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An outstanding sampler of Mercer's lyrics, served up by a first-class singer who deserved to be better known.
How many song lyrics did this man write? Are you ready? 1,200, according to the Johnny Mercer Foundation. They weren't all hits, of course, but each of the 54 Mercer songs listed in Wikipedia is a classic in the Great American Songbook. Just for comparison, Wikipedia lists 18 for Rogers & Hart and 17 for the Gershwin brothers.
It's not just quantity that sets Mercer apart from the other lyricists of the Great American Songbook. Most of themthink Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hartcame across as city folks. Even when they wrote of country life (see "Mountain Greenery," part of the Rogers & Hart article in this "Getting Into Jazz" series), they came across as strangers in a strange land. Not Mercer. He was the poet laureate of the great American landscape, writing with ease of small towns and simple lives. At the same time, his heart-on-the-sleeve evocations of romantic love could inspire Dr. Strangelove to give not-so-strange love a try.
About Marlene VerPlanck Loves Johnny Mercer
Tracks 1 through 16, recorded in 1978 when VePlanck was at her best, are a showcase for some of Mercer's most beautiful songs, and they make this CD a barely-known gem. The remaining tracks, recorded ten years later, are a mess, with muddy sound quality and a voice that's showing its age.
Track 14, "I Thought About You"
Possibly Mercer's best word-picture of small-town America. The singer peeks out of a train window in the middle of the night and sees "two or three cars parked under the stars" and "moon shining down on some little town." The scene is anonymous, fleeting, and yet familiar. And it's as far from Cole Porter territory as you can get.
Track 3, "Early Autumn"
Mercer's poetry glows in this sad and beautiful song, in which the singer tries to summon back joys that time has stolen. Mercer could paint a picture with words like no one else. Close your eyes and feel the "dance pavilion in the rain, all shuttered down." Drippy, cold, miserable.
Track 4, "Hit the Road to Dreamland"
After "Early Autumn," you'll need this one to snap you out of your depression. In any case, if you've got a kid (or partner) who can't sleep, you can forget Brahms. This is a sweeter lullaby by far. When VerPlanck croons "Hold tight, baby," you can feel your lids droop. Maybe that's just the Ambien kicking in, but the song works, too.
Track 12, "Midnight Sun"
Move over, William Blake, this exotic extravaganza is even more trance-like than "Tiger, tiger, burning bright." But what a trance: "red and rosy chalice," "alabaster palace," "aurora borealis." This is Mercer the mystic. Soak it up and don't ask what it means.
Track 16, "P.S. I Love You"
From the mystical to the mundane. On its surface, this one is a catalog of domestic trivia ("I burned a hole in the dining room table"), but all that ordinary busy-ness can be a scaffold around which a life is built. Just hope there's something worthwhile inside.
Track 5, "Skylark"
The singer is wistful, longing for fulfilment in some faraway place where "someone's waiting to be kissed." But the song's most magical wordsand VerPlanck turns up the intensity to accommodate themare "And in your lonely flight, haven't you heard the music in the night, wonderful music..." They catch in your throat, reaching beyond the song and capturing what it means to love jazz.
An added attraction
One of the smartest and most lighthearted songs in the Mercer catalog is his ode to a firefly called "Glow-Worm." Listen to it performed by the Mills Brothers, and read the lyrics so you can absorb every lineas in "Thou aeronautical boll weevil, illuminate yon woods primeval."