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Paying tribute to Johnny Mercer

A Clint Eastwood-produced documentary on Turner Classic Movies and a film academy event mark the famed lyricist's centennial.

November 04, 2009|Susan King

Clint Eastwood first became familiar with the work of lyricist Johnny Mercer as a kid growing up in San Francisco in the 1930s and '40s.

"We only had radio at that time," he says, adding with a laugh, "I am dating myself. You would listen to the radio a lot and Johnny Mercer would appear. He was always singing with somebody like Bing Crosby. Everybody talked about the songs. At that time in life you didn't know who wrote the songs, you just knew if you liked them or not."

Suffice it to say that millions of people liked what they heard. During his 40-plus years as a lyricist and composer, Mercer wrote the lyrics for some of the most memorable numbers in the American songbook, including Oscar winners "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," "Moon River" and "Days of Wine and Roses."

Turner Classic Movies and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this week are celebrating the centennial of the prolific lyricist of such standards as "Blues in the Night," "I'm Old Fashioned," "Charade" and "Jeepers, Creepers."

Premiering tonight on Turner Classic Movies is the new documentary "Johnny Mercer: The Dream's on Me," executive-produced by Eastwood and featuring archival footage of Mercer discussing his work and singing, as well as new and archival interviews with the likes of Julie Andrews, singer Michael Feinstein and lyricist Alan Bergman, and clips of Mercer's work sung by Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Nat King Cole.

The documentary is an Eastwood family affair. Not only does the Oscar-winning actor-director also appear on the documentary, he's joined by his jazz pianist son, Kyle, and 12-year-old daughter, Morgan, who perform from the Mercer catalog.

Nominated for 19 Academy Awards, Mercer wrote with such composers as Henry Mancini, Harold Arlen, Marvin Hamlisch and Hoagy Carmichael. And on occasion, Mercer would also pen the music to his lyrics, as in the case of "Something's Gotta Give" from 1955's "Daddy Long Legs."

Born in Savannah, Ga., on Nov. 18, 1909, Mercer began composing songs at 15 and continued to his death in 1976 at age 66.

A contemporary of such lyricists and composers as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields and George and Ira Gershwin, Mercer was also a popular singer who began his career as a singer-songwriter with Paul Whiteman's orchestra. He also co-founded Capitol Records in 1942, which subsequently signed such greats as Cole, Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton and Frank Sinatra.

For Eastwood, it's difficult to pick one Mercer song from his many favorites.

"I always liked 'Midnight Sun,' " he says. "I always though it was a poetic lyric -- and 'Blues in the Night,' 'My Shining Hour' and 'Autumn Leaves.' That's a wonderful old song, and we have that footage in the documentary of Nat King Cole, who was my favorite pop singer growing up, performing it. I always felt I was lucky to grow up in a generation where he and Frank Sinatra were around and so many other great singers."

On Thursday evening, Feinstein hosts a sold-out tribute at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater featuring live performances by Feinstein and Monica Mancini, daughter of composer Henry, and film clips and interviews with Bergman and actress Jane Russell among others.

Like Eastwood, Feinstein believes Mercer was a poet. "Setting music to lyrics is different than poetry in that if you separate them, the lyric doesn't always stand on its own because it was created to be a partner to something," Feinstein says.

"However, so many of his lyrics do stand on their own as poetry because he had such an exquisite command of language and an understanding of character and vernacular in a way that enabled him to write with hundreds of collaborators in every conceivable style. It's the most dazzling achievement of any lyricist."

Mercer, says Feinstein, was compelled to write lyrics. "He couldn't help himself. What I mean by that is if he was driving in a car and he heard an instrumental on the radio, he would write a lyric for it. He heard 'Song of India' and he wrote a lyric for it, and that was recorded by Mario Lanza. He heard the old chestnut 'Glow Worm,' and he wrote an updated lyric for it."

In the case of Arlen, with whom Mercer collaborated on such tunes as "Blues in the Night," "That Old Black Magic" and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," Feinstein says the composer "wrote long rambling tunes and depended on Johnny to make sense of them. . . .

"Arlen wrote it knowing it would be the words that would crystallize the journey of the tune. Johnny had this ability to take us on a journey."

Though the academy tribute is sold out, there will be a standby line. For information, go to www.oscars.org. For information about the documentary, go to www.tcm.com.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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'Johnny Mercer: The Dream's

on Me'

Where: TCM

When: 5 and 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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