may come as a surprise, so I won't spoil it, and it was Ethel Waters' version of Jeepers Creepers which was played (we had heard Armstrong in the Harry Warren programme), and which is superb: a voice which is both delicate and strong. Wasn't she the one who, hearing Billie Holiday, said "She sings as if her shoes were too tight?" I think I can hear a bit of her in Mabel Mercer's voice (no relation, I assume). Frankie Lymon's revival of Goody Goody was also played, although lots of songs were of necessity left out, including Days of Wine and Roses, so we may never know which version Barry prefers.


Beyond a glancing reference to Mercer's troubled life there wasn't a lot in the way of biographical information. If you're interested, fellow lyricist Gene Lees wrote a biography, but much of it is there in a more compact version in Lees' more wideranging and hugely enjoyable book Singers and the Song, above. But the essentials of his career were there: you were taken through his main collaborators, and it was pointed out that Harold Arlen, with his jazz and blues influences, was a good match, which I suppose was all you really needed to know. And when rock'n'roll kicked in and Hoagy Carmichael felt out in the cold, Mercer was writing film themes, which have endured. At the top of the programme we heard a burst of his earlier Hooray for Hollywood ("That screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood ..."). Interesting, too, to learn that when, with the help of Jerome Kern, musicals took over from revues, Mercer wasn't interested in writing those kind of songs, and began writing for the movies instead.

I'm not that keen on the recordings Mercer made in London in the 70s, and luckily they weren't featured, and although Sinatra's One for My Baby was played it was a tiny extract, which was as it should be. I think this was one of Benny Green's Desert Island Discs, but if you listen to Radio 2, you'll have heard it already.

I haven't really said what made Mercer special, but regular readers have already been warned that I ain't no Robert Cushman. Barry said something near the beginning of the programme which I can't quite remember, but maybe the invented term Harry Nilsson used about the Beatles' songs is relevant: Nilsson, I think, called them "catchatory", meaning how easily and naturally the words followed on from each other. There is certainly that in Mercer's lyrics and in earlier records of his warm, slightly growly, singing voice.

To close, here's an early (1934) song which illustrates his ease with lyrics. I first came across it on an Ace Records compilation called Voices of America, which spanned about three or four decades of harmony group singing. The recording comes from 1947, and it doesn't have the fervour of the Orioles, so I don't suppose you can call it doo wop, even though songs in the form of letters were not uncommon in doo wop (remember where "pismotality" comes from). But what it does have is a wonderful sense of relaxation, both in the singing and the writing (the inconsequential nature of what he has to report).



Ideally, next time I'm in Tiger, I'll hear that, followed by the Lennon-McCartney or McCartney-Lennon composition of the same name.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the title of this post doesn't come from an off-Broadway revue of Mercer songs. It only feels as if it does. Bagley successors, feel free. Goodnight, everybody.

Complete list of recordings played and link to iplayer here; the programme will be available until next Thursday.

Spencer Leigh's Independent obit of Gene Lees here.

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