Johnny Mercer’s career was on the ropes. From the 1930s to the 1950s he wrote music for big stars like Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby. He even recorded some Big Band hits, himself.
But by the 1960s his career was at an ebb. Rock ‘n Roll had cut into his popularity. His long string of hits had snapped. He lost popularity with the young crowd, and nobody wanted to hear Mercer’s old fogey style of music anymore.
Then came the Paramount Pictures movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in 1961. This movie starred Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. Hepburn played Holly Golightly, an outgoing, naive, socialite and wannabe show business star, with a mob connection. But she has a secret. Her real name is Lula Mae Barnes, and she came from rural Texas, escaping a childhood marriage.
Holly is looking to marry for money, even while being romanced by an aspiring writer of modest means named Paul Varjak (George Peppard).
A theme song was needed for the movie, and Henry Mancini was charged with writing a tune that captured Holly Golightly’s true, inner character.
Mancini watched a performance by Hepburn in the 1957 film, Funny Face. He felt an inspiration and within 30 minutes composed a melody. It was a simple tune, designed to conform with the limited range of Hepburn’s untrained singing voice. He now had the notes, but needed help with the lyrics. He turned to Mercer and gave him a chance to change his fortunes.
The first words Mercer wrote were, “I’m Holly, like I want to be, like Holly on a tree back home . . .”, but he quickly scrapped that. It just didn’t feel right.
Then he remembered the Back River. This was a river he grew up next to, in Savannah Georgia. He reminisced over the palmy days he enjoyed as a kid, playing by this dreamy body of water. And it suddenly occurred to him that this river captured the inner self of Holly’s true character. The Lula Mae Barnes from rural Texas.
He had already written some sentimental lyrics about this river, so he found them and incorporated the lines within Mancini’s melody. And he made sure that the last line paid tribute to his boyhood friend who liked to pick huckleberries alongside the Back River.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s was to be a romance film. So instead of using the name of his hometown river, Mercer named the song Blue River. That sounded more romantic to him.
He met with Mancini, and while Henry played the melody, Johnny crooned the lyrics. It sounded great to them, so they cut a demo for the movie’s producers, and it sounded great to them, too. But then Mercer learned that the title, Blue River had already been taken. He had to change it. So he came up with something else romantic sounding. Moon River.
Hepburn was one of the first to fall in love with Moon River, and the very first star to record it. In one of the film scenes, she tries to elude a date by hiding out on a fire escape. There, she holds her guitar and reflectively voices the words with quiet, whispered passion, and softly-strummed bars, as an admirer secretly watches from above.
She did a great job, but almost for naught. Paramount Pictures president, Martin Rackin, thought the movie was too long and wanted the song and scene cut from the film. In his words, “Well, the fucking song has to go.”
Mancini went pale. The cast felt stunned. They peppered Rackin with all the reasons why it should stay, and why other cuts should be made instead. And at the suggestion of her beloved tune being cut, the normally quiet and demure Hepburn went ballistic. She declared, “Over my dead body!” while deploying colorful language to match Rackin’s.
Rackin relented, the song was saved, and Hepburn’s vocals helped the tune win an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Sadly, when Mancini cut an album containing Moon River, Hepburn was left out. It was released with his chorus’s vocals only, in 1961. It was a moderate hit, rising to #11 in Billboard’s charts. I think it would have gone higher had Hepburn’s sultry voice been included. However it did win the 1962 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
Amazingly, Jerry Butler also had a #11 hit with the tune, simultaneous with Mancini, in 1961.
Later, it became the theme song for Andy Williams’ 1960s television show, where Williams sang the first eight bars at the beginning of each episode. In fact, Moon River became Williams’ signature song. His version made it onto an album, but was never released as a single.
There was pressure in the 1960s to release the version with Hepburn’s voice, but studio executives quashed that idea, and it never made it to an album or single.
Audrey Hepburn came to be defined by the extroverted character, Holly Golightly. Yet she was actually an introvert, much different from the character. Even so, she always loved the song Moon River, and must have felt disappointed that her soulful rendition was never released.
In January, 1993, Audrey Hepburn passed away at age 63, from a rare appendiceal cancer. The timing was rather cruel, because only a few months after her death, her version of Moon River was finally released on an album, entitled Music from the Films of Audrey Hepburn.
Moon River relaunched Johnny Mercer’s career as a songwriter. He went on to write Days of Wine and Roses, again with Mancini, which also won an Oscar for Best Song. It’s the only time in history that a songwriting team ever won back-to-back Oscars. And in 1965, Mercer wrote Summer Wind, which became a big hit by Frank Sinatra.
Yet Moon River remains the song he is most known for. And I understand why. It’s my favorite love song. No other song does better at capturing the romance of life, love, and long-term relationship, than this soul child of Mercer and Mancini, in my view.
To me, its words symbolize the imposing challenge of love (wider than a mile), the thrill of meeting that challenge (I’m crossing you in style), and the rewards and risks at stake (dream maker, heart breaker).
Call me a romantic, but the two drifters off to see the world would be my wife and me. Over the decades we’ve definitely seen a lot of this world, both figuratively and literally. She’s been my huckleberry friend as we’ve drifted down Moon River, chasing so many rainbows together.
I especially like the original version of this song, and I think you might enjoy it too. So for your viewing and listening pleasure, here is Moon River, by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly:
Moon River, wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way.
Two drifters, off to see the world,
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ’round the bend,
My huckleberry friend, Moon River, and me.