Wilfrid Sheed on Johnny Mercer in The House That George Built (2007):
“To clinch his monopoly, Johnny looked and sounded exactly like people wanted him to: with a Huck Finn face, a gap-toothed grin, and an old shoe of a voice that reminded bandleader Paul Whiteman of a man singing in his sleep. Most of the great songwriters, as we’ve seen, looked like something else, but Mercer could have won an open casting call for the part of himself. When an artist resembles his work (as did Picasso, Gershwin, Hemingway), he seems twice as much of a genius, and frequently picks up all the marbles for his generation.”
Beware of anyone who casually throws around “genius,” but Sheed captures the essential Mercer charm. He was a songwriter, not a poet. Without music, a songwriter’s words too often look naked and insubstantial. The reader, as opposed to the listener, feels uneasy and even a little embarrassed, the way we fell when reading most contemporary poetry. Such categories should never be blurred. Consider “Laura,” with music by David Raksin, from Otto Preminger’s 1944 film also called Laura. This is from the song’s refrain:
Is the face in the misty light.
That you hear down the hall,
That floats on a summer night
That you can never quite
On the page or screen, it goes nowhere. It’s middle-school verse. Here is Sinatra’s 1957 version. The limp words take on life. Here’s what Alec Wilder says of “Laura” in American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 (1972):
“I was present when the publishers played it, before the lyric had been added. Unanimously it was concluded that so complex a melody would be highly impractical to publish. But the day they heard it sung with Mr. Mercer’s most distinguished lyric, it was all different.
“And it is a very complex, however beautiful, melody. I believe that had a less lovely and loving lyric been written, the piece, for that’s what it was, would never have budged.”