Sadie Vimmerstedt, A Youngstown Ohio widow, wrote to Johnny Mercer in 1961 offering him an idea for a song, an idea that became the song's title: "I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart." Two years later Mercer answered her letter apologizing for the delay. Apparently the songwriter had been or was about to take up the idea and write the song. Once he did, he was not happy with it, in fact, according to Bob Corwin, Mercer's jazz pianist son-in-law, he thought the song he had written, both words and music, "stunk." He left it on a shelf where it remained until a song plugger named Phil Zeller with a reputation for convincing singers that a song was worth a try saw "I Wanna Be Around" and asked to be allowed to plug it. Mercer, in disbelief said, "You've gotta be kidding. That's the worst song I ever wrote." Zeller took it anyway and persuaded Tony Bennett to give it a try. Bennett was looking for a follow-up to "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and introduced "I Wanna Be Around" on Johnny Carson's debut Tonight Show, October 1, 1962.
In a typically generous act by Mercer, he quickly provided Vimmerstedt with a contract for a 10% share of the royalties, despite the fact that she had only sent him and title for a song for which he had written both music and lyrics, and she had made it clear to him,
It was his to do with what he wished. I never expected to be included in his plan, never expected any royalties.
After getting to know and like her through correspondence, he raised it to 50%, an arrangement that provided her with a substantial sinecure for the rest of her days -- and beyond for her family. The royalties changed her life from being one who barely had enough money to bury her husband to one that allowed her to travel the world and even enjoy a degree of fame. She never stopped communicating her appreciation to Johnny (and to Tony Bennett as well). Although usually she reveled in the fact that she had "become a celebrity overnight," at one point, after a particularly hectic travel schedule calling for her to appear on TV shows like The Grammys, she wrote to Mercer, "I'll tell you something; I'm getting tired of show business." (Gene Lees, Portrait of Johnny, pp. 231-34).
Tony Bennett sings "I Wanna Be Around" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"
for BBC Music Live Festival at Leeds Castle in Kent, England, UK May, 2000.
(Ed's. note: Tony's recollection that Mercer wrote the song especially for him doesn't correspond to the widely known story recounted above -- though he certainly had the privilege of introducing it. Maybe the super song plugger Phil Zeller used such a line to wet Tony's appetite. In any case Mr. Bennett had the good taste to recognize a great song when he saw one, and "I Wanna Be Around" has become a standard thanks to Mercer, Bennett and a pinch of Vimmerstedt.)