“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” is one of those rare entries in the Great American Songbook that has everything going for it…a great songwriting team, a fantastic roster of recordings, and a terrific backstory.
We’ll start with the stuff you already know.
The songwriting team, of course, was Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Mercer had the inspiration for the song — we’ll get to that shortly. Arlen set Mercer’s “sermon” to music that somehow manages to conjur the image of a church revival with a big band orchestra leading the way. Considering the times and the message, the music was perfect. It still is.
Arlen, of course, also composed what is arguably the pre-eminent tune from the canon of traditional pop: “Over the Rainbow.” A few years after that, he began a loose songwriting relationship with Mercer that also yielded gems like “Blues in the Night” and “That Old Black Magic.” To sum up his career, we can say purposefully that Harold Arlen may not be best all time composer of American popular song, but we can’t come up with one that was better.
As for Johnny Mercer, he was certainly one of the most significant lyricists in pop history. Perhaps his prose wasn’t as deeply moving as Oscar Hammerstein II’s, but it holds its own. Mercer also composed some of his own songs; the top two that come to mind are “Dream” from 1943 and “Something’s Gotta Give” from 1955. But with a roster of lyrics ranging from 1934’s “PS I Love You” (with Gordon Jenkins) to 1965’s “The Summer Wind” (with Henry Mayer), Mercer takes a back seat to no one. As for the fact that he was a capable performer with many number one recordings, and that Johnny was co-founder of Capitol Records are well known and don’t need to be addressed further in this essay.
Mercer’s background, however, sets the tone for the unusual lyrics penned for “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”. Born in Savannah to a wealthy family, Mercer was a natural talent who spent a lot of time seeking out black music. When the family fortunes floundered with the Crash of 1929, Mercer made a living working as a debt collector. He moved to New York City at the age of 19 to seek his fortune in Tin Pan Alley, and in short order spent time in Hollywood knocking out lyrics for musicals, then working as a singer, then songwriter again. The point of this is that Mercer was a rather accomplished and cosmopolitan man by the time he reached his early 20s.
Any young white man of standing in 1920s Savannah who actively sought out black music venues was a bit ahead of his time, obviously open-minded, and unconcerned about the source of his inspiration…which us brings to the rather unusual backstory for “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”
The early to mid 20th Century was an era of tremendous technological innovation and advancement, unlike any era previous. But like every era, it had its share of religious charlatans. One of these was an unlikely slight black man from parts unknown, named Father Divine, real name unknown — but possibly George Baker from Rockville, Maryland. Imagine a man with incredible charisma who was partly a racial activist, partly a feel-good preacher, prone to combining words to make up new ones, and almost totally loony. That was Father Divine.
The good Father Divine fancied himself to be God, alternately calling himself “Reverend Major Jealous Divine,” “The Messenger,” and sometimes simply “The Father.” He surrounded himself with “Mother Divine,” “John The Revelator,” and “Faithful Mary,” among his thousands of followers during the 1930s and 1940s in his International Peace Mission movement.
The movement set up various communal apartments around the country, first in the east and eventually in California. Events included large scale picnics, music-filled revivals, civil rights protests, sexual scandals, arrests…the usual trappings of a large collection of crazies. Father Divine received constant attention from the media, and substantial donations of money and property from a few wealthy followers. Young men dressed in matching bow-tied outfits and were called “Crusaders” while young women were called “Rosebuds” and wore matching skirts and blouses emblazoned with a “V” — for “virgin,” of course.
The man was, as mentioned above, extremely charismatic; his messages may have been odd but the heart of it was one of peace, positive thinking, and brotherhood. Add in the revival music, and the package was obviously irresistable for Mercer. Johnny attended one of Father Divine’s sermons in 1944, and amid the free-association conglomeration of convoluted words and ramblings, he was struck when the Reverend Major proclaimed “you got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”
With Arlen’s tune, Mercer recorded “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” himself, using the Pied Pipers for the gospel-inspired background singers. The song hit the charts in January 1945, stalling at #2 behind The Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca Cola.” A cover version was rushed out by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, and moved Mercer’s version aside to also stall at #2, giving LaVerne, Maxene and Patricia a lock on the charts. Artie Shaw put another version in the top ten, and Kay Kyser also charted.
The song has been re-recorded through the years, with the new takes often gaining ground on easy listening/adult contemporary radio. It was used in the film Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, the real story of which occured in Savannah at a property once known as “The Mercer House,” but was out of the family before Johnny was born. The song was recorded for the film by Clint Eastwood, a version that doesn’t work quite as well as others.
As for the inspirational backstory, Mercer stuck to it, even years later. And although Father Divine has faded into oblivion, his message lives on in the Great American Songbook.
Recommended Viewing: An historic early 1970s video of Bing Crosby and Bette Midler doing a fantastic duet of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” occasionally circulates on Youtube and is shown on public television specials. When this performance was recorded, Midler was still growing into her career and it’s obvious that she recognized the importance of singing with Der Bingle. Crosby, for his part, was still singing flawlessly some 30 years after his prime. This video shows, in just a few short minutes, that when you combine two outstanding artists with a classic tune from the Great American Songbook, the result is magical. If you stumble across this, don’t miss it!