A Centennial Salute To Johnny Mercer Lyricist and composer Johnny Mercer wrote over 1,000 songs, won four Academy Awards, and helped set the course of American popular music. Not too bad for a life's work. To celebrate the centennial of the man who brought us"Moon River" and "That Old Black Magic," musicians David Frishberg and Rebecca Kilgore sing a tribute.
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A Centennial Salute To Johnny Mercer

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A Centennial Salute To Johnny Mercer

A Centennial Salute To Johnny Mercer

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This is FRESH AIR. We're concluding our series of memorable programs from 2009 with an excerpt from our concert celebrating the centennial of the birth of songwriter Johnny Mercer featuring singer Rebecca Kilgore and pianist, singer and songwriter Dave Frishberg.

Johnny Mercer wrote some melodies but mostly he wrote lyrics, lots of them for a body of work that totaled over a thousand songs, including "Blues in the Night," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "One for my Baby," "Skylark," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" and "Jeepers Creepers," "The Days of Wine and Roses," and "Moon River." Mercer also was a professional singer and the cofounder of Capital Records.

Let's start with a song that was written in 1934 but became really popular during World War II. The music is by Gordon Jenkins, the lyric is by Johnny Mercer. This is "P.S. I Love You."

(Soundbite of song, "P.S. I Love You")

Ms. KILGORE: (Singing) What is there to write? What is there to say? Same things happen every day. Not a thing to write, not a thing to say. So I take my pen in hand and start the same old way.

Dear, I thought I'd drop a line. The weather's cool, the folks are fine. I'm in bed each night at nine. P.S., I love you.

Yesterday, we had some rain, but all in all, I can't complain. Was it dusty on the train? P.S., I love you.

Write to the Browns just as soon as you're able. They came around to call. I burned a hole in the dining room table, and let me see, I guess that's all.

Nothing more for me to say, and so I'll close, but by the way, everybody's thinking of you. P.S., I love you.

GROSS: Oh, that was really beautiful, and I never heard the verse before. Did you find it from sheet music?

Ms. KILGORE: Oh yes.

GROSS: Or had you heard other people sing it?

Ms. KILGORE: I had never heard anyone sing it.

GROSS: Lovely. I'm glad you added the verse. That was singer Becky Kilgore with composer, singer and pianist Dave Frishberg at the piano, and they're doing a centenary tribute to the great lyricist Johnny Mercer.

Dave, you actually met Johnny Mercer. How did you meet him?

Mr. DAVE FRISHBERG (Composer, singer and pianist): Well, I met him through my friend, Blossom Dearie. I was living in New York at the time, and Blossom called me one night. She says, I'm playing at the Village Gate, the Top of the Gate, and Johnny Mercer's coming to see me, and I want him to meet you, and I want you to meet him. Come over. So I did. I went over to the Top of the Gate, and I sat at their table.

GROSS: What happened? Did you get to talk with him?

Mr. FRISHBERG: Oh, a little bit, but we listened pretty carefully while Blossom was on, but the part - I'll always remember this part. When Blossom got off, she joined us at the table, and the other band got on, and the other band was a group of Indian musicians who were playing tablas, and they were playing ragas, they were playing sitars, stuff like that, and they were just wailing away. But we were sitting at a table pretty close by, and we couldn't talk easily, and Mercer was getting very upset, and finally he just, he turned around and he yelled at the band. He said, hey, don't you guys know about swing? One, two, three, four?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Not getting the music at all.

Mr. FRISHBERG: Right, and I thought to myself, wow, that's perfect. That's like a James Thurber cartoon right there, you know.

GROSS: You also have a story about Mercer, where you met him and you took him to hear another singer. Would you tell that one?

Mr. FRISHBERG: Oh, well, I was working at Eddie Condon's at the time, when it was the Sutton Hotel on 56th and First Avenue. Mercer - this was after Mercer had met me at the Village Gate. He came in. I told him I was playing there, and he was interested too. That's his game. He went to Condon's.

Afterwards, when the gig was over, he said take me to hear some good singers. I said okay. I was thrilled to have him along, even though he was half in the bag already, you know. We got in a cab, and we went over to the Apartment, I think it was. I think it was that, on the East Side. Charles DeForest(ph) was playing. He was playing piano and singing. I wanted him to - I knew he'd be thrilled to meet or see Mercer in the crowd, you know.

So we walked in there and oh, so somebody else was playing piano, a substitute pianist, and it was a woman, and Mercer wasn't impressed, and he says real loud, we were sitting right next to her: Is this who you brought me in to hear?

And so Charles DeForest saw what was happening, and he came to the rescue, and he came to the piano, and he said the great Johnny Mercer is with us in the audience tonight, and I'm going to sing something now that he probably just has forgotten that he's written. It's something that's very seldom heard.

