As we reported earlier on Wednesday (Feb. 15), Tim Rice is this year’s recipient of the Johnny Mercer Award, the top honor given by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Rice joins a long list of Mercer Award recipients which includes Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Paul Simon, Stephen Sondheim, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton and Neil Diamond.
Mercer died in 1976, so you can be excused if you don’t know all that much about him. Mercer was a top lyricist of the Great American Songbook era, but his creative peak extended beyond that era. He won back-to-back Oscars in 1962-63 for co-writing “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” Henry Mancini, who composed both of those hits, saluted Mercer with a memorable line from “Moon River” when they won for “Days of Wine and Roses,” saying “and my huckleberry friend, Johnny Mercer.”
Mercer’s other most famous songs include “Hooray for Hollywood” (a perennial on the Oscars), “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” (a classic saloon song that is one of Frank Sinatra’s signature hits), “Summer Wind” (another Sinatra classic from 1966), “Fools Rush In” (which Rick Nelson revived in 1963), “Dream” (one of the most melancholy ballads of the World War II years), “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate-the-Positive” (it appeared recently in M3GAN), “I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)” (Lucy and Ethel sang it on a 1954 episode of I Love Lucy), “That Old Black Magic” (Louis Prima & Keely Smith’s classic version was a winner at the first Grammy Awards) and “I Wanna Be Around” (Tony Bennett’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit).
Here are more Mercer songs you probably know: “Autumn Leaves,” “Blues in the Night,” “Jeepers, Creepers!,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “I Remember You,” “Charade,” “Skylark” and “Too Marvelous for Words.”
Scan these 13 Fun Facts and learn more about the man for whom the Songwriters Hall of Fame named their top award.
He received 18 Oscar nominations for best original song.
Only Sammy Cahn has received more Oscar nods (26) in this category. To put this in contemporary terms, Diane Warren needs four more Oscar nominations to pull into a tie with Mercer for second place on the Oscar leaderboard. Mercer achieved at least one nomination in five consecutive decades, from the ’30s to the ’70s.
Henry Mancini composed the music for five of Mercer’s 18 nominated songs, more than anyone else. Harold Arlen composed four. Harry Warren (no relation to Diane Warren) and Mercer himself composed two. (Mercer wrote both music and lyrics for “Something’s Gotta Give” and “The Facts of Life”). Warren teamed with Jimmy McHugh, Artie Shaw, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael and Marvin Hamlisch on one nominated song each.
In addition, Mercer and Mancini received an Oscar nomination for best original song score for Darling Lili, a 1970 film starring Julie Andrews. This was on top of their nod for best original song for the film’s lovely ballad, “Whistling Away the Dark.”
He won a record-tying four Oscars for best original song.
His Oscar winners were “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” from The Harvey Girls; “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” from Here Comes the Groom; “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and “Days of Wine and Roses” from Days of Wine and Roses. To this day, no one has won more than four Oscars in this category, and only three people have matched Mercer’s tally: Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen and Alan Menken.
He co-founded Capitol Records.
Mercer co-founded the legendary label in 1942 with Buddy DeSylva and Glenn E. Wallichs. The label that brought us Nat King Cole, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Band, Bob Seger and many more is still going strong 81 years later.
Moreover, Mercer was one of the label’s top artists in the ’40s and early ’50s, with 23 hits on Billboard’s pop songs charts of the era.
He was a successful recording artist.
His most famous recording as an artist is “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate-the-Positive,” which featured The Pied Pipers and Paul Weston and his orchestra. Mercer co-wrote the positive-thinking anthem, which was the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” of its day, with Harold Arlen for the film Here Come the Waves. It brought Mercer his eighth Oscar nomination for best original song. His 1945 recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and the National Recording Registry in 2014.
His other top recordings as an artist include “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010), “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” and “Personality.” Mercer didn’t write the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” but he knew a good song when he heard one.
His long string of hits from 1938-52 also included collabs with some of the top singers of that era, including Bing Crosby (“Small Fry”), Jo Stafford (“Candy”), The King Cole Trio, fronted by Nat King Cole (“Harmony”) and Margaret Whiting (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside).
