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

"Johnny Mercer, one of Georgia’s--no, one of America’s--greatest natural resources, is astutely celebrated by this valuable addition to his growing bibliography."
—Stanley Booth, author of The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones

"Eskew brings to life the vibrant music scene around the musician from the 1930s to the 1960s and uncovers the collaborations, friendships, and struggles that made Mercer a success. This thoroughly researched and compelling biography will appeal to scholars and students of popular American music."
—Emily Hamstra, Library Journal

"In this smart and meticulously researched biography, Georgia State University historian Glenn T. Eskew ac-cent-tchu-ates another of Mercer’s roles: architect of popular music during the late 1940s and the ’50s, which Eskew calls the Age of the Singer."
—Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post

"'No other songwriter appears as successfully involved in so many facets of America's entertainment industry in the twentieth century,' Glenn T. Eskew claims convincingly in Johnny Mercer. . . . Although Johnny Mercer is ponderous at times, it does justice to the giant accomplishments of the 'pixie from Dixie.'"
—Ken Emerson, Wall Street Journal

"Historians have tried to define the South, but few will leave you humming the Great American Songbook quite like Glenn T. Eskew does in Johnny Mercer."
Atlanta Magazine

“[Eskew’s] immersion in pertinent secondary literature likewise is impressive. The endnote section of the book reads like an engaging narrative in itself.. . . Grounded in the ways of southern gentility while transitioning from Victorianism to Modernism, a nostalgia-prone Mercer emerges as a modest, well-read, and carefree jazz-loving ambassador who disseminated to the world songs that captured the syncopated rhythms indigenous to the South.”
—Michael T. Bertrand, Georgia Historical Quarterly

"Eskew does not merely compile researched facts about his subject but portrays Mercer as a complex character. . . . A feat of superb storytelling."
Journal of American History

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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.