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Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive

Written: 1944

Music by: Harold Arlen

Words by: Johnny Mercer

Written for: Here Come the Waves
(movie, 1944 )

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Barbara Cook


"Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive"

with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (2003)


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"Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive"

Critics Corner || Lyrics Lounge

About the movie Here Come the Waves (1944)
and the Origins of the Song

Bing Crosby: Screen Legend Collection:
Double or Nothing,
East Side of Heaven,
Here Come the Waves,
If I Had My Way,
Waikiki Wedding.

Other songs written for Here Come the Waves currently included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook:

1. Let's Take the Long Way Home.


Cafe Songbook Catalog song used in Here Come the Waves but not written for it: That Old Black Magic.


For a complete listing of songs used in this movie, see IMDB Soundtrack.

Twin sisters (both played by Betty Hutton) who are successful entertainers in civilian life join up as Navy Waves. One of the twins, the ditzy one, has an enormous crush on crooner Johnny Cabot (Bing Crosby) who in turn has fallen for the other more sensible sister. Meanwhile, another sailor, Crosby's sidekick played by Sonny Tufts has a crush on the sensible one. In the course of their comedy of errors, while trying to get themselves aligned with the proper partners, they all work on a show designed to increase enlistment in the Waves. One of the numbers is Crosby and Tufts performing "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive"--in black face (see below).

Listen to Crosby and Tufts introduce "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive"
in the movie for which it was written,
"Here Come the Waves."

The song was nominated for an academy award but lost to Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring" from State Fair.

Critics Corner

One of the most common questions asked about any song is what came first the words or the music. Alec Wilder writes of this song, "I feel that such a special lyric must have been written before the music. If this is accepted, the musical setting is brilliant. There are other ways it could have been done but I can conceive of no better way than this" (Alec Wilder, American Popular Song The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 279).

Editors Note: As Edward Jablonski points out (just below), Wilder was partly right.

Edward Jablonski, Harold Arlen Rhythm, Rainbows and Blues, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 168-69.

Harold Arlen's biographer, Edward Jablonski, tells the story of how the words and music came together. Arlen and Mercer had been struggling in their office at Paramount to come up with one last song, a duet for Bing Crosby and Sonny Tufts, for the movie Here Come the Waves. A little later, while the two of them were taking a drive in the Hollywood Hills to ease their frustrations, "Mercer had an idea. 'How does that little thing go, . . . I've heard you humming it, the spiritual?'" Arlen had been humming bits of a tune on and off for days. Arlen began to hum it again, and Mercer fit his rhythm with "You've got to accentuate the positive." As they drove, Arlen continued to hum and "Mercer responded with more words. 'Before we got home,' Arlen remembered, 'the song was written'"

Click here to listen to Arlen himself give a slightly different account.

Philip Furia, Skylark Skylark The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, New York: St. Martins Press, 2003.



Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger, and Eric Davis,
The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer,
New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2009.

One of Mercer's biographers, Philip Furia, confirms the story recounted by Jablonski but adds to it that "on one of his trips back to Savannah [where Mercer was born and raised], he [Mercer] went to hear Daddy Grace* preach, just as he had when he was a boy. In this particular sermon, Daddy Grace turned a phrase, 'accentuate the positive,' which caught Mercer's ear."

*Earlier in his biography, Furia reports that Daddy Grace was a well known African-American preacher whose sermons Mercer heard when he was a boy and he and his friends ventured down to his church to listen to the singing and clapping
(Philip Furia, Skylark, pp. 15-16 and 142).


Robert Kimball et. al. quote Mercer giving a different version of the story:

When I was working with Benny Goodman back in '39, I had a publicity guy who told me he had been to hear Father Divine, and that was the subject of his sermon: "Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Well, that amused me so, and it sounds so funny, that I wrote it down on a piece of paper.

