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Johnny Mercer - Johnny Mercer  Print E-mail
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Scott Yanow   
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

format:    16-bit CDs (3), mono
performance:    9
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    Mosaic Select
reviewer:    Scott Yanow

Johnny Mercer was one of this country’s greatest lyricists. During his productive career he wrote the words to hundreds of songs, many of which became standards, including: “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “And the Angels Sing,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Blues In the Night,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Fools Rush In,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” “I Remember You,” “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Laura,” “Midnight Sun,” “Moon River,” “My Shining Hour,” “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” “One for My Baby,” “Satin Doll,” “Skylark,” “Tangerine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “This Time the Dream’s On Me” and “Too Marvelous for Words.” But there was more to Mercer than his poetic lyrics, his unsuccessful acting career and his abilities as an emcee.

Unlike most other lyricists, such as Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein III. and even Cole Porter and Irving Berlin (who both wrote words and music), Mercer was a skilled and popular singer. His only real competition in that area was Hoagy Carmichael, who mostly wrote music rather than words and whose voice was not quite on Mercer’s level.

In 1942, with former songwriter Buddy DeSylva and record store owner Glenn Wallichs, Johnny Mercer co-founded Capitol Records. Until the end of the 1940s, Mercer had a strong influence on the label, signing such talented friends as Nat King Cole, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. In addition, his series of recordings resulted in several hits and many popular records.

This limited-edition three-CD Mosaic Select set has many of Mercer’s best recordings from 1942-47. The 79 selections emphasize his jazz side, with Mercer often accompanied by a flexible swing orchestra led and arranged by Paul Weston, and sometimes assisted by the four-voice vocal group the Pied Pipers. In addition, there are appearances by singer-trombonist Jack Teagarden (“That Old Music Master”), trumpeter-singer Wingy Manone, tenor-saxophone soloist Eddie Miller, the bands of Benny Goodman and Billy Butterfield and, on “The Freedom Train,” Peggy Lee and Margaret Whiting. Three of the best performances (the catchy “Save the Bones For Henry Jones,” the boppish “My Baby Likes to Be-Bop” and “You Can’t Make Money Dreamin’”) team Mercer with Nat King Cole and his trio.

Although there are some short solos along the way and occasional Dixielandish ensembles, the main star throughout is Johnny Mercer. His voice was appealing without being virtuosic, he swung, and he evoked a timeless hipness even when singing lyrics filled with dated swing era slang. Oddly enough, out of these 79 recordings, Mercer only wrote the lyrics to 12 songs, 11 of which are on the first CD. Many of the songs were already at least a decade old at the time yet Mercer made each tune sound relevant to the era, and he seemed to pick (and occasionally improve upon) some of the better lyrics written by others.

A few of the highlights include a funny satire on “Sugar Blues” (one of nine songs released here for the first time), “G.I. Jive,” “San Fernando Valley,” “The Tailgate Rambler,” “Lazy Mood,” “Ugly Chile,” “My Sugar is So Refined” and “Box Car Blues.” The fact that Johnny Mercer still sounds up-to-date more than 60 years after these recordings were made says a great deal about the timelessness of his enjoyable singing, personality and music.

Sound
Since the music was originally recorded for 78s or to be used as radio transcriptions, the concise performances only exceed three minutes and 10 seconds in one instance. Capitol put a lot of care into their recording quality (it was a first-class operation), so these performances are quite listenable. It is not stereo but one can clearly hear every instrument, and the balance is logical.







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