And he began to sing something. Mercer got up. He said: That's not my song. That's Leo Robin's lyric, for God's sake. And he walked out, left me with the bill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Very nice.

Mr. FRISHBERG: So, and later on, when he came into Condon's later on that week, I referred to the experience that he had - he had barely remembered it. He had a faint recollection of the whole thing. He was great before he started drinking. After that, he was tough to - you couldn't figure him out, really.

GROSS: Well, actually, I think, you know, stories are pretty legendary of how unpleasant he was when he was drunk.

Mr. FRISHBERG: Yeah, I'm afraid I was witness to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, well, but at least you got to meet him.

Mr. FRISHBERG: Oh, but he was a sweetheart of a guy, really. Yeah, he was wonderful.


We're listening to the Johnny Mercer tribute concert featuring singer Rebecca Kilgore and pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg recorded last fall.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to the FRESH AIR concert recorded last fall featuring singer Rebecca Kilgore and pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg performing the music of Johnny Mercer. It's part of our series of memorable FRESH AIR shows from 2009.


You know, one of the things Mercer did was write a lot of songs for movies, and let's hear a song that was written by Mercer for a film, written with music by Jerome Kern. The song is "I'm Old Fashioned," and it's from the 1942 film "You Were Never Lovelier" with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth.

Ms. KILGORE: Right.

GROSS: Who I think was dubbed. I don't think she did her own singing.

Ms. KILGORE: Nan Wynn(ph).

Mr. FRISHBERG: Yeah, I've never heard of her, but she's the one who dubbed her, Nan Wynn. So this is singer Becky Kilgore with songwriter, pianist and singer Dave Frishberg at the piano.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Old Fashioned")

Ms. KILGORE: (Singing) I am not such a clever one about the latest fads, and I'll admit I was never one adored by local lads, not that I ever try to be a saint. I'm the type that they classify as quaint.

I'm old fashioned. I love the moonlight. I love the old fashioned things, the sound of rain upon a window pane, the starry song that April sings.

This year's fancies are passing fancies, but sighing sighs holding hands, these my heart understands.

I'm old fashioned, but I don't mind it. That's how I want to be as long as you agree to stay old fashioned with me.

GROSS: That was really lovely. I'm so glad you chose to do that for us in your concert, and performing the concert today, a centenary tribute to lyricist Johnny Mercer, is singer Rebecca Kilgore and pianist, songwriter and singer Dave Frishberg.

I think, we have time for one more song in our centenary tribute to lyricist Johnny Mercer with singer Rebecca Kilgore and pianist, singer, and songwriter Dave Frishberg. What song would you like close with?

Ms. KILGORE: Well, a song called, �Dream,� which is the most evocative and irresistible of all.

GROSS: So, who wrote the music for �Dream?�

Mr. FRISHBERG: Johnny Mercer did himself. This is one of his music and words works.

GROSS: You know, it's amazing, you always think of him just a lyricist but he really did write several great melodies too.

Mr. FRISHBERG: I'll say.

GROSS: Mm-hmm, yeah. So - okay - so let's hear �Dream.�

(Soundbite of song, �Dream�)

Ms. KILGORE: (Singing) Dream, when you're feeling blue. Dream, that's the thing to do. Just watch the smoke rings rise in the air. You'll find your share of memories there. So dream when the day is through. Dream, and they might come true. Things never are as bad as they seem. So dream, dream, dream.

GROSS: What a sweet way to end, and how fitting to end with a song with music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. And I regret to say that it's more than a thousand Johnny Mercer songs we didn't have time for...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...in our concert today. But I'm so grateful for the songs that you did do. Becky Kilgore is singing for us today. Dave Frishberg is singing as well and also featured on piano - and Dave is also a great songwriter. We didn't get to hear any of his songs today, but we have played them often on FRESH AIR.

I appreciate both of you coming to do the concert today. Thank you so very much.

Ms. KILGORE: Thank you.

Mr. FRISHBERG: Thank you.

Ms. KILGORE: It's a pleasure.

Mr. FRISHBERG: It was really nice, felt good to do this.


Rebecca Kilgore and Dave Frishberg recorded in November. Their latest album, �Why Fight the Feeling,� features songs by Frank Loesser.

Our centennial tribute to Johnny Mercer was recorded by Jim Zach with Bill Moss at the Nola Recording Studios in Manhattan. The post production work was done by our engineer Audrey Bentham.

(Soundbite of song, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive")

Mr. BING CROSBY (Singer, actor): (Singing) You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative. Don't mess with Mister In-Between. You've got to spread...

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a healthy and Happy New Year.

(Soundbite of song, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive")

Mr. BING CROSBY: (Singing) ...just when everything looked so dark. Man, they said we better accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative. Don't mess with Mister In-Between. No. Don't mess with Mister In-Between. You've got to spread joy up to the maximum. Bring gloom down to the minimum and have faith...

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