Mercer than goes on to more or less confirm the account that Jablonski gives above about he and Harold Arlen composing the song while riding in a car ('home from the studio") trying to come up with a duet for Bing Crosby and Sonny Tufts to sing in Here Come the
--which became the introduction of the song.

Mercer' most salient recollection about the composition of "Ac-cent-tchu_ate the Positive" is not that it was written in a car, as unusual as that might be, but that both the tune and the idea for the words had been hanging around separately in the songwriters' minds for quite a while but without the circumstance to bring them together. It wasn't until the car ride when, according to Mercer, "Harold was singing me this off-beat little rhythm tune he had sung me before" that out of "my subconscious" the idea for the words "jumped into my mind as if [Arlen had] dialed a phone number." Mercer immediately thought of the phrase, "accentuate the positive" from the sermon and the rest was a piece of cake. (From Kimball, Complete Lyrics)

Philip Furia and Michael Lasser, America's Songs, New York: Routledge, 2006

Furia and co-author Michael Lasser add a little more to the story:

Mercer cast the lyric in the form of a sermon—"Listen while I preach some"—and laced the chorus with Biblical allusions to "Jonah and the whale / Noah in the ark" (from Philip Furia and Michael Lasser, America's Songs, pp. 191-92).

David Lehman. A Fine Romance Jewish Songwriters, American Song. New York: Next Book/Schocken, 2009.

David Lehman notes that it's Mercer's voice you hear singing the song in the background of the 1999 movie, L.A. Confidential.*

David Lehman. A Fine Romance Jewish Songwriters, American Song. New York: Next Book/Schocken, 2009, p. 85 (hard cover ed.).

*Editor's Note: Mercer was a top flight vocalist as well as lyricist and, with the back-up vocal group The Pied Pipers, had a number one hit with "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" in 1945. (See selected recordings.) And as far as songwriters of this period go, Arlen, Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael were the best singers. Carmichael and Mercer are widely recorded, but there exists a CD album of Harold Arlen singing his own works. It's entitled Harold Sings Arlen (with friend)--the friend being Barbra Streisand.

Gene Lees, Portrait of Johnny The Life of John Herndon Mercer, New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

Another Mercer biographer, Gene Lees, reinforces the idea of the influence of the Black Church on the lyricist when he states, "John knew in his deepest being the rhythm of black Southern preaching" (p.27). Furthermore, Lees makes it clear that the influence was not lost on African-Americans who heard the song. He quotes the lyricist talking about his experience entertaining the troops during WWII:

I'll never forget the faces of the colored troops the first time they heard us do "Ac-Cent-Chu-Ate the Positive." I don't think they had ever heard a white man sing like that . . . . They beamed. Occasionally Nat Cole would come along and sing "Straighten up and Fly Right," and next to him, I think they enjoyed our arrangement of "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" as well as anything. (p. 160.)

Lees continues to quote Mercer on the subject and notes that as a recorded singer he was often mistaken for being black. For example, he once received the following note:

Dear Johnny Mercer, we have taken a vote and are pleased to inform you that you have been voted the most successful young colored singer of the year. Sincerely yours (signed) T.A.L.B.C. of C [The Abraham Lincoln Boys Club of Chicago].

Mercer treasured the note and said, "I wouldn't trade it for anything, would you?" (p. 160).

[Editor's Notes: The Louis Armstrong recording of "Ac-Cent-Chu-Ate the Positive" begins with Armstrong speaking to the band as if they were a church congregation. He asks them, "Have you heard what Deacon Mercer said; I said, have you?" Satchmo's question suggests he recognized the preacherly influence on Mercer's lyric, if not bestowing on Mercer, as did the boys from Chicago, the status of being African-American at least of being an honored guest in the culture.

