(Pictured: Hall of Fame songwriter Johnny Mercer.)
Here’s one last story inspired by James Kaplan’s Frank Sinatra biography, although Frank himself isn’t involved much.
Like other people in other times and other places, Sadie Vimmerstedt, a fiftysomething widow in Youngstown, Ohio, was interested in the lives and loves of celebrities. Sadie had been outraged when Frank Sinatra threw over his wife and the mother of his children for actress Ava Gardner in 1950, and felt vindicated when Gardner divorced him in 1957. The latter gave her an idea for a song. A good song, too, not that rock ‘n’ roll junk the kids liked. Trouble was, she was no songwriter. She had only one line: “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” She thought that “When Somebody Breaks Your Heart” would be a good title. But what to do with the idea?
Isn’t it obvious?
Sadie took a couple of sheets of paper from an old desk calendar and wrote to the most famous songwriter in America, Johnny Mercer. By 1957, Mercer had won two Oscars, created famous Broadway musicals, helped found Capitol Records, and wrote or co-wrote many entries in the Great American Songbook: “Fools Rush In,” “Blues in the Night, “Skylark,” “That Old Black Magic,” “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” “Autumn Leaves,” and many others. Sadie did not know Mercer’s precise address, so she put “Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, New York, N.Y.” on the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox. The post office didn’t know Mercer’s address either, but it figured that ASCAP, the songwriters and publishers’ association, would. So the letter was forwarded, and ASCAP sent it to Mercer.
Johnny Mercer sat on the letter during a couple of fallow years in the late 50s, finally writing Sadie back to apologize for the delay, at about the time he started writing new songs again—a period during which he’d write two more Oscar winners, “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” He incorporated Sadie’s suggested line into a lyric, but changed her proposed title to “I Wanna Be Around.”
Sources vary on exactly what happened next. Sinatra biographer James Kaplan says Mercer told Sadie he would not have the song recorded until he found the right singer for it. But it’s possible that if Mercer said that, he was just being polite. According to Mercer biographer Gene Lees, Mercer’s son-in-law said the songwriter thought that the song “stunk.” Mercer told a song plugger named Phil Zellner that it was “the worst song I ever wrote.” But Zellner heard something in it, and he placed it with Tony Bennett. However it happened, Bennett premiered the song on October 1, 1962, singing on Johnny Carson’s first Tonight show. In the winter of 1963, “I Wanna Be Around” went to #14 on the Hot 100, higher than Bennett’s previous hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
When he finished the song, Mercer told Sadie he would give her a co-writing credit and 10 percent of the royalties. When the song hit, he upped her royalty to 50 percent. “I never expected any royalties,” she said. “[The song] was his to do with what he wished.” Toward the end of 1963, Sadie Vimmerstedt opened her mail to find a royalty check in the amount of $50,000—and money would keep flowing in for the rest of her life and beyond. She also became a Grammy nominee when “I Wanna Be Around” was nominated for Song of the Year, and she attended the awards banquet. She traveled to Cleveland and Cincinnati for radio interviews and to New York for a TV show, and she was even asked for her autograph from time to time. All the while, she continued to work as a cosmetologist. The demands on her time caused her to write Mercer at one point and say, “I’m getting tired of show business.” The two apparently maintained a correspondence for years. Mercer once said, “She’s just the cutest thing.”
Johnny Mercer died in 1976; Sadie Vimmerstedt died in 1986. Tony Bennett celebrated his 94th birthday earlier this month. And while “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” will always be Bennett’s best-known song, “I Wanna Be Around” is probably #2 or #3, and his version is definitive. Sinatra recorded it with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1964.
(Be sure to read this comment from Sadie’s grandson, with some additional information.)