Moon River: The Biography Of a Song
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
The usual strategies have failed: my two year old is still restless. He’s not buying the sleepy story voice, nor the regular lullabies, having either taught himself immunity or become irritated by the lack of variety. I stab buttons in the mental jukebox, looking for a soothing song whose novelty might engage him.
Before I’ve had a chance to think I begin to sing: “Moon river, wider than a mile…” We’re both surprised. I’m wondering where I’ve plucked this from and he is immediately struck by something, who knows what - the bovine first word, the instantly pretty melody, the mildly surrealistic turn of the lyric? He stops jabbering and fidgeting and listens.
Thirty seconds in, I realise I know the whole thing, though I’ve not heard it in years, and I also know it’s working. We’re both transfixed; equally struck by how lovely this little song is. Half way through, I get a flashback: I was his age when I first heard this, and someone was singing it to me. I experience a little shiver that’s partly nostalgia and wholly a revelation that this sensation is what the song is about – the motion of memory, remembering what it felt like to look ahead and imagine what time had in store for you, what the world you were sailing toward was all about. I look down at my son realising I haven’t felt that in ages. It’s his turn; my sense of wonder at the future has been passed to him. Right now, however, through this song, we’re feeling it together. I finish singing. There’s silence for a few seconds.
“Daddy, what’s two drifters?” he asks.
It’s a good question. The “two drifters off to see the world” in Moon River are the narrator and his “huckleberry friend”, possibly a person, real or imagined, or possibly the river itself, which may be imaginary, or may be an actual fork in the Vernon River just south of Savannah, Georgia, once known as Back River, which ran behind the childhood summer home of lyricist Johnny Mercer. If you’re watching Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the film for which Moon River was written, the two drifters could be the singer, an itinerant call-girl named Holly Golightly, and her cat, known as Cat. Or they might be Holly and someone from her mysterious, backwoods childhood, perhaps her brother Fred.
One miracle of Moon River is the amount of pictures the lyric manages to suggest in just 58 words.
Moon River is a waltz. The title is sung over three notes. In the key of C major – the key of the first recording - these are G, D and C. The G is held for the whole first bar. The lift to D, the highest note in the song, gives an immediate shot of possibility. We’re there for a single beat before settling on the C for two beats. The effect is an ellipsis, while the melody readies to glide elegantly through its nine notes – an octave plus one. The next stop is a semitone down, to B. Mancini uses it to creates a serene sense of optimism by placing it over the chord of F major. The melody is all on the white notes of a piano and runs for 36 bars, three themes arranged in the form ABAC. Hummed without words it makes a perfect lullaby, a gentle turn on a cloud over an evening landscape before coming to rest. It takes less than two minutes.
It’s easy to hear that this is the work of two masters, but what you sense, rather than hear, is that there’s a deep back-story playing out in the way the music and lyric combine.
This is the young composer’s first big hit song and one of the older lyricist’s last. One of them is showing us what he can do and the other is consolidating all he has done. Such a summit meeting is a rare occurrence and here it creates an unusually beautiful effect, like superimposing a cool spring sunrise upon a September sunset.
Among a generation of celebrated. colourful songwriters, Johnny Mercer’s background was unusual. Where contemporaries like Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart and Frank Loesser were born, raised and found inspiration in the sophisticated clamour of Manhattan, John Herndon Mercer was a southern country boy, born on November 18th 1909 into a well-to-do family in Savannah, Georgia. His father George was forged in the Victorian mould, an attorney and property developer, a no-nonsense authoritarian with high standards. His second wife Lillian had been his secretary. She was of Croatian stock, a musical woman with a complex personality and deep seam of melancholy.
Johnny was George’s fourth son and Lillian’s first. Not long after Johnny was born, George Mercer purchased Vernon View, an island haven of marsh grass and magnolias about 15 miles south of Savannah, where he built a summer retreat overlooking the brackish water of the Back River, a tributary of the Vernon feeding into the Atlantic. Johnny would cherish memories of idyllic childhood summers there, and his adult work often differs from that of his urban peers through its images of nature and its echoes of a downhome, but privileged upbringing.
Mercer was raised among the black children of his nannies and servants, and naturally absorbed the vernacular of his playmates. His love of popular music developed seeing A.G. Fields’ Minstrels at the Savannah Theatre and hearing sassy phonograph records like Mizzi Hajo’s 1916 release, Evelyn, You’ll Have To Quit Your Devilin’, with lyrics by PG Wodehouse (“Love I think is tommy rot /Girls are such a funny lot”). A teenager in the 1920s, he grew enthusiastic about jazz and blues, shopping in Savannah’s West Broad Street (that city’s equivalent to Harlem) for “race records”. He particularly admired the music of Louis Armstrong and he began to harbour ambitions as an entertainer.
