“. . . or am I breathing music into every word?” — Johnny Mercer

November 20, 2009

Capitol Records

Yesterday was the centennial of Johnny Mercer, and I was too busy to take much notice of it. But it was on my mind, because Mercer is one of my favorite lyricists. I wrote here a couple of months ago about one of his lesser-known songs, “The Waiter, the Porter and the Upstairs Maid,” which is sophisticated and funny.

But Mercer was a poet. When his songs get stuck in my head, I don’t mind. It’s hard for me to talk about favorites, because I’m crazy about so many of his songs — such as “The Angels Sing,” which he wrote in 1939:

We meet, and the angels sing.
The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard.
You speak, and the angels sing.
Or am I breathing music into every word?
Suddenly, the setting is strange.
I can see water and Moonlight beaming.
Silver waves that break on some undiscovered shore
Suddenly, I see it all change.
Long winter nights with the candles gleaming.
Through it all your face that I adore.
You smile, and the angels sing.
And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start.
We kiss, and the angels sing.
And leave their music ringing in my heart.

JOHNNY MERCER

I first heard that lyric when I was in my teens, and I was fascinated by the quality of Mercer’s writing.

I’m especially fond of the lyric he wrote to a classic melody, “Song of India.” I have an old RCA Victor Red Seal recording of that sung by Mario Lanza. It’s one of those cases in which I’d rather not hear anyone else sing it, so I hope the vinyl lasts as long as I do — which is becoming less of a challenge every day.

And still the snowy Himalayas rise / In ancient majesty before our eyes / Beyond the plains, above the pines / While through the ever, never changing land / As silently as any native band / That moves at night, the Ganges Shines  / Then I hear the song that only India can sing / Softer than the plumage on a black raven’s wing / High upon a minaret I stand and gazed upon an old enchanted land/ There’s the Maharajah’s caravan, Unfolding like a painted fan / How small the little race of Man! / See them all parade across the ages / Armies, Kings and slaves from hist’ry’s pages / Played on one of nature’s vastest stages. / The turbaned Sikhs and fakirs line the streets /  While holy men in shadowed calm retreats / Pray through the night and watch the stars. / A lonely plane flies off to meet the dawn / While down below the busy life goes on / And women crowd the old bazaars. /All are in the song that only India can sing. / India, the jewel of the East.

There’s lots about Johnny Mercer at this link and at this one.


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