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Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer Paperback – February 1, 2006

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Hal Leonard (February 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0634099299
  • ISBN-13: 978-0634099298
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,662,394 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Johnny Mercer wrote some of the best-known lyrics in the American repertoire ("Moon River"; "Black Magic"; "Accentuate the Positive"; etc.); he won four Academy Awards for his songs and helped found Capitol Records. Lees, a biographer (Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, etc.) and publisher of the award-winning Jazzletter, met Mercer in the twilight of his career and maintained a friendship with him until Mercer's death in 1976. Lee's biography differs from Philip Furia's more scholarly and novelistic Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer chiefly in its conversational tone and in Lees's confident, insightful analysis of the music, but it also must bear the weight of the author's feelings about Mercer's family and career. The decline of Mercer's fame roughly coincides with, as Lees puts it, the death of "the golden age of American songwriting" and the "rising tide of the meretricious" (read: rock and roll), and the book periodically gets bogged down in Lees's curmudgeonly grumblings about the superiority of the big band era. Lees also seems unnecessarily judgmental in his accounts of Mercer's marriage to Ginger Meehan, whom he blames in part for her husband's depression, angry tirades and alcoholism. Lees's personal accounts are more illustrative than informative, confirming an already well-documented picture of Mercer's generosity and intelligence as well as his alcoholic vitriol.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Best known as one of the foremost lyricists of the golden age of American popular song--writer of standards including "One for My Baby," "That Old Black Magic," and "Moon River"--Johnny Mercer was also a singer, record-company executive (he founded Capitol Records), and occasional composer. A popular radio personality with a happy-go-lucky persona, he was actually desperately unhappy, trapped in a loveless marriage (made more miserable by a stormy, long-lasting affair with Judy Garland), and a notoriously nasty drunk. Lees explores Mercer's halcyon childhood in Savannah, where he was exposed to the black culture that informed his work; his struggles to establish himself on Tin Pan Alley; his Hollywood glory years; and his despair as his style of music gave way to rock and roll. Lees was a friend of Mercer's and is a successful lyricist himself--circumstances that allow him especial insight into Mercer's personal and professional life. He demonstrates how Mercer's lack of pretense gave his lyrics the common touch and movingly discloses the underlying melancholy in Mercer's best songs. Gordon Flagg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Mark Blackburn on March 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Yesterday, I spoke with about a dozen of my co-workers -- most of them ten or even twenty years younger -- and asked each of them, "Who's Jerome Kern? -- does that name ring a bell with you?" None of my friends recognized the name of the `dean' of great American popular songwriters - the man whose melodies inspired ALL of the other great composers - especially, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.

This sad reality confirmed a thought I had, the moment I picked up this book, and wondered, to myself, Is there really any market for a book about Johnny Mercer? -- a songwriter who died almost 30 years ago?- How many people today would care to read a biography - however interesting (and this one is simply superb) - that concerns an old songwriter? --- even someone who was, according to his peers, the greatest lyricist of the English language?

Here's a simple test: If the following song titles mean something to you - then I can guarantee you will LOVE this book: "Skylark," "Autumn Leaves," "The Summer Wind," "One For My Baby," "Something's Gotta Give," "Laura," "I Remember You," "That Old Black Magic," "Dream (when you're feeling blue) --- all of them, and many others, written by the same man, and celebrated here in "The Life of John Herndon Mercer," written by an old friend and fellow lyricist, Gene Lees.


Mercer's best writing was to the music of the greatest composers of popular song - beginning with Jerome Kern in the early 1930s, ("I'm Old Fashioned") and continuing for 30 years, until the early 60s, when Johnny wrote two, consecutive "Best Song" Oscar winners with Henry Mancini -- "Moon River" and "Days of Wine and Roses.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on March 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Neither of them do a great job showing what kind of woman Ginger really was, though Furia has some scenes showing Johnny treating her as though she were nothing but trailer trash. Let's face it, Ginger isn't going to be well thought of by any member of the reading public until she gets a full biography of her own. Why not? Ada had one--the wife of Vladimir Nabokov. And after the two biographies of Johnny, we certainly need a life of Ginger as a corrective. Lees hints that Johnny Mercer had a sexual identity problem. Even if he did it wasn't Ginger's fault. You know right away that as soon as some guy reveals that Judy Garland was the love of his life, well basically that is saying, well, he's gay.

That said, Lees is very good about exploring the general shape of Mercer's career. It was a skyrocket that looped and billowed all over the night sky, and he never wound up in the place you might have predicted for him. His writing was sometimes ornate and flowery, but just when you had him figured out as a Swinburne of popular song, he could surprise you with something austere and simple (like "I Thought About You" or "Autumn Leaves" or "The Sweetheart Tree"). His writing changed with the times, and yet it seems timeless, like the moods of "Moon River." Gene Lees responds more than Furia to the claims place made on Mercer, from Savannah to New York to the famous Capital Records building in LA which he helped to build. He remains an inspiration to songwriters everywhere; poets too.
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Though primarily a sympathetic, admiring portrait of a brilliant American lyricist--arguably the best despite not producing a "hit" Broadway show--Lees doesn't appear to pull any punches in what is ostensibly a biography not merely of an extraordinary talent but a personal friend of the author. Based on his remembrances as well as his primary research and Mercer's own fragmented attempt at an autobiography (Lees points out the irony of the great lyricist-poet being a rather clumsy, even amateurish, writer of prose--perhaps best seen as another of the many qualities connecting Mercer with the "common man"), Lees produces a fascinating portrait, one most likely to score with the reader who is already familiar with the significance and accomplishments of the subject, or with the songs themselves.

There are a few quirks, as when the author warns us that Mercer's letters are likely to embarrass the present-day reader, not just because of their candor but the writer's seemingly superhuman tolerance and self-subjugation if not masochism. Perhaps I'd been overly prepared for the shock or I simply missed it, but I failed to find them all that remarkable.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on May 22, 2006
Format: Paperback
PORTRAIT OF JOHNNY: THE LIFE OF JOHN HERNDON MERCER isn't just for already-dedicated fans of the musician, but for any interested in the lasting effects of his songs. Gene Lees is a music historian and songwriter who handles well the sensitive details of Mercer's life and times. From his complicated relationships with a domineering mother and tormenting wife and to his work on show songs which succeeded and some which failed, PORTRAIT OF JOHNNY is packed with reflections by those who knew him best.

Diane C. Donovan, Editor

California Bookwatch
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