At the private Woodberry Forest School, where he studied English and the classics, John was a popular student, an energetic, impish figure who displayed his deep, dry wit and love of language editing two school magazines. But when the Florida property boom collapsed in 1927, George Mercer’s real-estate business went down with it, and he could no longer afford to put his son through college. John put on a brave face and took the long train journey to New York to try his luck in show business.
His time as an actor was impoverished; but when Johnny turned to singing and writing lyrics, things went better. Aged 23, he won a vocal competition held by the popular, portly band leader Paul Whiteman – the self-styled “King of Jazz” - who attracted many of the country’s finest musicians to his aggregation. It led to Mercer writing for the era’s biggest pop star, Bing Crosby, most notably with fellow southerner, Hoagy Carmichael. They spent, depending upon whose account you believe, either 20 minutes or an entire year conjuring a smash hit, Lazy Bones, where Mercer took on pop music’s vogue for “fake Dixie” by using genuine southern expressions in his lyric.
Whiteman subsequently hired Mercer as a full-time singer. His butterball charm soon won him fans, and when teamed with the tall, deep-voiced Jack Teagarden they made a remarkable combination. But the supremely confident Mercer was soon looking to pull away from the duo’s novelty aspect and develop his own, cooler style. He grabbed a chance to work at RKO in Hollywood, where someone thought that, with his smooth voice, acting skills and modern way with language, Johnny Mercer might become another Bing Crosby. It didn’t pan out, but, once again, his writing kept him alive and he was soon supplying the studio with a string of smash hits. Many of them quickly became standards: Hooray For Hollywood, Too Marvellous For Words, Jeepers Creepers, Goody Goody, Accentuate The Positive.
Mercer wrote some of his strongest, most romantic work during the period, starting in 1941, when he was involved in a tempestuous, stop-go affair with Judy Garland. When it began, she was 19 and he was 32, married, and grieving for his recently deceased father. The ensuing cocktail of desire, guilt and heartbreak provided potent fuel for great lyrics: One For My Baby, Blues In the Night and Come Rain Or Come Shine.
In 1942, Mercer flexed his entrepreneurial muscles to give himself a firmer base than that afforded by a singing career. He co-founded a record label to represent the kind of music he liked. He called it Capitol. It released many of his own performances and later included Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Nat ‘King’ Cole on its hip roster. Mercer sold his shares in the label to EMI in the 1950s and made millions. Rich, famous and highly respected in the music business, all Mercer’s youthful ambitions seemed to have worked out.
But then his apparently charmed life darkened. The youthful self-assurance curdled into prickly middle-age. His failure to connect with rock’n’roll told him his pop career had crested. It wounded the young-at-heart hipster that his people were suddenly considered square. He still craved a Broadway hit, but every attempt failed, and his film work became increasingly sparse, his kind of eloquence less and less in demand. The usually genial and generous man became belligerent, reckless and verbally cruel whenever he drank, often directing his rage towards his long-suffering wife, Ginger. Hosts and hostesses became used to deeply contrite notes and bouquets of roses arriving the morning after parties where Mercer had disgraced himself – though heaven knows what he sent to the woman whose wardrobe he purposefully pissed into, filling her shoes with recycled champagne.
Aged 51, Mercer was seriously considering retirement when Henry Mancini asked him to write the lyric for an incidental song in the movie of Truman Capote’s best-selling novella, Breakfast At Tiffany’s. For the lyricist of That Old Black Magic, Autumn Leaves and Fools Rush In it might have been considered a modest commission.
Henry Mancini was no wunderkind. His rise to the front rank of screen composers was taking a while. Born in 1924, Enrico Nicola Mancini grew up in a steel town, West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, his father Quinto an Italian steelworker. Enrico studied flute from the age of eight, took up the piano at 12 and, aged 18, attended Juliard School Of Music in New York. He was there only a year before the draft board intervened. He served in the Army Air Corps as a musician for three years, and then, when the war ended, headed straight for the music business, with plans to be an arranger. A trip home revealed that the band of the 66th Division, drafted from Aliquippa, had all perished in the war. Mancini had only survived because he'd been recruited in New York to a different company.
