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Portrait Of Johnny: The Life Of John Herndon Mercer Gene Lees Softcover; 360 pages ISBN: 0-634-09929-9 Hal Leonard 2004
Gene Lees tells of Johnny Mercer's life and career with passion. Like a good novel, Portrait Of Johnny is a book that you just don't want to put down. Not even for a minute. Lees traces Mercer's life from his humble Savannah, Georgia roots to his glamorous Hollywood notoriety, and stops off to visit many places in between. As foundation for the story, Lees quotes commentary and insights from family and friends, as well as interviews with Mercer himself.
The underlying theme of the book is lyric writing and lyricists. Lees examines the many tasks and challenges involved in lyric writing. For some people, lyric writing comes easy. For others, it can be burdensome. Try rhyming something with April. Or any word in the English language with orange.
Mercer (1909-1976) found lyric writing easy. While he never learned to read music and never studied a musical instrument, his natural love for rhythm and rhyme was sufficient. His first published song, a forgotten "Out Of Breath And Scared To Death Yf You, gave him ideas.
Mercer's wife and two children saw him through career changes that included a radio show, film and theater songwriting, many collaborations with composers, and the co- founding of Capitol Records at Hollywood and Vine in 1942. Mercer and composer Henry Mancini won Academy Awards for "Moon River and "Days Of Wine And Roses.
But all was not glamour and glitz and good fortune. Patiently, Lees takes us through the life of Johnny Mercer, warts and all. Alcoholism became a major problem. For a man who could write lyrics in a taxi cab during the few minutes that it takes to get from home to the studio, alcohol served to slow him down considerably. The balance did not work in his favor.
The songs that he gave us, however, will never be slowed down. Many of his songs are national treasures and are likely to remain so. Lees' book includes 32 black & white photos that help bring Johnny Mercer to life. The music is something that we'll never forget.
Jazz is a creative explosion of individual freedom and communication.
I was first exposed to jazz when I was a kid. My father had a music store.
The best live performance I ever attended was Kenny Garrett in Harlem, New York.
The first jazz record I bought was Saxophone Colossus by Sonny Rollins.
My advice to new listeners is keep listening!