Speaking for that niche market of folks who carry a torch for musical theater and the great American songbook, I'm here to tell you that one of the most welcome CD releases in recent memory is Mostly Mercer, a scintillating collection of standards and lesser known material first issued on the Painted Smiles label in 1986 and now reissued courtesy of Harbinger Records.

The deservedly iconic Johnny Mercer wrote most of the lyrics and some of the music for the wonderful songs featured on this thoroughly enjoyable disc; the title of the collection refers in part to the fact that, since Mercer was primarily a lyricist, melodies by such giants as Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini, and Harry Warren are also featured. And, just for the sake of variety, a few songs that Mercer had nothing to do with are included as well--namely, "Ask Me Again" by the brothers Gershwin (here in its world premiere recording, by Rosemary Clooney) and "Time, You Old Gypsy Man" by Phil Springer and E.Y. Harburg (touchingly rendered by Kaye Ballard). One of the choicest cuts on the disc showcases Mercer's music as well as his words: the delightful, hilarious "I Fought Every Step of the Way" from the Broadway musical Top Banana, sung and acted to a fare-thee-well by Laura Kenyon, Armelia McQueen, and Mary Gordon Murray.

The balance of the album offers a baker's dozen of Mercer's finest collaborations with some of the 20th century's greatest composers. Most of these are presented in terrific arrangements for orchestra and sung by a parade of divas the like of which can rarely be found within the confines of a single recording. Only a fool would attempt to pick highlights from this group...so here I go: "I'm Old Fashioned" (music by Kern) sets the high standard for the disc as its first cut, wonderfully set down by the great Clooney at a time when she had more breath support than has been evident in her recent club gigs. Eydie Gorme, in her lush-and-creamy mode rather than her supersonic mode, sings "I Remember You" (music by Victor Schertzinger) gorgeously. Marilyn Cooper is a riot as she recounts how "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry" (Schertzinger again), Jennifer Holliday makes Mercer and Arlen's "Blues in the Night" her own (to say the least!), and Jim Bailey freakily but impressively channels Judy Garland for an unforgettable rendition of "Out of This World" (music by Arlen, from the film of the same title). "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" (Harry Warren) is catnip for the late Nancy LaMott. The comparatively little-known Henrietta Valor does a lovely job with "I Wonder What Became of Me" (Arlen again), and Mark Sendroff--the album's executive producer--sincerely and effectively croons his way through "How Little We Know" (music by Hoagy Carmichael, from the film To Have and Have Not).

Even with all of the excellence detailed above, it's not difficult to name the crown jewel of the CD. Without a doubt, that would be Mimi Hines' breathtaking version of Arlen and Mercer's "My Shining Hour." Amazingly, Hines sounded just as phenomenal when she sang the same song at Mark Sendroff's gala 50th birthday party at Laura Belle just two months ago. The lady's towering talent is undiminished from her mid-century heyday, and I can assure you that Mostly Mercer would be worth the purchase price even if it were a CD-single containing only the Hines cut.

********************

[Note: Mostly Mercer is available in stores or through amazon.com]