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Johnny Mercer and the Art of Reticence (Reprise)

Last Friday Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) would have celebrated his 102nd brithday. I was taking a car trip that day and listening to the Sirius XM Sateliite Radio station “40s on 4″ when an old recording of Mercer doing a medley of the songs he’d written came on. On and on it went, a few bars of each, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 songs, 40 songs, “Lazy Bones,” Hooray for Hollywood,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Day in Day Out,” “Fools Rush In,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “”That Old Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Skylark,” ”On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” Accentuate the Positive,” “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and so on in seemingly endless variety and profusion.

The medley reminded me once again of the storytelling ability of our great pop songwriters. If it’s concision you like, nobody did it better than Mercer and his ilk. It being the birthday of another great songwriter today, Hoagy Carmichael, Mercer’s occasional collaborator, I decided to pull out of the vault a post that I’d written two years ago on Mercer’s centennial. So here it is, my effort to salute the gift of one of the great lyricists of all time.

Photo of whiskey set-ups on bar.

Set 'em up, Joe.

The matchless opening of the song goes like this:

It’s quarter to three,

There’s no one in the place except you and me,

So, set ‘em up, Joe,
I’ve got a little story you oughta know.

Among the most skilled of all storytellers are the lyricists. I’m talking about the men (and a few women) who wrote the words to the popular songs of the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – an array of national treasures that have become known collectively as the Great American Songbook. These thoughts are inspired by the centennial next week (Nov. 18) of one of the greatest, Johnny Mercer.

The lyricists of this era were craftsmen of the first rank, and their work offers techniques to anybody who aspires to write a story that others will want to hear. The words above are the opening to “One for My Baby,” a 31-line masterpiece in which a guy’s guy, a fellow of Don Draper-like stoicism, has a few drinks and lets the bartender in a deserted bar know how tough it is when a love affair ends.

Concision, emotion conveyed through symbolism, understatement – Mercer uses all these touchstones of the craft. What Mercer manages to get across is both the tough-guy façade and the deep emotion underneath. How?

Cover of Frank Sinatra album Iin the Wee Small Hours"

The master of the wee small hours of the morning.

It certainly helps to have Frank Sinatra singing  Harold  Arlen’s bluesy notes. In fact, nowadays it’s nearly impossible not to think of Sinatra as the protagonist in the bar telling this non-tale. But if you go back in time and strip out Sinatra and the music and look only at the words on the page, it’s all there. A good way to do this is to check out Reading Lyrics edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, a marvelous anthology of Tin Pan Alley’s great lyricists.

In Mercer’s dramatic monologue our drinking guy talks all around his problem without ever actually telling the story he says he wants to tell at the beginning. There’s nothing about the baby he broke up with, nothing about the cause of their falling out, nothing about their last words to each other. Drama is carefully avoided. Why? My guess: It’s just too painful to tell the whole story one more time.

So what Mercer gives us is pure emotion – “I’m feelin’ so bad” spun out in variations. There’s the “dreamy and sad music” he wants on the jukebox, the apologetic way he feels for bending the bartender’s ear, the use of the word “baby” – the only sign of tenderness in the song. And there’s only one thing to be done – have another drink. It’s a magnificently suppressed wallow in sadness.

By contrast, Dan Brown and other best-selling authors of his type like to spell it all out for the reader, with bristling adverbs and adjectives. Here’s a key passage from The Lost Symbol in which the protagonist, known as the initiate, gets initiated into something or other:

For an instant, he thought he felt his lungs growing tight, and his heart began to pound wildly. My God, they know! Then as quickly as it came the feeling passed.

This is melodrama – a hyping of emotion in a way that falsifies it – but fortunately in Dan Brown the feeling passes quickly.

Once there was a style of American literary brusqueness – Ernest Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a great example – in which the unsaid is as important as the words on the page. In the Hemingway mode the narrator’s suppression of feelings certifies the authenticity of the emotion that seeps between the lines. Bogart as café-owner Rick having a drink in that gin joint in Casablanca is the archetype of the Great American Stoic.

Photo of Humphrey Bograt in Casablanca

An American classic: Bogie with booze in hand.

Call me an old softie, but I’ll take my stand any night at 3:00 a.m. with Mercer and Sinatra and Bogie. Yes, please, bartender, make it one for my baby and one more for the road. That long, long road.

10 Responses to Johnny Mercer and the Art of Reticence (Reprise)

  1. Can’t resist a shout-out to Ira Gershwin:

    Oh, we…
    Know we…
    Need each other,
    So we…
    Better call the calling off off,
    Let’s call the whole thing off!

    • You’re absolutely correct, WB. Ira Gershwin, George’s brother, ranks right up there as a lyricist with Mercer, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and Stephen Sondheim.

  2. As one old softie to another: aren’t we rich, knowing most of these songs inside out, having grown up with them, still singing along when we hear them (not often enough) on radio or TV.
    I’ll join you, Rasoir, any night at 3:00 a.m. with Mercer, Sinatra and Bogey. We’ll have one for that baby and one more for that never-ending road. And, yes, I think we should invite Hoagy and Ira, too.
    Thank you for the reprise of this post. It again made me go quite misty.

    • Very well said, RDR. What a lifelong treasure it is to have the songs of the Great American Songbook embedded in one’s head. Sometimes just hearing them taps into emotions so powerful that I can’t tell my right foot from my left, or even my hat from my glove.

  3. One For My Baby is the 2nd track on Tony Bennett’s Duets II, a superb sampling of the Great American Songbook with stunning collaborations by k.d.lang (Blue Velvet), Amy Winehouse (Body and Soul) and the phenomenal jazz singer Lady Gaga (The Lady Is A Tramp). Of course, this repertory of a bygone era is remarkable not only for it prose but moreover for its poetry. Recent forays (with varying degrees of success) by the likes of Rod Stewart, Sting and Linda Ronstadt suggest an appreciation by aging pop and rock stars that transcends anyone’s desire to cash in on novelty. Listening to Duets II (a notch above the first album), the old fogie in me is given to wonder, after they do such a beautiful job with the classics, how can these guys go back to singing the other stuff?

    • Couldn’t agree with you more, Ken Fain. Old fogies or not, let’s be happy those people refer back to those songs, bring them back again, give them their own, very special colour. Yes, let’s be happy they understand, feel, live and continue to explore the goldmine that is the Great American Songbook.

    • Good point, Ken. Once you start singing the classics, I’d imagine it’s hard to go back to rock. I’m of two minds about this trend. On the one hand, Rod Stewart rasping his way through Gershwin is not my idea of a great musical experience, but I do love Tom Waits’s deconstructions of Sinatra-like performances on the album “Frank’s Wild Years. ” Tony Bennett, of course, is a kind of national teasure, like Chuck Berry or Ray Price, still performing past 80.

  4. PS Forgot to mention:
    I made a donation to the American Songbook Preservation Society and received a most charming e-mail from Ronald Kaplan, zee beeg Boss. Answering his ‘Thank you’ with my own Thank You for the Great American Songbook, I mentioned 3:17a.m. and I think I got him hooked :) Made me feel like a proud Mother Hen (BIG laugh)

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