The satin sound of Johnny Mercer

Ideas & Opinion · Music
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While I was recovering from knee surgery, my buddy S.V. brought me recuperation DVDs — among them “The Dream’s On Me,” documentarian Bruce Ricker’s film homage to lyricist/composer Johnny Mercer.

[The documentary, executive-produced by Clint Eastwood, airs from time to time on TCM.]

Mercer, a tireless music maker of the highest order (by the way, Angelenos, he founded Capitol Records), had a household name in the forties and fifties as a singer/recording artist. As a lyricist he collaborated brilliantly with scads of composer-partners, most felicitously Harold Arlen. But his name has drifted into, if not obscurity, then a netherworld of under appreciation — which is why Ricker and Eastwood made the film.

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The film tours the Savannah, Georgia-born Mercer’s tremendous portfolio, so astonishing in its scope and specialness you find yourself repeatedly thinking, “I didn’t know he wrote that!” about “Autumn Leaves,” “Blues in the Night,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “One for my Baby (One for the Road),” “Days of Wine & Roses,” “I Remember You,” “Midnight Sun,” “Travelin’ Light,” “That Old Black Magic” … all huge jazz standards.

Mercer’s preferred singers, Fred Astaire, Nat Cole, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, and of course Sinatra, are featured in the film. Just paradise!

Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to “Satin Doll,” for god’s sake! Did everyone know that but me? In the film, he describes how he layered language onto Ellington’s romping instrumental:

“You couldn’t really hold that tune back,” says Mercer. “It was off what a lyric writer calls a ‘rockin’ chair’ song. You just don’t have to do any work!”

Cigarette holder which wigs me
Over her shoulder, she digs me.
Out cattin’ that satin doll.

Baby, shall we go out skippin?
Careful, amigo, you’re flippin’,
Speaks Latin that satin doll.

She’s nobody’s fool so I’m playing it cool as can be.
I’ll give it a whirl but I ain’t for no girl catching me,

Telephone numbers well you know,
Doin’ my rhumbas with uno
And that ‘in my Satin Doll.

music by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn; lyrics by Johnny Mercer

Related posts:

  • Clint Eastwood makes a public pledge to fund LACMA’s film program. Read it here.
  • Just like “Satin Doll,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” was first released as an instrumental with lyrics added afterward (not by Johnny Mercer, but Mitchell Parish). Reviewing Terry Teachout’s “Pops,” I describe Louis Armstrong’s groundbreaking 1931 recording of “Stardust” here.

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