In a program that seemed to be a match made in heaven, Maestro Bob Lappin and the Palm Beach Pops celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of great lyricist Johnny Mercer at the Kravis Center Monday with an evening of some of the best-known of Mercer's 1,700-plus songs, each one a gem selected from his own private chapter in the Great American Songbook.
One of the most admired songwriters of the 20th century, Mercer worked with many of the top composers of his day — most notably Henry Mancini, Harold Arlen and Duke Ellington — but also wrote his share of catchy melodies as well. In a career that spanned more than four decades, Mercer collaborated on the music for 90 motion pictures and six Broadway shows, and was nominated for the Academy Award for best song 19 times, winning four.
The Pops program, "Memories of Mercer," delivered a series of great performances and top-flight arrangements. The musicianship and balance between the sections has never been better.
An early highlight was the haunting Laura, which featured both Sara Fletcher on oboe and Concert Master violinist Mary Rowell, each taking a turn with the familiar main melody line. Another nice moment came with a solo piano take by Lappin on Skylark.
But the addition of singer Michael Andrew to the mix really shifted the program into high gear — after all, we are honoring a lyricist here — and the hits just kept on coming.
Andrew appeared to be equally at ease with the full orchestra on big numbers, such as Something's Gotta Give, That Old Black Magic and The Summer Wind, as well as on ballads. A duet with pianist Dolph Castellano on One for the Road was especially sweet, as was the short set with the trio that offered The Days of Wine and Roses and Autumn Leaves.
One of the best-known songs that Mercer wrote on his own is the classic tune Dream, which was written as the theme song for Mercer's radio show. The Pops arrangement featured a full background of strings, with a solid solo by trumpeter Johnny Amoroso, and had several members of the audience singing along.
A great big band arrangement of I Wanna Be Around — Tony Bennett's other signature tune — offered a vehicle for the entire orchestra to shine. But the idea for the song came from a woman named Sadie Vimmerstedt from Youngstown, Ohio, who wrote to Mercer to suggest a love song about sweet revenge.When the song began to take off, Mercer contacted his unwitting collaborator to inform her that she would be permanently listed as co-writer — and would receive half the song's royalties.
The bittersweet ballad When October Goes was performed by Andrew with only a piano accompaniment by Lappin. The lyric was set to music by none other than Barry Manilow, at the suggestion of Mercer's wife, who found a notebook of her husband's unpublished lyrics after his death in 1976.
The obvious finale, Moon River, was sublime, starting slowly with Andrew backed by the trio, then building to a big finish with the entire orchestra, providing a satisfying close to a balanced retrospective honoring one of the truly great American songwriters.