A painstakingly researched biography of Johnny Mercer (1909–1976), one of the great songwriters of the classic era of American popular music.
Eskew (History/Georgia State; But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle, 1997, etc.) works from the proposition that Mercer’s Southern origins gave him a special grasp of the many varieties of music that comprised the dominant American style roughly from the beginning of the Jazz Age to the arrival of rock. Mercer was a product of the upper crust of Savannah, with Confederate officers and respected professionals among his immediate ancestors. He attended private school in Virginia and vacationed in upper-class watering holes like Asheville, N.C. Eskew misses no opportunity to connect elements of this upbringing to the songs Mercer eventually wrote—e.g., citing his family’s church attendance as a reason angels appear frequently in his songs or noting that Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first stars of county music, performed in Asheville around the time a teenage Mercer was vacationing there. Unfortunately, the narrative lacks flow, often reading more like a list of famous people that Mercer encountered, especially in the early days when he was still establishing himself as a lyricist. The story is probably at its best when recounting Mercer’s important role in launching Capitol Records, when he had an important hand in building the careers of such artists as Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole and other jazz-tinged pop stars. However, the author’s insistence on calling Mercer a jazz musician seems off-target. Mercer certainly appreciated jazz and wrote songs that have entered the jazz singer’s repertoire, but Mercer himself would probably have laughed at the notion that he was doing the same kinds of things as, for example, Duke Ellington or Gil Evans. The book will be valuable to anyone doing research on its subject, but most readers will probably find it dry and dense.
An important subject that deserves a more accessible treatment.