Ella Fitzgerald recorded an album of his songs in 1964.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book, recorded with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, was the only album in Fitzgerald’s celebrated Song Book series to focus on the work of a lyricist. The album’s opening track, “Too Marvelous for Words,” doubles as an apt description of the album.
Previous editions in the jazz legend’s Song Book series had explored the songs of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern.
He recorded an album with Bobby Darin.
Two of a Kind (Atco, 1961) received warm reviews. Variety wrote that “Johnny Mercer, who is 27 years older than Bobby Darin, has got a vocal verve that excellently complements the youngster’s piping pyrotechnics. Together they bring an unusual bounce and delightful casual flavour to a snappy disc production. The mood is jovial and bright and the sock standard repertoire has appeal for adult as well as juves.”
He was a Fanilow.
Mercer was a fan of Barry Manilow, who was red-hot in 1975 and 1976, the last two years of Mercer’s life. Mercer’s widow, Ginger, entrusted Manilow with a cache of Mercer’s lyrics that had never been set to music. Manilow put one of them, “When October Goes,” to music for his 1984 jazz-imbued album 2:00 AM Paradise Café. The song reached No. 6 on Hot Adult Contemporary (now just called Adult Contemporary). The album went gold.
He and Henry Mancini were the first songwriters to win back-to-back Oscars.
Mancini was Mercer’s collaborator on both “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” which won back-to-back Academy Awards in 1962 and 1963. They were the first songwriters to achieve that feat. They were nominated again in 1964 for “Charade,” but their winning streak ended when “Call Me Irresponsible” (from Papa’s Delicate Condition) won instead.
In all the years since, just one other songwriter has had back-to-back best original song winners – Alan Menken, who won in 1992 with “Beauty and the Beast” and 1993 with “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme).”
He was the first songwriter to have two songs up for the song of the year Grammy in the same year.
He achieved the feat in 1963 with “Days of Wine and Roses” (a co-write with Mancini) and “I Wanna Be Around” (on which he shared the credit with one Sadie Vimmerstedt).
And who is Sadie Vimmerstedt, you ask? It’s a great story: Vimmerstedt was a grandmother and beautician in Youngstown, Ohio, who sent Mercer an idea for “I Wanna Be Around” in 1957. She even supplied the opening line (“I want to be around to pick up the pieces, when somebody breaks your heart”). Not knowing where to send her letter, Vimmerstedt simply addressed it to Johnny Mercer…Songwriter…New York, NY. The post office forwarded it to ASCAP, which in turn passed it along to Mercer. Mercer wrote the song and agreed to share one-third of the royalties and credits with Vimmerstedt. Moral of the story: Good ideas can come from anywhere.
While Mercer was the first songwriter with two songs nominated for song of the year at the Grammys in the same year, he wasn’t the last. Here’s a full list.
He and Mancini were the first songwriters to win two song of the year Grammys. To this day, no one has won more.
They followed their Oscar wins for “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses” by also winning Grammys for song of the year for both songs. The only other songwriters who have won two Grammys for song of the year are James Horner, Will Jennings, U2, Adele, Christopher Brody Brown, Bruno Mars and Dernst Emile II (D’Mile).
He had a top 20 hit on the Hot 100 two months before he died.
The Salsoul Orchestra’s disco update of “Tangerine,” a Mercer song that was a giant hit for Jimmy Dorsey in 1942, peaked at No. 18 on the Hot 100 in April 1976. Mercer died that June. Not a bad way for a great songwriter to go out, with a hit song on the radio.
He received a Tony nomination seven years after he died.
Mercer was posthumously nominated for original musical score for writing the lyrics to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, based on the 1954 MGM film. Gene de Paul composed the music. Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn contributed new songs. The show flopped, playing just five performances in July 1982. This was Mercer’s only Tony nomination.
He received a Trustees Award from the Recording Academy in 1987.
The appreciation in that year’s Grammy program book read in part: “Though Johnny Mercer achieved [his] greatest fame as probably the finest all-around lyricist of the 20th century, he was also a distinctive and delightful singer of often clever and always joyous rhythm tunes, and one of the smartest and most successful businessmen … He took his responsibilities seriously, but his performing talents lightly, projecting a lighthearted, devil-may-care aura into the songs, mostly his own, that he recorded or sang on his radio shows.”