Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Philip Furia's Top-Ten List of Johnny Mercer Songs

I spent part of this past weekend in Savannah, Georgia, attending a conference with two colleagues from the university. Among other things, that beautiful town is known for being the birthplace of Johnny Mercer, one of the wittiest, most idiosyncratic lyricists who ever contributed to the Great American Songbook, as well as a fine singer in his own right. So a few weeks ago I contacted Philip Furia, the author of the best biography of Mercer currently available, and asked him to send me a list of his top-ten favorite Johnny Mercer songs, along with some brief comments about each one. He graciously complied, and the result is the following article, for which I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to Mr. Furia.

Granted, I only spent two days in Savannah, mostly around the downtown area, but it was enough to realize what a lovely town it is, full of cultural activity and history, and the Johnny Mercer connection makes it even more attractive for someone who, like me, grew up fascinated by his very personal lyrics sung by legends such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, among a myriad others. I became acquainted with Mercer as a songwriter first and was instantly attracted to his witty rhymes, his Southern inflections, and his penchant for telling a complete story set to music in just a few stanzas. That is the case with the late-night conversation between a client and a bartender in "One for My Baby," which is really a monologue, as the main character talks to a bartender who listens silently and never utters a comment. It is also the case with "I Thought About You," a train ride that offers the speaker a chance to reflect on the loss of love. Mercer is also a master when it comes to treating the universal subjects of romantic love, as in the open declaration of affection contained in "I Remember You," and unrequited love, as in "P.S. I Love You," a lyric written in the form of an unassuming love letter with just the right touch of sentimentality:

Dear, I thought I'd drop a line
The weather's good, the folks are fine
I'm in bed each night at nine
P.S., I love you.

Commemorative bench at Bonaventure Cemetery
Mercer was also a very interesting singer, who could handle sentimental numbers like "Candy" (with Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers), topical WWII ditties such as "I'm Gonna See My Baby" and "G.I. Jive," and even charming little novelties such as "Personality" with equal ease. In "One for My Baby," the protagonist tells the bartender, "You'd never know it / But, buddy, I'm a kind of poet," which seems to accurately describe Mercer's art itself. But Mercer is not just "a kind of poet" or a "poet of Tin Pan Alley," to borrow the title of one of Philip Furia's best books; he is a poet, without any other adjectives, one of the foremost American poets of the twentieth century. The fact that his lyrics were set to music, or that he wrote verses to fit musical compositions, is irrelevant. I am not going to say that all his lyrics read like poems, but they do not really have to—in many cases, they are inextricable from the melodies that accompany and complement them, and that is the way it should be. As Bing Crosby reminds us in his Musical Autobiography set, Mercer "is almost always strictly lyrics," but then his lyrics are always cleverly constructed and characterized by their wit and an unmistakable air of timelessness.

The most recommendable biography of Johnny Mercer currently available is, undoubtedly, Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer (St. Martin's Press, 2003), written by Philip Furia, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who is the author of several studies of the Great American Songbook, as well as of many other biographies of some of the greatest American songwriters from the Golden Age. His book on Mercer is painstakingly researched and offers a thorough account of the complex life of its subject that is very entertaining to read. Mr. Furia began his research for the volume about twenty years ago, when he first moved to the South: "I was curious about Mercer," Mr. Furia says, "a southern songwriter among so many others who were New Yorkers." In many ways, despite his success, Mercer had a troubled personality that mixed the charm of a southern gentleman with occasional cruelty and aggressiveness, which made the subject at once attractive and difficult to understand for Mr. Furia. "When I started interviewing people in Savannah, and then in New York and California, I found there were so many awful stories about Johnny Mercer when he was drunk—including a pass at his own niece—that I had trouble writing about him," confesses the biographer. "A lucky meeting with William Goldman, the screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among other films), helped me resolve the problem by inserting myself and my mixed feelings about Mercer into the biography." And, indeed, those mixed feelings are apparent in the books, which is not merely a hagiography of Mercer, but a very balanced account of the life of a creative genius who was saddled with a personality full of contradictions. His biography, of course, is a definite must read for anyone interested in the Great American Songbook, classic pop, jazz, and twentieth-century American poetry.

Philip Furia's Top-Ten Johnny Mercer Songs

I asked Mr. Furia to name ten of his favorite Mercer compositions in no particular order, knowing that it would be a difficult task and totally aware that, if I were to ask him to do the same thing again in a few months or a few years, the list would probably look slightly different. Here are Mr. Furia's choices, along with the brief commentary he sent me about each song.

"One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" (here, by Frank Sinatra) — It's unlike most other lyrics in that it creates a miniature drama with a setting, another character ("Set 'em up, Joe"), and a monologue by the main character. Next time I go to New York, I'm going to Pete's Bar and Grill, where Mercer supposedly wrote the lyric, apologizing to Pete as he left for not getting his name into the lyric because "Joe" worked better.

"That Old Black Magic" (here, by Sarah Vaughan) — It shows how Mercer took an idea from a songwriter he admired greatly (Cole Porter's "Do, do that voodoo that you do so well" in "You Do Something to Me") and built a whole new lyric around the idea of love as "black magic." I'll bet his lyric inspired Carolyn Leigh's for "Witchcraft."

