Johnny Mercer
Southern Songwriter for the World

Glenn T. Eskew

The story of a songsmith "Too Marvelous for Words"


“Allows us to conceive of ‘Southern music’ as an expression of the Southern diaspora, and thereby opens up new ways to think about Mercer and about the broader landscape of American music.”
—Gavin James Campbell, author of Music and the Making of a New South

"This engaging biography brims with fresh insights about southern culture and its relationship to American music. Eskew reveals Johnny Mercer as a carrier of the South’s interracial culture to the nation and the world. This book is the most original and carefully documented contribution I have seen to understanding the role of a creative southerner in the global culture. Readers will appreciate Eskew’s re-creation of Mercer’s world that intersected with so many seminal entertainment figures. It is altogether successful in sketching the regional context that produced Mercer’s music."
—Charles Reagan Wilson, editor-in-chief of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

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John Herndon “Johnny” Mercer (1909–76) remained in the forefront of American popular music from the 1930s through the 1960s, writing over a thousand songs, collaborating with all the great popular composers and jazz musicians of his day, working in Hollywood and on Broadway, and as cofounder of Capitol Records, helping to promote the careers of Nat “King” Cole, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee, and many other singers. Mercer’s songs—sung by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, and scores of other performers—are canonical parts of the great American songbook. Four of his songs received Academy Awards: “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” Mercer standards such as “Hooray for Hollywood” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” remain in the popular imagination.

Exhaustively researched, Glenn T. Eskew’s biography improves upon earlier popular treatments of the Savannah, Georgia–born songwriter to produce a sophisticated, insightful, evenhanded examination of one of America’s most popular and successful chart-toppers. Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World provides a compelling chronological narrative that places Mercer within a larger framework of diaspora entertainers who spread a southern multiracial culture across the nation and around the world. Eskew contends that Mercer and much of his music remained rooted in his native South, being deeply influenced by the folk music of coastal Georgia and the blues and jazz recordings made by black and white musicians. At Capitol Records, Mercer helped redirect American popular music by commodifying these formerly distinctive regional sounds into popular music. When rock ’n’ roll diminished opportunities at home, Mercer looked abroad, collaborating with international composers to create transnational songs.

At heart, Eskew says, Mercer was a jazz musician rather than a Tin Pan Alley lyricist, and the interpenetration of jazz and popular song that he created expressed elements of his southern heritage that made his work distinctive and consistently kept his music before an approving audience.

A Wormsloe Foundation Publication

Page count: 408 pp.
47 b&w photos
Trim size: 6.125 x 9.25

Read more about Johnny Mercer at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.


List price: $28.95

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Glenn T. Eskew is a professor of history at Georgia State University. He is the author of But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle, editor of Labor in the Modern South, and coeditor of Paternalism in a Southern City.