The gangly, dryly humorous youth landed a job as a pianist with the new Glenn Miller Orchestra (now under the leadership of popular singer and sax player Tex Beneke), and met his wife Ginny, a singer, in the line-up. They married and moved to Burbank, Hollywood. Henry, as he was now billed, or Hank, as he was known to everyone, quickly realised that arrangers didn't make much money, but composers earned royalties, so he started writing his own melodies.
In 1952, he landed a two week job composing uncredited film music, initially for a scene in Lost In Alaska, a poor Abbott and Costello feature. "The very first film writing I did was for a scene where Lou Abbott gets bitten on the ass by a crab - high class stuff," wrote Mancini in his autobiography, Did They Mention The Music? That gig stretched to six years of uncredited writing for Universal pot-boilers. Finally, after credited work on a hit film, The Glenn Miller Story, Mancini was assigned to Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil. The work he did on Welles' butchered film-noir was some of his best, but he didn't get a chance to develop it because Universal was sold to MCA soon after the film’s release and the music department Mancini worked in was dismantled.
Aged 33 and with a family to support, Mancini was unsure where to turn. Then he ran into an old friend, Blake Edwards, a writer/director working in TV for NBC, who asked Mancini to come up with some music for a new private-eye show he was developing. Peter Gunn was a huge hit and Mancini's theme, a simple guitar top-line twanged over a single chord, caused a sensation. The jazzy score from the series was released by RCA under Mancini's name and shot to the top of the album charts, where it stayed for ten weeks. It won the Grammy for best album of 1958. Another series and attendant album, Mr. Lucky, were almost as successful. Thus, the Edwards/Mancini team were pretty hot when they landed Breakfast At Tiffany's.
Truman Capote, epicene novelist, reporter and magnet for notoriety, published his novella Breakfast At Tiffany’s in 1958, the title piece in a volume with five other, shorter stories. Set in the 1940s, the story centred around a capricious call-girl, Holly Golightly, and a nameless narrator (called Paul Varjak in the movie), who is an aspiring writer and a reluctant gigolo. They meet when he moves into Miss Golightly’s Manhattan apartment block, and falls under her spell.
Geroge Axelrod’s screenplay reset the story in the present, but was unable, in 1961, to explicitly depict the sleazy atmosphere Capote described. The script gave a farcical feel to the comings and goings of assorted gentlemen callers, included one of Blake Edwards’ signature chaotic party scenes, and also a distasteful comic cameo for Mickey Rooney, as Mr. Yurioshi, a Japanese neighbour.
Capote’s Golightly is attractive but damaged, a woman who compensates for life’s realities by being pathologically free-spirited and disingenuous. He imagined attractive but damaged Marilyn Monroe as his heroine. She wanted the role but her mentor, Paula Strasberg, didn’t feel Marilyn should play a “woman of the night”, however beguiling, and, besides, she’d have been an expensive transfer from 20th Century Fox to Paramount. So Edwards cast the fine-boned, not remotely dangerous Audrey Hepburn, who’d recently become a mother and didn’t feel quite up to the role. She played Holly as a ditsy sprite buffeted by circumstance, which wasn’t at all what Capote had intended. He felt Hepburn, despite being physically close to his description of Holly in the book, and a friend of his, was utterly wrong for the role. The film became, in his opinion, “a mawkish valentine to her talent.”
One might assume the movie’s romantic song was Hollywood’s addition, but Holly Golightly’s guitar playing is mentioned early in Capote’s story, he even describes the kind of song she sang: “Harsh-tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie.” One such song goes: “Don’t wanna sleep/Don’t wanna die/Just wanna go a-travelin’ through the pastures of the sky.” It’s unknown whether Mercer noted that down.
In the film, Varjak is typing the first sentence of a story clearly based on Holly, when he hears her singing. He leans out of his apartment to see her sitting in her window on the floor below, one foot on the fire escape, dressed casually in a sweatshirt and jeans, her hair scooped up into a towel (her make-up immaculate), strumming a child’s-size guitar with her thumb and singing Moon River. The sensitive performance cements his admiration for the exasperating Holly, who is later revealed (spoiler alert) as Lula Mae Barnes, the runaway, former teenage-bride of a Texan farmer.