"Too Marvelous for Words" (here, by Bing Crosby) — Mercer wrote this lyric under a lot of pressure when he was starting out in Hollywood. His collaborator, Richard Whiting, gave him a big dictionary for inspiration, and Mercer worked it into the lyric: "To ever be in Webster's dictionary."

"Skylark" (here, by Maxine Sullivan) — The lyric has those images of nature that Mercer, as one of the few non-New Yorker lyricists of his era, brought to songwriting from growing up in Savannah.

"Jeepers Creepers" (here, by Jack Teagarden & Johnny Mercer) — Mercer's love of slang comes out in all his lyrics but nowhere more than in this one: "peepers," "cheaters," meaning "sunglasses."

"Hooray for Hollywood" (here, by Doris Day) — A great send-up of a town he loved and hated: "where you're terrific if you're even good."

"Autumn Leaves" (here, by Nat King Cole) — A bone-simple English lyric to a gorgeous French melody with great "d" sounds: "Drift by my window / The autumn leaves / Of red and gold . . . The sunburned hands / I used to hold." What an ear he had!

"Days of Wine and Roses" (here, by Andy Williams) — Haunting images of loss: "Toward a closing door, a door marked nevermore, that wasn't there before." Up there with T.S. Eliot's "East Coker."

"Satin Doll" (here, by Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington) — Elegant and slangy: "Cigarette holder / which wigs me / over her shoulder / she digs me . . . speaks Latin / my satin doll."

"Laura" (here, by Dick Haymes) — Great, mysterious imagery: "And you see Laura / on a train that is passing through / those eyes, how familiar they seem."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Music St. Paddy Likes: John McCormack

It is St. Patrick's Day today, widely celebrated all over North America by the wearing of the green and the drinking of the ale. But it is also a day to be celebrated with some great Irish-themed music, and there is perhaps no better choice than one of the greatest and most versatile Irish tenors of all time—John McCormack, that is!

Seven decades after his passing, John McCormack is still remembered today as one of the best tenors who ever graced the stage and the recording studio, and his music still sounds as fresh and beautiful today as it did in the 1930s and '40s. McCormack was Irish by birth, although he would later become an American citizen. Born in 1884 in Athlone, Ireland, he earned a reputation as an opera singer in the early years of the 20th century, headlining many important operatic productions in Italy, England, and the United States. Aware that his talent as an actor was somewhat lacking and that his gifts lay elsewhere, McCormack concentrated on live appearances and recordings after World War I, finding great success with his Irish ballads, folk tunes, and airs that made him a star internationally. Although he also performed classical lieder and pop songs in his recitals, his audiences constantly demanded his Irish-themed material, and he was always delighted to oblige. At the beginning of the sound era, he also worked occasionally in movies, though the ones he made, such as Frank Borzage's Song O' My Heart (1929, with Maureen O'Hara) and Harold D. Schuster's Wings of the Morning (1937, with Henry Fonda), are rather obscure. In the late 1920s, McCormack returned permanently to his native country, and by 1938 he had quietly slipped into retirement, although he kept making records almost until his death in Dublin in 1945.

There are many CD compilations of John McCormack's work, both classical and popular, and they are all recommendable, because he was the kind of artist who hardly ever made a subpar record. However, for his Irish recordings, one of the best choices is Songs of My Heart: Popular Songs and Irish Ballads (EMI Records, 1992), which includes sides he made between 1930 and 1941. Here we find him mostly accompanied by a piano that is always elegant and sympathetic and that supports his marvelous voice perfectly. As the title suggests, the program features mostly Irish tunes, many of them from poet Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, such as "The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls," "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms," and "The Meeting of the Waters." There are also a couple of selections from the Stephen Foster songbook ("Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Sweetly She Sleeps My Alice Fair"), a musical setting of a W.B. Yeats text ("Down by the Sally Gardens"), and several traditional Irish melodies like "The Garden Where the Praties Grow" and "The Bard of Armagh."

McCormack's interpretation of "The Londonderry Air," better known as "Danny Boy" but presented here under the title of "O Mary Dear," is one of the most memorable ever recorded. But one of the most moving tracks on the compilation is the traditional ballad "She Moved Thro' the Fair," which is the perfect example of McCormack's ability to create and sustain and mood in song, in this case deeply sorrowful and haunting. Both the music and the lyrics of this song have a rather mysterious and mournful quality that seems to foreshadow death before the wedding of two lovers. We do not know that the bride is indeed dead until the final lines, but the sorrow and unrest are ably conveyed by McCormack and his piano accompanist from the opening stanza of the song:

My young love said to me:
"My mother won't mind
And me fath'r won't slight you
For your lack of kind."
Then she stepp'd away from me
And this did she say:
"It will not be long, love
Till our wedding day."

The music contained herein shows that McCormack was a master interpreter of song who could instantly create a connection with any live audience. Since we cannot experience him live at any of his extremely popular recitals anymore, his recordings are the only possible substitute, and listening to them makes us realize why they are worthy of being played and treasured all these decades after they were made. Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

McCormack sitting at the piano