Skylark is the story of the tormented but glorious life and career of Johnny Mercer, and the first biography of this enormously popular and influential lyricist. Raised in Savannah, Mercer brought a quintessentially southern style to both his life in New York and to his lyrics, which often evoked the landscapes and mood of his youth ("Moon River", "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening"). Mercer also absorbed the music of southern blacks--the lullabies his nurse sang to him as a baby and the spirituals that poured out of Savannah's churches-and that cool smooth lyrical style informed some of his greatest songs, such as "That Old Black Magic".
Part of a golden guild whose members included Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, Mercer took Hollywood by storm in the midst of the Great Depression. Putting words to some of the most famous tunes of the time, he wrote one hit after another, from "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" to "Jeepers Creepers" and "Hooray for Hollywood." But it was also in Hollywood that Mercer's dark underside emerged. Sober, he was a kind, generous and at times even noble southern gentleman; when he drank, Mercer tore into friends and strangers alike with vicious abuse. Mercer's wife Ginger, whom he'd bested Bing Crosby to win, suffered the cruelest attacks; Mercer would even improvise cutting lyrics about her at parties.
During World War II, Mercer served as Americas's troubadour, turning out such uplifting songs as "My Shining Hour" and "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive." He also helped create Capitol Records, the first major West Coast recording company, where he discovered many talented singers, including Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. During this period, he also began an intense affair with Judy Garland, which rekindled time and again for the rest of their lives. Although they never found happiness together, Garland became Mercer's muse and inspired some of his most sensuous and heartbreaking lyrics: "Blues in the Night," "One for My Baby," and "Come Rain or Come Shine."
Mercer amassed a catalog of over a thousand songs and during some years had a song in the Top Ten every week of the year--the songwriting equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak--but was plagued by a sense of failure and bitterness over the big Broadway hit that seemed forever out of reach.
Based on scores of interviews with friends, family and colleagues, and drawing extensively on Johnny Mercer's letters, papers and his unpublished autobiography, Skylark is an important book about one of the great and dramatic characters in 20th century popular music.
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Philip Furia is the author of Irving Berlin: A Life in Song and Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist. He lives in Wilmington North Carolina.
In this sensitive and wonderfully in-depth work on the lyricist of classics like "One for the Road" and "Moon River," Furia (Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist) displays his talent for writing about the giants in American popular song. Georgia-born Mercer (1909-1976) spent most of his life among New York songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter as well as such Hollywood stars as Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, but Furia expertly details how "his genteel southern background would always set him apart" in his lyrics ("Mercer, alone among the great songwriters of his generation, was, from the day he was born, influenced by the music of blacks") as well as his personal life, including his alcoholism. Furia also captures all of the successes and failures in Mercer's long career: his many Academy Award wins; his creation of Capitol Records; his collaboration with composer Harold Arlen, which helped both of them create songs and lyrics "that endure as timeless standards"; and his never having a true hit Broadway play because his "concentration on the emotional mood of a melody limited him" after the American musical's post-Oklahoma! emphasis on character and theatricality. Furia also details the influence of Mercer's love affair with Judy Garland on "the new depth of sorrow" that suddenly appears in Mercer's work with Arlen. Apart from including a few out-of-tune facts about Garland's sexual habits not related to Mercer, Furia makes it clear that Garland had become Mercer's "muse."
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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