John Herndon Mercer (November 18, 1909 – June 25, 1976) was an American lyricist, songwriter, and singer. He was also a record label executive who co-founded Capitol Records with music industry businessmen Buddy DeSylva and Glenn E. Wallichs.
He is best known as a Tin Pan Alley lyricist, but he also composed music. He was also a popular singer who recorded his own songs as well as songs written by others from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s. Mercer's songs were among the most successful hits of the time, including "Moon River", "Days of Wine and Roses", "Autumn Leaves", and "Hooray for Hollywood". He wrote the lyrics to more than 1,500 songs, including compositions for movies and Broadway shows. He received nineteen Oscar nominations, and won four Best Original Song Oscars.
Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia, where one of his first jobs, aged 10, was sweeping floors at the original 1919 location of Leopold's Ice Cream. Mercer lived on Lincoln Street, a block away from the store's East Gwinnett and Habersham location.
Mercer's exposure to black music was perhaps unique among the white songwriters of his generation. As a child, Mercer had African American playmates and servants, and he listened to the fishermen and vendors about him, who spoke and sang in the dialect known as "Geechee". He was also attracted to Black church services. Mercer later stated, "Songs always fascinated me more than anything." He had no formal musical training but was singing in a choir by six and at 11 or 12 he had memorized almost all of the songs he had heard and became curious about who wrote them. He once asked his brother who the best songwriter was, and his brother said Irving Berlin, among the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Mercer moved to New York in 1928, when he was 19. The music he loved, jazz and blues, was booming in Harlem and Broadway was bursting with musicals and revues from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. Vaudeville, though beginning to fade, was still a strong musical presence. Mercer's first few jobs were as a bit actor (billed as John Mercer). Holed up in a Greenwich Village apartment with plenty of time on his hands and a beat-up piano to play, Mercer soon returned to singing and lyric writing. He secured a day job at a brokerage house and sang at night. Pooling his meager income with that of his roommates, Mercer managed to keep going, sometimes on little more than oatmeal. One night he dropped in on Eddie Cantor backstage to offer a comic song, but although Cantor didn't use the song, he began encouraging Mercer's career. Mercer's first lyric, for the song "Out of Breath (and Scared to Death of You)" (1930), composed by friend Everett Miller, appeared in a musical revue The Garrick Gaieties in 1930. Mercer met his future wife at the show, chorus girl Ginger Meehan. She had earlier been one of the many chorus girls pursued by the young crooner Bing Crosby. Through Miller's father, an executive at the prominent music publisher T. B. Harms, Mercer's first song was published. It was recorded by Joe Venuti and his New Yorkers.
Mercer moved to Hollywood in 1935, and began writing music for films. His first Hollywood assignment was a B-movie college musical, Old Man Rhythm, to which he contributed two songs and appeared in a small role. His next project, To Beat the Band, was a commercial flop, but it led to a meeting and a collaboration with Fred Astaire on the moderately successful song "I'm Building Up to an Awful Let-Down".
In the last year of his life, Mercer became fond of pop singer Barry Manilow, in part because Manilow's first hit record was "Mandy", which was also the name of Mercer's daughter Amanda. After Mercer's death, his widow, Ginger Mehan Mercer, arranged to give some unfinished lyrics he had written to Manilow to possibly develop into complete songs. Among these was a piece titled "When October Goes", a melancholy remembrance of lost love. Manilow applied his own melody to the lyric and issued it as a single in 1984, when it became a top 10 Adult Contemporary hit in the United States. The song has since become a jazz standard, with notable recordings by Rosemary Clooney, Nancy Wilson, and Megon McDonough, among other performers.