Gene Lees Portrait Of Johnny: The Life Of John Herndon Mercer Pantheon Books
When it comes to songwriting, lyricists don't get much credit. While many people may know, for instance, that Henry Mancini wrote the music for "Moon River, many fewer are likely to know that Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. Great lyrics can make a song, but lyric writing is an art that's largely been lost in the age of top forty radio.
Or so Gene Lees argues in his new biography of Johnny Mercer, Portrait Of Johnny: The Life Of John Herndon Mercer. Mercer was one of the best lyric writers in twentieth century popular music and he helped turn popular song into an art form. Who better to write the story of his life than Lees, who, in addition to being an author and journalist, also writes lyrics?
Unfortunately, the opening of Portrait Of Johnny falls foul of a problem that plagues many biographies: neither Mercer's early life nor the lives of his ancestors are particularly interesting. The first few chapters drag as they wade through Mercer's upbringing, and only pick up interest when Mercer starts producing significant work. Lees also devotes too much space to Mercer's letters to friends and acquaintances, and in the process interrupts the flow of the narrative.
Once Lees gets into the golden years of American songwriting, however, the book begins to shine. As both a biography of Mercer-the-lyricist and an elegy for the lost art of songwriting, Portrait Of Johnny works beautifully. Mercer worked with high caliber writers like Mancini, Jerome Kern and Hoagy Carmichael, and the story of these early pioneers gives a fascinating glimpse into the process by which their songs were made.
Lees gives a brief introduction to the art of songwriting at the beginning of the book, explaining what it takes to write good lyrics (and at the same time pointing out what is lacking in today's popular music). In confirming how great Mercer is, it would have been useful to be able to read excerpts from his songs, along with an analysis of what makes each of them work so well. Lees does some of this, but not enough. (It's possible, of course, that high reproduction fees prohibited a really wide selection of lyrics).
It may come as no surprise to learn that Mercer hated the Beatles, and the lack of attention to lyric writing that followed in their wake. Although Mercer continued to work during the '60s and '70s, the relevance of his work diminished as top forty radio undermined the importance of songcraft. Thus Lees also identifies Mercer as one of the last of the great songwriters, one of the people who turned popular song from insignificant ephemera into art. Lees convincingly highlights what is lacking in popular music today by reminding us of all the great songs written in the period when theater, radio and performers worked together to create works of lasting beauty.
While not as immediately engaging as some of Lees's other books, like Singers And The Song, Portrait Of Johnny is nonetheless an engaging work that will have you humming songs in your head as they fly by in the book. There may never be a time when we have songwriters of the caliber of Mercer again, but Lees does his considerable best to help us remember them.