This classic drinking song was written by Harold Arlen (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) for the 1943 film The Sky's the Limit, where it was performed by Fred Astaire. The song is about a lovelorn guy who drinks away his girl problems at a bar - he has one drink for the girl, and another one for the ride home. In the movie, Astaire's character gets tipsy but still manages a world class dance routine before smashing every piece of glassware for his big finish.
If there had been a way for Ginger Mercer to omit the song from the book Our Huckleberry Friend, she likely would have done it. There is no trace of "I Remember You" in the book she co-authored with Bob Bach about her husband's life and lyrics. However, "One for My Baby" could not be similarly swept aside. The song has been recorded countless times, including four times by Frank Sinatra, and is considered a Johnny Mercer classic.
The inspiration for the song was Mercer's affair with Judy Garland, just as it was for "I Remember You." He met Garland in 1941 when she was just 19 years old, 13 years his junior. Even by Hollywood standards the affair was nothing short of scandalous. Mercer was married to Ginger, a former showgirl, and Garland was still, in many ways, a child. Perhaps that is why the lyrics, co-written by Mercer and Harold Arlen, indicate something that is about to end:
But this torch that I found
Its gotta be drowned
Or it soon might explode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road.
The affair never really ended, though. Mercer never divorced his wife, either. He and Ginger were married for 46 years until his death in 1976, but many understood that it was Garland who had his heart. Unfortunately for Ginger, she realized it, too. It is also fitting that the song is really a lament to Joe, the bartender. Mercer was a notorious alcoholic and it is not hard to imagine him telling this tale to a bartender at "quarter to three." Since legend has it that he wrote the song on a napkin at the legendary New York bar P.J. Clarke's, maybe he really did tell the bartender all about it. Mercer supposedly called the bartender, Tommy Joyce, and apologized for not working his name into the song because it was easier to write lyrics that rhyme with Joe than Tommy.
The most famous version of this song is by Frank Sinatra, who first recorded it in 1947 when he was at Columbia Records, and again for the Young at Heart soundtrack in 1954. His definitive version, however, was in 1958 for Capitol Records. Released as the last song on his album Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, he recorded it with arranger Nelson Riddle at Capitol's studios on Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. His lost love at the time was the actress Ava Gardner, who he was married to from 1951-1957.
When Sinatra performed the song in clubs, it was a dramatic moment: a single spotlight would shine on his face and he would sing it accompanied by just his piano player Bill Miller and a cigarette. For the 1958 session, a crowd gathered in the studio to watch Sinatra record, and Dave Cavanaugh at Capitol recreated the club atmosphere by turning off the lights except for one that shined on Sinatra. "The atmosphere in that studio was exactly like a club," said Sinatra. "Dave said, 'Roll 'em,' there was one take, and that was that. The only time I've known it to happen like that."
This melancholy song could also serve as a poignant farewell, which Bette Midler proved when she sang this to Johnny Carson on his May 21, 1992 episode of The Tonight Show - the last one with guests. Midler customized the lyrics by singing, "John I know you're getting anxious to close."
The song has been featured in nearly 40 television shows and movies, but there is probably no performance that is as memorable as Midler's rendition on The Tonight Show. Carson was retiring after 30 years as the show's host. She collaborated with songwriter Marc Shaiman, who suggested "One for My Baby" as her final ballad to Carson, but Midler was not convinced it was the right song. Midler went so far as to toy with the lyrics to the final verse – Shaiman recognized that changing Johnny Mercer lyrics took some guts – but Shaiman was not sure she would actually sing it until the words came out of her mouth. The camera shot of Carson watching Midler serenade him with a song about bittersweet endings, tears in his eyes, is classic television and won Midler an Emmy.
Some of the many artists to record this song include Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka, Lena Horne, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Cab Calloway, Iggy Pop, Ella Fitzgerald and Chuck Berry.
Harold Arlen said of this song: "It's another typical Arlen tapeworm. Johnny took it and wrote is exactly the way it fell. Not only is it long – 48 bars – but it also changes key. Johnny made it work I don't care what you give him, he'll find a way to save it."
A tapeworm is jargon for songs exceeding the 32-bar form.
Sinatra revisited this song several times after Only the Lonely - in 1962 for Sinatra & Sextet: Live in Paris, in 1966 for Sinatra at the Sands, and in 1993 (joined by Kenny G) for his Duets album.
The song, along with his other torch songs, would remain an emotional touchstone for Sinatra as he grew older, says Charles Pignone, Senior Vice President of Frank Sinatra Enterprises. He explained in a Songfacts interview: "It's a lot different if you're a man in your 40s singing those songs, and then you have a different view of it when you're in your late 70s. There were many times in the later years where he would get emotional."
While Sinatra always listened to his recordings when they were first cut, he didn't like to listen to himself too much, but sometimes he didn't have a choice. He recalled an incident in The Sinatra Treasures by Charles Pignone: "I seldom listen to my own recordings. I was once on Catalina Island years ago at a place called Christian's Hut, and Duke Wayne was at the bar. Suddenly, on the jukebox comes my recording of 'One For My Baby,' and John Wayne turned to me and said, 'What the hell do you listen to when you're alone at three o'clock in the morning?"