John Herndon “Johnny” Mercer was an American lyricist, songwriter and singer. He is best known as a lyricist, but he also composed music. He was also a popular singer who recorded his own songs as well as those written by others. From the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, many of the songs Mercer wrote and performed were among the most popular hits of the time. He wrote the lyrics to more than fifteen hundred songs, including compositions for movies and Broadway shows. He received nineteen Academy Award nominations, and won four. Mercer was also a co-founder of Capitol Records.
Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia. His father, George Anderson Mercer, was a prominent attorney and real estate developer, and his mother, Lillian Elizabeth, George Mercer?s secretary and then second wife, was the daughter of Croatian-Irish immigrants who came to America in the 1850s. Lillian’s father was a merchant seaman who ran the Union blockade during the U.S. Civil War. Mercer was George’s fourth son, first by Lillian. His great-grandfather was Confederate General Hugh Weedon Mercer and he was a direct descendant of Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer, a Scottish soldier-physician who died at the Battle of Princeton. Mercer was also a distant cousin of General George S. Patton. The Mercer House in Savannah was built by General Hugh Weedon Mercer in 1860, later the home of Jim Williams, whose trial for murder was the centerpiece of John Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, although neither the General nor Johnny ever lived there.
Mercer liked music as a small child and attributed his musical talent to his mother, who would sing sentimental ballads. Mercer’s father also sang, mostly old Scottish songs. His aunt told him he was humming music when he was six months old and later she took him to see minstrel and vaudeville shows where he heard ?coon songs? and ragtime. The family?s summer home ?Vernon View? was on the tidal waters and Mercer?s long summers there among mossy trees, saltwater marshes, and soft, starry nights inspired him years later.
Mercer?s exposure to black music was perhaps unique among the white songwriters of his generation. As a child, Mercer had African-American playmates and servants, and he listened to the fishermen and vendors about him, who spoke and sang in the Creole dialect known as ?Geechee?. He was also attracted to black church services. Mercer later stated, ?Songs always fascinated me more than anything?. He never had formal musical training but was singing in a choir by six and at eleven or twelve he had memorized almost all of the songs he had heard and he had become curious about who had written them. He once asked his brother who the best songwriter was, and his brother said Irving Berlin, among the best of Tin Pan Alley.