Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World

Article excerpt

Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World. By Glenn T. Eskew. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, 2013. Pp. [xxii], 521. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-3330-4.)

In this biography of Johnny Mercer, Glenn T. Eskew charts the struggles of a talented southern songwriter through his early successes and finally to his position at the pinnacle of the U.S. popular music industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Eskew anchors his subject in a family tradition of southern gentlemen, many of whom played key roles as military men, statesmen, and civic leaders in the nation's and region's history. Until his father, G. A. Mercer, lost most of the family fortune in the 1920s, Johnny enjoyed all of the privileges that came with being a scion of one of the first families of Savannah, Georgia. As Eskew argues, Mercer always maintained a connection with Savannah and the South.

For readers who know the central role Mercer played in the development of American popular music in the twentieth century--over 1,500 songs to his credit, more than 100 of them hits; four Oscars, two Grammys, and one Emmy; and his co-founding of Capitol Records in 1942--the early chapters may be the most interesting. They make clear how difficult it was for Mercer to gain a toehold in the burgeoning world of popular entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s. Like many young people in those years, seeking their fortune far from home, Mercer had few contacts who could clear the path of obstacles to success. His time in New York brought him into contact with more experienced musicians and performers, and from them he learned about and worked on his craft and gathered the confidence to approach influential figures in the business. New York also led to Hollywood, where he appeared in movies, hobnobbed with the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and wrote songs with composers such as Hoagy Carmichael and Dick Whiting.

Eskew also provides readers with the backstory of Mercer's most popular songs; the biography thus will serve as a valuable reference for scholars interested in the origins of particular song lyrics and for the networks of composers, lyricists, and performers who shaped what Eskew calls the "Great American Songbook" (p. 367). For those interested in Mercer's private struggles with alcohol and family dysfunction, Eskew provides lots of detail--just shy of a "tell-all" biography. …

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