Thursday, September 27, 2012

Andy Williams: a Gift of Great Timeless Songs

Andy Williams: a Gift of Great Timeless Songs

Many folks are remembering Andy William’s TV show today (Andy passed away September 25th), how his Christmas specials brought their families close together on the holidays. Andy’s masterful singing popularized many great American songs. For me, being carried away downstream by the song, “Moon River,” which became the theme song of Andy’s show, is one of the good memories. What is the story behind this wonderful song?

The composer Henry Mancini selected the great lyricist, Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) to write the words for his melody. I was already a big Henry Mancini fan in 1961, in love with the Peter Gunn big band soundtracks that he composed for the detective TV series, and also where I learned my first jazz chords on piano.

The Academy Award winning song “Moon River” was first sung by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Johnny’s career as a songwriter, dormant since the 50s, was reinvigorated by the success of this song.

Last year, our daughter’s boyfriend made a long truck delivery from the San Francisco Bay Area to a museum in Savannah, Georgia.  “I drove right across Moon River,” he told me.

“Really! I didn’t know it was a real river,” I said.

But of course, I immediately thought—Johnny Mercer was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia!  Those who’ve seen the 1997 movie (or read the book), In the Garden of Good and Evil, might recall it was filmed in the historic Mercer House in Savannah. Built for Johnny’s great grandfather General Hugh Mercer, the house had not actually been in the Mercer family for years although the family still lived in town.  Doing more research, I read that Johnny grew up in a different house overlooking Moon River.

After creating several hit songs with composers like Harold Arlen like “Ac-cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” (recently recorded by Paul McCartney) Johnny went on to Hollywood where he helped to found Capitol Records. Capitol built the famous round tower housing recording studios that became a hit factory for Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall and many others (see previous blog item, The Legendary Capitol Studios and Engineering Legend, Al Schmitt).

Johnny Mercer was not just a lyric writer. He also wrote and recorded his own songs, great ones like “Blues in the Night,” “I’m An Old Cowhand,” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”

One of the “facts” I learned as I read up on Mercer’s career is that Moon River was formerly called Back River, and was renamed in honor of Savannah’s successful native son. I guess I had romanticized the origin of the song, visualizing Johnny dreaming wistfully out the window at the southern vista of his “Huckleberry friend” rolling by, romantic as Johnny must have felt in writing it. “We’re after the same rainbow’s end …”

 Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini teamed up again two years later (1963) to write two more hits for Andy Williams, songs from the movies, “The Days of Wine and Roses,” (another Best Music, Original Song Academy Award winner), and “Charade (an Academy Award nominee).”

(Dave Holt)

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