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Arts & Culture

Forgotten Johnny Mercer Songs Rediscovered In Key West

William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection
Library of Congress
Johnny Mercer was a prolific writer of lyrics, but some of his songs were never produced or recorded.

Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to songs like "Moon River" and "Accentuate the Positive" — music that is part of the Great American Songbook. 

Some Mercer songs — then new and recorded on a demo reel in the 1960s for a show that was never produced — were recently performed for the first time, in Key West.

Ellen Steininger had a few boxes of family mementoes she's been keeping for years in her Key West condo.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Key West singer and pianist Bobby Nesbitt performed some of the songs from Three Arabian Knights at his annual show in Key West.

But it wasn't till her friend Bobby Nesbitt, a pianist and singer, was working on one of his annual "musical lectures" as he calls them, that she told him about a couple of the things in one of those boxes:

  • A script for a musical no one ever heard of because it was never produced.
  • A reel- to-reel tape labeled "lyrics by Johnny Mercer."

Steininger and Nesbitt had the tapes digitized. Included is a recording of Mercer — who co-founded Capitol Records in 1942 — singing a song that likely hasn't been heard in more than 50 years.
"It sounds like he recorded it yesterday in the next room, it's so clear," Nesbitt said. 

The music is by Steininger's late father-in-law, Franz Steininger. He was a composer and arranger who worked in Vienna, New York and Hollywood.

The show is called "Three Arabian Knights." Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin join forces to rescue a beautiful woman and get hold of a magic sword, magic carpet and magic lantern. Steininger says she has no idea why it was never produced.

Nesbitt has a couple theories.

"It's a bit old-fashioned, I think. It's like an operetta," he said. "Franz Steininger was very operetta-influenced, coming from Vienna. But I think, in the end, with show business, it's all: you can't raise the money."

It's unlikely to be produced now — the script is full of racist and sexist stereotypes and some of the lyrics are cringeworthy today. Mercer didn't write the script; it's by Aubrey Wisberg.


Mercer, who died at 66 in 1976, won four Oscars for Best Original Song:

  • "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" from "The Harvey Girls" (1946), with music by Harry Warren.
  • "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" from "Here Comes the Groom" (1951), with music by Hoagy Carmichael.
  • "Moon River" from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961), with music by Henry Mancini.
  • "Days of Wine and Roses" from "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962), also with music by Mancini. 

Nesbitt said he has loved Mercer since he was a little kid taking piano lessons. His teacher always taught him classical music, but one day he heard "Moon River" and brought that in, asking to learn it.

Through the years, Nesbitt says, he learned to appreciate Mercer in different ways.

"I just love his humor and I love his intellect. Every time I do a Mercer show there's one word I have to look up that I've never heard before. He's just so clever," Nesbitt said.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Ellen Steininger has memorabilia from the careers of the family of her late husband, including her mother-in-law, an actress who sometimes went by Della Lind.

For Steininger, it's cool to find unknown Mercer songs but there's a bigger project here — preserving the legacy of her late husband's family.

Franz Steininger wrote one Broadway show, a flop called "Music In My Heart," based on the life of Tchaikovsky. But the extended family were part of European and American music and show business during the heart of the 20th century.

Ellen Steininger says her father-in-law worked with giants like Judy Garland when he was conductor at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California. Her mother-in-law, Grete Steininger, was an actress also known as Della Lind, who was in a movie with Laurel and Hardy and a friend of Joan Crawford.

Ellen's husband, Rick Steininger, died about 10 years ago.

"There's no Steiningers left. There's not a sister, brother, uncle, cousin, anything. I'm not even blood family. I'm family by marriage, but there isn't a soul left," she said."Before I leave the planet, I'd like to leave something of the family's name so it goes on when I'm not here any more."

The Georgia State University library is home to the Mercer papers, the heart of its popular music collection.

"It's always very interesting and exciting when something comes up that nobody else has ever heard before," said Kevin Fleming, archivist there. He said the collection already has about 250 Mercer songs that were never finished or never produced and recorded.

"It just goes to show that there's probably more unheard Mercer materials out there somewhere," Fleming said.

Georgia State music students put on a concert of Johnny Mercer musicevery other year and they often take those unproduced songs and arrange and perform them. Even if "Three Arabian Knights" is never performed, the songs from the show may wind up in one of those concerts.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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