Taken together, the comments above, both mine and those of the other critics, imply a great sympathy between Mercer and African Americans, which no doubt there was. The irony, however, is that the first performance of "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" as performed by Bing Crosby and Sonny Tufts in Here Come the Waves was done in black-face. They do it as a skit in a revue in the tradition of the minstrel show, which was common in musicals of the time, but even taking into consideration the period, African Americans would have had to feel the sting of such insulting material--if they got to see the movie at all. That Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performed and recorded the song and that Crosby and Armstrong performed together and were friends testifies to the complexities of the race relations of the period, during which some performers at once seemed to be breaking down barriers between the races and at the same time behaving in ways that served to perpetuate them. In the same spirit, of the thousands of Waves seen marching to patriotic music in this 1944 wartime movie, not one African American face can be seen. Sometimes things do change for the better.

In another place in his book, Lees quotes Mercer saying, "The song was a huge hit, and gave a phrase to the American language," by which, of course, he meant the title. Lees, however, notes that the song lent the language a second expression, "latch on to," as in "Latch onto the affirmative . . . " (p. 145).

all above from Gene Lees, Portrait of Johnny The Life of John Herndon Mercer, New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

Wilfred Sheed, The House That George Built: with a Little Help from Irving, Cole and a Crew of about Fifty," New York: Random House, 2007

In a discussion of Harold Arlen, Wilfred Sheed observes that the composer "could be a funny man at times," and that he was "a great laugher," but that "a baseline of gloom [ran] through his art and his life." A tune like "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," that emphasizes an optimistic point of view was less than characteristic for him. Sheed goes on to note that in Arlen's recorded performance of the song (Both he and Mercer were accomplished singers.), his darker side doesn't fail to emerge. Comparing Arlen's version to a recording of the song by Mercer, Sheed comments that Arlen's "could almost be funeral music."
(from Wilfred Sheed, The House That George Built: with a Little Help from Irving, Cole and a Crew of about Fifty," New York: Random House, 2007 p. 82.)

Editor's Note: See listing for Mercer's 1945 recording of "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive."

Lyrics Lounge

Click here to read the lyrics for "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," including the verse, as sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

The verse makes it clear that the refrain will be a sermon:

Gather 'round me
Gather round me
While I preach some.
Feel a sermon
Comin' on me--

Of the versions available for listening on this page, only Mercer's own and Ella's 1961 Harold Arlen Songbook version include Mercer's verse. Louis Armstrong ads an abbreviated verse of his own in which he addresses the lyricist as the preacher by calling him "Brother Mercer."

Most singers eliminate the verse altogether and launch into the refrain:

Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive,
E-lim-min-ate the negative,
Latch onto the affirmative--
Don't mess with Mr. In_Between
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . etc.

As for poetical devices, Mercer has several that stand out:

Philip Furia compares Mercer's lyric to Ira Gershwin's in "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Porgy and Bess. Furia points out how Mercer makes "the clash of slang and sententious diction" the core device of his lyric, "setting phrases like "don't Mess" and "latch on" next to highfalutin terms like "affirmative" and "up to the maximum."
from Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 274.

The use of Biblical illustration to support points in the sermon is just about as important:

To Illustrate my last remark,
Jonah in the whale,
Noah in the ark.

Finally the preacher's use of personification to make his congregation aware of the consequences of not bringing "gloom down to the minimum" comes in his warning that "pandemonium / li'ble to walk upon the scene."

The original, authoritative lyrics for "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" can be found in:

Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger, and Eric Davis,
The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer,
New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2009.

Click here to read Cafe Songbook lyrics policy.

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Posted Comments on "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive":


from "your brother": Were you aware that this song was at one time recorded in honor of Ernie Banks for his always doing just what the title requests? (12/4/2013 21:19:30);

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The Cafe Songbook
Record/Video Cabinet:
Selected Recordings of

"Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive"

Albums shown below include a track of this song and are listed chronologically by original recording date of the track.
Wherever possible a YouTube music video with either the same performance of the song or another performance of it by the same artist is included.

