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Where has all the good music gone?

By Carl Langley
EdgefieldDaily.com Guest Columnist

web posted February 19, 2007

COLUMN – Johnny Mercer’s grandmother knew the infant she was holding in her lap would someday be famous for his musical talents.

The legend has it that the doting grandmother told family members and friends that the six-month-old baby she was rocking in Savannah in the early years of the 1900s would begin humming a tune each time he heard a piano playing.

Grandmother knew something others didn’t because the baby she held would grow up to become one of the giants of the American music industry.

In today’s entertainment world, saturated with rock and roll, rap, country and western fare, the name Johnny Mercer rings few bells, but during his years on Broadway and in Hollywood he was a recognized genius in the song writing business.

Mercer also was a gifted singer and performed with several big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, but his ability to write the lyrics that captured the affection of millions made him one of the great stars of the music world.

Mercer, who died in 1976 at the age of 67, left his birthplace on the Georgia coast at the age of 19 and went to New York. He knew it would take a major city to help find his niche in the entertainment business.

Nearly 50 years later he had been nominated 19 times for Academy Awards for his songs, won four times and was the “go to guy” whenever a theater or movie producer needed someone to jazz up a production with some sparkling lyrics.

Mercer filled the bill nearly every time and was considered a master by such musical greats as Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and the inimitable Irving Berlin. While not writing songs he helped found Capitol Records, which launched many stars into the music world.

Over the years, Mercer, whose songs spiced up dozens of movies and Broadway plays, won Oscars for writing Moon River, Days of Wine and Roses, In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening and The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.

I recall the memory of this great artist today after a recent conversation with a friend who informed me that one of Mercer’s relatives still lives in the Savannah area and Mercer was buried in Savannah’s historic Bonaventure Cemetery.

The relative is a cousin named Joe O’Leary, an aging World War II veteran who only met his famous kinsman a few times but remembers Mercer as an humble, shy man who was far different from the egotists that most entertainers become after they make the big time.

My telephone conversation with O’Leary was short and not filled with a lot of information, but he confirmed for me an astounding story that I first came across years ago while reading a piece about Mercer in a national news magazine. The story, if my memory is correct, appeared shortly after Mercer died and was repeated by radio newsman Paul Harvey.

In the magazine a writer claimed he had uncovered some facts about Mercer that demonstrated what a great man the songwriter was. Mercer, he had found, never forgot the hardships the Great Depression brought upon his parents.

Shortly after he began making his mark in the show business world, Mercer promised his mother that someday he would pay off all the debts that his father had been burdened with while trying to keep his family together in the 1930s.

True to his word Mercer set out in the 1950s to find his father’s creditors with intentions to pay them in full, one by one and with interest on top of the debt. The writer said Mercer found all of them and payment was made in full.

O’Leary, asked to confirm or deny that story when I tracked him down by telephone, said it was true. He said it was common knowledge within the family that Mercer paid the debts. He said Mercer never forgot his roots and was determined to make everything right.

In a tribute to Mercer I spent a recent evening playing many of the hits the master songsmith created over a career that spanned four decades. Of them all, Moon River and Days of Wine and Roses are my favorites. No one writes songs like those anymore.

Johnny Mercer’s songs have been all but lost in the hideous cacophony of what passes for music these days, with rock and rollers repeating one word over and over while assaulting peace and harmony with their awful guitars and rappers mouthing mumbo jumbo and gibberish that is little more than primeval utterance.

Oh, where has all the good music gone!


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