Faced with this scenario, Mancini, who’d had to lobby hard to be allowed to write the featured song as well as the score, struggled to write a melody. Should this song be a jazz ballad, a blues, a bossa nova, or something else? He knew Hepburn could handle at least a nine-note range, as he’d heard her sing in the Fred Astaire musical Funny Face. But he wasn’t sure where to start. For a month he sat down regularly and came up with nothing, until, one night, after dinner, he went to his piano and the three note opening phrase fell under his fingers. Half an hour later, the melody, all within that octave-plus-one range, was written. It was very different from the jazzy music he’d composed for the rest of the movie. "Audrey’s big eyes gave me the push to get a little more sentimental than I usually do,” he said.
Blake Edwards loved the tune and asked Mancini whom he’d like to write the lyric. Mancini named Mercer, whose Day In Day Out he and Edwards had selected as a key song in the pilot of Peter Gunn. (In fact, Mercer had, unbidden, written a lyric for a track on the Peter Gunn album; though never used, it had briefly put the two writers in touch.) Mercer was pleased to be asked, and admired the melody, but, deep in his mid-life blues, he was pessimistic about its chances.
“He said, ‘Hank, who’s going to record a waltz?’,” recalled Mancini in his book. “’We’ll do it for the movie but it hasn’t any future commercially.’” Hank left a tape with him anyway.
Now it was Mercer’s turn to prevaricate. He was famous for sometimes spending months tinkering with a lyric. This one came relatively quickly, but he tried three completely different concepts and couldn’t decide between them. Of the two rejects, one, if it still exists, is buried in the Mercer archive, but another, I’m Holly, has been documented elsewhere. It ran: “I’m Holly,/Like I want to be/Like holly on a tree back home./Just plain Holly/With no dolly/No mama, no papa/Wherever I roam.”
It was this lyric which Mercer sang first when he came to demonstrate his work to Mancini, one lunchtime in the empty ballroom of the Beverly Hills Wiltshire Hotel. Mancini liked I’m Holly but Mercer wasn’t sure it was strong enough.
They both rejected the second idea. Then Mercer pulled out the one he called Blue River. He told Mancini that his research at ASCAP had revealed several recent songs called Blue River, so he was looking for an alternative title. He had already considered a few: Red River didn’t sing so well. June River sounded “too summery”. Mancini agreed. But Mercer had scoured a map and found a Moon River in South Carolina. Mancini remembered a radio show by that title, but neither man knew of any song. The simple substitution of “moon” for “blue” retained the title’s cool “oo” sound, the song’s authenticity and the crepuscular mood the scene required.
Mercer sang the lyric, there in the deserted ballroom, and Mancini got chills: “When he got to ‘my huckleberry friend’ I got them,” he recalled. “I don’t know whether John knew what effect those words had or if it was something that just came to him. But it was thrilling.” Mercer had expertly conjured, in a single phrase, the Texan girl in Manhattan recalling simpler times: “We’re after the same rainbow’s end/Waiting ‘round the bend/My huckleberry friend/Moon River and me.”
However, others hearing the song for the first time, balked at the line, thinking it too unusual, too specific. Mercer’s close friend, singer Margaret Whiting, suggested he change it. Mercer considered it seriously for a few hours and then decided to stick with his instinct. The line resonated for him especially, reminding him of late-summer days on Vernon View with his friend Walter, picking the tart, blueberry-like fruits, which were abundant along the river bank. He knew it would also summon wider, immediate associations with Mark Twain’s keystone text of Americana and childhood, Huckleberry Finn. The line stayed.
Blake Edwards and the film’s producers loved Moon River and agreed it was perfect for Hepburn. Even though she wasn’t known as a singer, the vulnerability she would bring to the performance would be key to the development of her character. At the recording session for the soundtrack, Hepburn quickly delivered what Mancini came to consider the song’s definitive performance, accompanied initially by just an acoustic guitar, with a small orchestra coming in on the words, “two drifters”.
"Those eyes of hers could carry it, I knew that,” Mancini wrote later. ”Moon River was written for her. No one else has ever understood it so completely. There have been more than a thousand versions, but hers is unquestionably the greatest. When we previewed the film, the head of Paramount was there, and he said, ‘One thing’s for sure: That fucking song’s gotta go.’ Audrey shot right up out of her chair! Mel Ferrer [Hepburn’s husband and agent] had to restrain her. That’s the closest I ever saw her come to losing control."
Immediately after the recording, however, Mancini and Mercer weren’t considering Hepburn’s exclusivity. They were having lunch when they spotted Andy Williams, and didn’t miss the opportunity to plug the song they’d just cut to the up and coming young vocalist, suggesting it would be perfect for him to record. They had the sheet music with them and gave him a copy. He loved the song, but his manager thought it old-fashioned – again, he had misgivings about “my huckleberry friend” - and he advised Williams against recording it.