Performer/Recording Index
(*indicates accompanying music-video)

Johnny Mercer

and the Pied Pipers
(Reached Number 1 on the pop music charts.)
Album: Capitol Collectors Series

Video below includes same performance as on album above

Amazon || iTunes

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Bing Crosby

(with the Andrews Sisters)
Album/box set: Bing--His Legendary Years

Amazon || iTunes icon

Videos: Listen to Bing Crosby and Sonny Tufts from the movie Here Come the Waves, in which the song was introduced. (Not the same Crosby recording as on album above.) For the track from the album above listen on the video just above.

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Louis Armstrong
(trumpet and vocal) and His Orchestra

Album: That Rhythm Man

Video/recording below is an Armstrong performance live from Club Zanzibar, 49th and Broadway, NYC, New Years Eve, 1945--which is similar to the one on the album above. In both, Satchmo refers to the lyricist as "Brother Mercer," by implication acknowledging him as a fellow preacher.

Amazon || iTunes

For extended commentary See "The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong."

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c. 1953
Peggy Lee

album: It's a Good Day

Amazon || iTunes
Notes: Jimmy Rowles piano, Pete Candoli trumpet, Ed Shaughnessy drums, Dave Barbour guitar, Max Wayne bass. The album is a compilation released in 2004, the original track recorded from a radio transcription between 1952-54.

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Oscar Peterson

Peterson (piano), Ray Brown (bass), Herb Ellis (guitar) and Ed Thigpen (drums)
Album: Oscar Peterson
Plays the Harold Arlen Songbook

Amazon || iTunes
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Ella Fitzgerald
(Live performance, May 11-21, 1961)
Lou Levy (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar), Gus Johnson (drums),
Wilfred Middlebrooks (bass)
Album: Twelve Nights in Hollywood
(Live at the Crescendo)

Amazon || iTunes ||icon iTunes

Notes: Ella's first recorded studio version of "Accentuate the Positive" comes from Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook, also 1961, with arrangement and orchestra conducted by Billy May.
video below: same track as on Arlen Songbook album referred to just above. Pictured here is the set The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks.

Amazon || iTunes
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Aretha Franklin

album: You'll Never Know

Amazon || iTunes

"A different Aretha emerges in this recording and many others made on Columbia. She is more jazzy and in a "torch chanteuse" mode. Her singing is restrained compared to her Atlantic stuff, but that soul and passion comes thru in all the right places here. I feel her body of work on the Columbia label deserves more attention and recognition. . . . '" from amazon reviewer Great Lady Soul.
Ed.'s note: The same track as on video is on the album above. It is also included on these other Aretha albums: Sweet Bitter Love, The Great American Songbook and The Electrifying Aretha Franklin/Laughing on the Outside. It's interesting that Ella and Aretha are both doing this song at about the same time.
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Mel Torme and George Shearing

Album: Mel and George
"Do" WW II

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Nancy LaMott

with Mike Migliore on alto sax
(LaMott slows the typical tempo and Migliore complements her perfectly.)
Album: Come Rain or Come Shine

Amazon || iTunes
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Paul McCartney
album: Kisses on the Bottom

Amazon iTunes

Notes: Among other reasons for choosing to do a standards album, McCartney has offered that the music his parents loved and he grew up listening to were pivotal in his choice. McCartney adds in the album's liner notes, "It's a style that appeals to me. People will often say 'What songs do you like? Who are your favourite composers?' And I say Cole Porter, The Gershwin brothers and people like that, because the songs are very skilled. 'Cheek to Cheek' [by Irving Berlin] was always one of my favourite songs, I love the way it returns to its opening. It's a simple little trick, but as a writer I always loved that. And someone pointed out to me that I kind of did that in 'Here, There And Everywhere.' So all these influences were definitely in a lot of what we did in the Beatles."
Video: Excerpt from recording session for McCartney's "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" with McCartney, vocals; Diana Krall, piano and rhythm arrangement; Karriem Riggins, drums; Robert Hurst, Bass; John Pizzarelli, guitar.

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