The greatest financial mistake of my life occurred on the day my father offered to bet his entire net worth against mine that the great Johnny Mercer had written the song Don’t Fence Me In. Now “Don’t Fence Me In” is a marvelous song, and Johnny Mercer could have been justifiably proud to write it—if only Cole Porter had not written it first. I happened to know this about Cole Porter; I knew it as surely as I know the authors of Romeo and Juliet and The Wealth of Nations. But for some reason I’ve never understood, I refused the bet, thereby condemning myself to a life of poverty. Still I console myself with the knowledge that you don’t have to be rich to be touched by the grace of Johnny Mercer, who was born one hundred years ago today.
The guy was a phenomenon. He wrote the lyrics for over 1500 songs, and the music for at least a few hundred. And he was a singer-songwriter decades before the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell allegedly invented the genre. God, he was smooth. By and large, I’d rather hear Johnny Mercer sing his own songs than any of the myriad covers that have become American classics—and that’s saying something for a guy who was covered repeatedly by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
If you’re looking for a treat and your music collection is not yet Mercerized, start with the Capitol Collectors Series disk. But be careful where you listen to it, because you will get up to dance. Or, if you can find a copy, settle down with a tall cool drink and bask in An Evening with Johnny Mercer. (My rare and valuable copy got left behind at the Boston Park Plaza a couple of years ago; fortunately I’d already ripped it to MP3.)
Johnny Mercer would be celebrating his hundredth birthday with a song if he were alive today. Which, dammit, he should be.