A Mercer's Dozen

June 28, 2009
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A Mercer’s dozen

Johnny Mercer wrote 1,500 songs, some of them among the most recorded in musical history. This makes it hard to single out just a few recordings. What about Jo Stafford’s “Dream’’? Tony Bennett and Bill Evans’ “Days of Wine and Roses’’? Ella Fitzgerald’s imperial “Blues in the Night’’? Well, as the man himself said, something’s gotta give.

Here are 13 renditions of Mercer songs - call them a mercer’s dozen - worthy of special attention. (Many have been issued several times. The source given is the best-known compilation or the film in which it first appeared. The date given is the original performance.)

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE, Aretha Franklin (“The Electrifying Aretha Franklin,’’ 1962). Mercer wrote the song as a tuneful sermon (“To illustrate my last remark/ Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark’’). Aretha delivers it as an explosive peroration. She doesn’t so much accentuate the positive as detonate it.

BLUES IN THE NIGHT, Joe Turner (“Big Joe Turner’s Greatest Hits,’’ 1958). Dense with oddity, it sounds like an end-of-session throwaway: modified doo-wop rhythm, proto-Raelettes chorus, even a harmonica somewhere in there, and, of course, Big Joe roaring through the beat - all in two minutes and 21 seconds.

COME RAIN OR COME SHINE, Ray Charles (“The Genius of Ray Charles,’’ 1959). When Brother Ray declares, “I’m gonna love you/ Like nobody’s loved you’’ it’s like hearing a unanimous Supreme Court decision sung from the bench. Has the opening of a song ever been delivered with more authority?

DAY IN, DAY OUT, Billie Holiday (“Songs for Distingué Lovers,’’ 1957). The awfulness of Lady Day’s life makes it easy to forget how much playfulness there could be in her music. The merriment in her vocal is a joy to listen to. So’s the nimbly luxuriant swing of her accompanist - and Mercer’s favorite pianist - Jimmy Rowles.

I THOUGHT ABOUT YOU, Miles Davis (“Someday My Prince Will Come,’’ 1961). This selection is a bit of a cheat, since the lyrics aren’t heard. But the spare lyricism of Davis’ trumpet playing is so eloquent it’s hard to imagine any singer better communicating the triste simplicity of Mercer’s words.

I’M AN OLD COWHAND (FROM THE RIO GRANDE), Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks (“Striking It Rich,’’ 1972). A proud mongrel musically, Mercer would likely have approved of a concept like San Francisco western swing. And he definitely would have approved of Maryann Price’s enchantingly lazy vocal.

I’M OLD FASHIONED, Ella Fitzgerald (on “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook,’’ 1963). Mercer’s lyrics verge on the Hammersteinian stodgy (“Not that I ever try to be a saint,/ I’m the type that they classify as quaint’’). But Kern’s melody makes wistfulness a soaring thing, and Ella soars even higher.

JEEPERS CREEPERS, Louis Armstrong (“Going Places,’’ film, 1938). The lyrics are so silly (“Jeepers creepers!/ Where’d ya get those peepers?’’), and Harry Warren’s music so pepped-up, the song is like an extended jingle. But Armstrong - serenading a horse! - renders it with such gusto, pure joy is the result.

ONCE UPON A SUMMERTIME, Blossom Dearie (“Once Upon a Summertime,’’ 1957). Mercer’s jocularity coexisted with a deep strain of melancholy. The latter is on display in this recasting of a French original. Dearie’s pellucid vocal deepens the ache of emotion.

ONE FOR MY BABY, Frank Sinatra (“Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,’’ 1958). The supreme saloon singer offers the supreme version of the supreme saloon song. Fred Astaire introduced it, but Sinatra now so thoroughly owns the song even Mercer and Harold Arlen, the composer, can hardly claim it.

OUT OF THIS WORLD, Tony Bennett (“Jazz,’’ 1987). It’s almost a duet, between Bennett’s near-baritone tenor and Stan Getz’s near-alto tenor saxophone. Each is superb. The propulsive rhythm section - Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Elvin Jones on drums - may be even better.

SKYLARK, Cassandra Wilson (“New Moon Daughter,’’ 1995). There’s nothing avian about Wilson’s grave, voluptuous interpretation. It’s all but sculptural. The transfixing incongruity of Gib Wharton’s pedal-steel guitar lightens the gorgeous weight of her voice.

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE, Fred Astaire (“Daddy Long Legs,’’ film, 1955). Swing owes more to restraint than release. Here’s proof. Astaire’s relaxed vocal is perfectly controlled yet seemingly effortless. He sings here the way he dances. Nuff said. MARK FEENEY

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