When the movie opened, Mancini re-recorded the score for the soundtrack album in a new studio for improved sound quality and thus, to his subsequent regret, denied Hepburn’s performance a place on the album, substituting a new version performed by a mixed chorus. That decision left the market open for a solo recording. Improbably, soul singer Jerry Butler was the first taker, and had a decent Number 11 hit with a twangy, rather country-flavoured version, late in 1961. In the UK, 19-year old South African crooner Danny Williams went to Number 1 with a sexy, atmospheric reading in the first week of 1962.
Soon afterwards, the song won an Oscar nomination. Ironically, Andy Williams was invited by the Academy to sing it at the awards ceremony. Now under less picky management, Williams suggested to his new label, Columbia, that he release an album gathering Moon River and other movie favourites in time for the prime-time TV broadcast. A session hurriedly took place where, oddly, the album’s proposed title cut was scheduled to be recorded last; by the time they got to it there were only ten minutes of session time remaining. So, Andy Williams’ Moon River was cut in a single take. The song won the Oscar. The televised ceremony was seen by millions. Williams’ album sold millions and the song, though never released as a single, became Andy Williams’ signature tune.
Mancini loved having a smash hit. Moon River helped put him among the ranks of the great pop composers. His association with Mercer continued with the following year’s The Days Of Wine And Roses – another Edwards movie, another masterpiece of nostalgia and outdoors imagery from Mercer, another Oscar winner – and, later on, Charade, but Mancini didn’t pursue the stand-alone song, favouring to provide his distinctive, jazzy music for movies, many of them directed by Blake Edwards, One of their collaborations led to Mancini’s most famous theme, The Pink Panther.
After selling Capitol records, Mercer had bought his own retreat on the Back River, on Burnside Island, close to the beloved summer home of his childhood. Shortly after Moon River won its Oscar, the Chatham County council voted that the stretch of water behind Mercer’s house be renamed Moon River in his honour. Signs pointing to it are regularly stolen.
When I first heard Moon River, aged two or three, I absorbed it as a folk song or nursery rhyme – fooled by its old-world charm. In fact, I was hearing it during its first flush of success. I too puzzled over ‘huckleberry friend’. It was an intriguing word but one unknown in the west London suburbs - until I saw Hanna-Barbera’s Huckleberry Hound cartoon series and, for a while, confused the two, thinking the singer’s friend was a blue dog. I took the song’s ubiquity for granted, but realise now how phenomenal it was, and also how it can be seen as a bittersweet final sigh from Tin Pan Alley before the beat group boom demolished it. Ironically, The Beatles would transform American pop and usurp the likes of Johnny Mercer via the label that he founded, Capitol Records.
The little waltz he thought would struggle commercially quickly became a standard work. In 1963, though it was only around two years old, it was already such a favourite of President John F Kennedy’s that it was played at his funeral. In that moment of thwarted promise it must have seemed the perfect expression of nostalgia for a simple dream, the line “I’m crossing you in style” shimmering between a wistful, childish ambition and the image of a funeral boat traversing the Styx, giving the song new gravitas as a lullaby into eternity.
Hundreds of artists have recorded it since. Mercer’s hero Louis Armstrong covered it respectfully. Mrs. Miller sang it as if she were being seasick. Morrissey extended it to almost ten minutes. It can happily withstand most arrangements. On Johnny Mercer’s last album, My Huckleberry Friend - a collection of swinging, easy-listening retreads of Mercer classics and some lesser-known personal favourites from his repertoire, recorded in England in 1974 and recently reissued by Universal – he sang a new version in 4/4 time. Though grateful for the late surge Moon River gave his career, Mercer came to resent the way its tremendous impact overshadowed his other achievements. He was known to snarl with displeasure whenever a band struck it up in his honour as he entered an event, his displeasure depending, of course, on how drunk he was already.
Johnny Mercer died 18 months after that British recording session. from a brain tumour. Despite his failings as a faithless husband, bad drunk and occasionally lousy party guest, the consensus among those who mourned him was that he was a good soul: warm-hearted, modest, a true southern gentleman whom it was a privilege to know. Through Moon River we all know him a little. Whatever your personal childhood memories, you can feel at home in that place he and Henry Mancini constructed from 58 words laid upon 66 notes.
Copyright 2011 Jim Irvin
An abridged version of this piece was published in
MOJO ‘60s Magazine.