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Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer Paperback – November 11, 2004

4.4 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this sensitive and wonderfully in-depth work on the lyricist of classics like "One for the Road" and "Moon River," Furia (Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist) displays his talent for writing about the giants in American popular song. Georgia-born Mercer (1909-1976) spent most of his life among New York songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter as well as such Hollywood stars as Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, but Furia expertly details how "his genteel southern background would always set him apart" in his lyrics ("Mercer, alone among the great songwriters of his generation, was, from the day he was born, influenced by the music of blacks") as well as his personal life, including his alcoholism. Furia also captures all of the successes and failures in Mercer's long career: his many Academy Award wins; his creation of Capitol Records; his collaboration with composer Harold Arlen, which helped both of them create songs and lyrics "that endure as timeless standards"; and his never having a true hit Broadway play because his "concentration on the emotional mood of a melody limited him" after the American musical's post-Oklahoma! emphasis on character and theatricality. Furia also details the influence of Mercer's love affair with Judy Garland on "the new depth of sorrow" that suddenly appears in Mercer's work with Arlen. Apart from including a few out-of-tune facts about Garland's sexual habits not related to Mercer, Furia makes it clear that Garland had become Mercer's "muse."
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Philip Furia is the author of Irving Berlin: A Life in Song and Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist. He lives in Wilmington North Carolina.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st edition (December 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312330995
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312330996
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,618,208 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John M. Thomas on September 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A true example of why they don't write 'em like they used to, Johnny Mercer has written some of the catchiest, longest remembered and honored songs of the 20th century, many of which the average listener has little clue as to who put the words to the tunes that remain timeless in their appeal. As a collaborator with some of the finest tunesmiths ever (Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael to name two) Mercer could dance with words as effortlessly and as beautifully as a prima ballerina while maintaining a roots, folksy manner both charming and disarming in its playfulness.
Philip Furia's biography is well recearched and referenced, using the recollections of friends, family, and cohorts, and finds a treasure trove in Mercer's own unreleased autobiography. Mercer's bouts with feelings of unworthiness as a composer were unexplained periods of doubt in a career that spanned the thirties through the sixties. While not the financial or acclaimed success of friend and rival Bing Crosby, Mercer became a standard for composition that has yet to be matched even by modern contemporaries like McCartney (who, the book indicates, explored a partnership in Mercer's latter years).
This book explores as best it can the song writing magic of Mercer, although the explanations of his seemingly effortless method of composition appears (as the author indicates) a tad glib and self-effacing. Were they available, additional tales of his creative inspirations would have been appreciated; any man who comes up with a couplet like "If for the stork you pine, consider the porcupine" deserves to be studied if only for the glee apparent in coming up with such delicious bits of rhyme and rhythm, certainly at a level equal or surpassing today's best.
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Format: Paperback
Furia is a good storyteller with great love and understanding of the Great American Songbook. Having read two of his previous books, Ira Gershwin: the Art of the Lyricist and The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, I expected an entertaining informative read and that's what I got.

This biography also has a darker and deeper dimension, as the author delves into the underlying human tragedy behind the lyricist. While the writer does not gloss over Mercer's paradoxical unsavory side, he avoids being judgmental, and waits until the end to speculate, quite convincingly, on the childhood origins of his troubled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. As I listened again to Mercer songs (a short discography would have been welcome) while reading the book, I re-assessed his lyrics, appreciating not only their wit but also their poignancy in relation to the circumstances under which they were written.

Furia is not only a fine biographer and cultural historian; he also explains concisely and in non-technical terms what makes a good lyric tick, making the book a valuable tool for aspiring songwriters. I was surprised to learn that at the end of his life there were plans for Mercer to work with Paul McCartney, a lost opportunity, as Furia points out, for this "might have spanned the gap between the eras of Tin Pan Alley and rock, a gap that remains impassable to this day." (p. 265). It would have perhaps comforted Mercer, and may reassure Furia, to know that some of the musical icons of the Sixties have indeed recognized Mercer's talents. On their best-selling "Riding with the King" album, B.B. King and Eric Clapton covered "Come Rain or Come Shine". And more recently Dr. John, a legend in his own right, has released a tribute to Mercer called "Mercernary."
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Johnny Mercer was a complicated human being who had major sins and yet was loved by many for his gentleness and generosity. Sober, he was a well-mannered and kindly man, typical of his gentlemanly roots in Savannah, Georgia, where he was born and raised. But inebriated, he was a vicious human being who humiliated verbally and physically those whom he loved. And amazingly, Phillip Furia, author of Mercer’s biography entitled Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, notes: “Always, the love that people bore him overrode even their worst memories of his attacks…I found no one who did not adore him—not merely like him or feel fondness toward him but adore him—even, so far as I could gather, his wife, Ginger, the target of his worse abuse.” It is shocking that those two diametrically opposed traits could inhabit the same psyche, especially one who was so loved as one of the great songwriters of all time. It’s something right out of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To his credit, Furia doesn’t gloss over that complexity nor abandon delving into it.

Mercer’s love of the vernacular of his Southern upbringing, his affinity for blues and jazz, and his exceptional poetic sensibilities enabled him to write many of the best songs ever created by a lyricist for the Great American Songbook. Furia does a fantastic job of weaving many of these songs into the narrative of his subject’s life, heading each chapter, for example, with one of the song standards Mercer wrote in that period of his life.
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