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Johnny Mercer: Sunny Side Up

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Johnny Mercer Few voices do a better job of capturing post-war American optimism than Johnny Mercer's. His relaxed, upbeat and folksy style captured the nation's “new dawn" mentality perfectly. His songs between 1942 and 1947 have a Hollywood sensibility, and they effortlessly grab your heart. It's a happy voice that sounds like a one-armed bandit chugging out jackpot coins. A box set that captures his evolution perfectly—from too-cute by half phrase-turner to West Coast pop-swinger—is Johnny Mercer (Mosaic Select).

Even though Mercer was from the South (Savannah, Ga.), his  songs and singing voice by the mid-'40s have a distinctly Los Angeles sound. Just hearing his plucky vibrato makes you think of palm trees in winter, perfectly applied lipstick and hulking, glossy cars.

Other big-deal singers at the time were special, but none match Mercer's ability to sell the dream. Bing Crosby sounds too Yankee and somewhat fatherly by the mid-40s, even though he was born in the West. Hoagy Carmichael's delivery was corn cob and pre-war. Frank Sinatra in the mid-'40s was locked in Columbia's studios cranking out one heavy ballad after the next in some sort of maudlin marathon. Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong were sensations, but really rooted in the '30s.

Mercer, by contrast, had a friendly, hip feel—as if your grocer or gas-station attendent could sing. He was always sunny-side up and comfortable as an everyman. Keep in mind, Mercer's many talents were extraordinary. In addition to being a prolific Tin Pan Alley songwriter and powerhouse song slinger for the movies, he could sing his own material as though he had nothing to do with writing them.

Unable to record the way he wanted and fed up with the stale formula employed by East Coast labels Columbia, RCA and Decca, Mercer started his own record company with two golfing buddies. Mercer's motive for launching the label was to place an emphasis on great songs and singers, not instrumentalists. They were to be accepting accompanists.

That label—Capitol—was launched in 1942 and was California's first major record company. Capitol gave Mercer a chance to craft his Sunset-and-Vine vision for American music, giving everything the label produced a distinctly upbeat, neighborly disposition.

In the process, Mercer and Capitol single-handedly invented the pop music market. Mercer wanted Capitol's songs to be earthy and colorful, but also light and simple enough that record buyers would remember them after jukebox needles lifted off the shellac.

Interestingly, Mercer's small output between 1942 and 1945 doesn't hold up well. Fortunately this novelty period was short, captured on just 18 of the set's 79 tracks. The recordings are few because Capitol was idle between August 1942 and September 1943, when the American Federation of Musicians first recording ban was enforced. Soon after the ban ended, Mercer's recordings had a completely new feel and tone—more suburban than urban, more pipe than cigarette.

The problem with the early material is two-fold: novelty G.I. Joe stuff written to boost war-time morale and Mercer's silly proclivity for assuming a faux black voice. Both may have worked at the time but barely hold up now for obvious reasons. The brief period does, though, include two gems—the uplifting They Didn't Believe Me and Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive). 

The big turning point comes in September 1945, when Mercer records If I Knew Then with the Pied Pipers. It's a hip, laid-back, medium-tempo swinger with Paul Weston's orchestra. Here, Mercer seems to have found his West Coast groove, thanks in part to Weston's well-oiled orchestrations.

Virtually all of Mercer's singles recorded after this date bear a new, lanky swagger. Sweet Lorraine, Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home, It's a Good Day, Sugar, I Never Knew, I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan (dig how Mercer cleverly hits a falsetto on the word “blue" in “blue pajamas"), Love Is Just Around the Corner and on and on.

This music makes you want to tool around in late-'40s Los Angeles, popping in on a new supermarket or stopping in the San Fernando Valley to see pre-fab houses go up. It's big-band jazz meets futurama, and Mercer's vision of America is as hopeful and colorful as an orange tree. You also get to hear where Sinatra picked up much of his modern swinging sound in the mid-'50s. By then, Mercer had sold his share in Capitol, and the label was soon to be purchased by Britain's EMI.

But between 1942 and 1947, as this box illustrates, Mercer did more than anyone else to show singers how to lay back and win listeners' hearts.

JazzWax tracks: Johnny Mercer (Mosaic Select) is a three-CD set with wonderful discography and liner notes by singer Margaret Whiting, Billy Vera and producer Scott Wenzel. It's available here and here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Mercer's turning-point track—If I Knew Then. The feeling of this 1945 single sums up the spirit coming out of Los Angeles at the time, establishing a new approach to big band singing. Suddenly the emphasis was on the singer, not the band...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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