“Moon River” is a song composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It received an Academy Award for Best Original Song for its performance by Audrey Hepburn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). It also won Mancini the 1962 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and won Mancini and Mercer the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. The song has been covered by many other artists.
It became the theme song for Andy Williams, who first recorded it in 1961 and performed it at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1962. He sang the first eight bars of the song at the beginning of each episode of his eponymous television show and named his production company and venue in Branson, Missouri after it. His autobiography is called “Moon River” and Me. Williams’ version was never released as a single, but it charted as an LP track that he recorded for Columbia on a hit album of 1962. Cadence Records’ president Archie Bleyer disliked Williams’ version, as Bleyer believed it had little or no appeal to teenagers. Forty years later in 2002, a 74-year-old Williams sang the song at the conclusion of the live telecast of the NBC 75th Anniversary Special to a standing ovation.
The song’s success was responsible for relaunching Mercer’s career as a songwriter, which had stalled in the mid-1950s because rock and roll had replaced jazz standards as the popular music of the time. The song’s popularity is such that it has been used as a test sample in a study on people’s memories of popular songs.
Comments about the lyrics have noted that they are particularly reminiscent of Mercer’s youth in the Southern United States and his longing to expand his horizons. Robert Wright wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, “This is a love sung to wanderlust. Or a romantic song in which the romantic partner is the idea of romance.” An inlet near Savannah, Georgia, Johnny Mercer’s hometown, was named Moon River in honor of him and this song.
Mercer and Mancini wrote the song for Audrey Hepburn to fit her vocal range. The lyrics, written by Mercer, are reminiscent of his childhood in Savannah, Georgia, including its waterways. As a child, he had picked huckleberries in summer, and connected them with a carefree childhood and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Although an instrumental version is played over the film’s opening titles, the lyrics are first heard in a scene where Paul “Fred” Varjak (George Peppard) discovers Holly Golightly (Hepburn) singing them, accompanied by her guitar, on the fire escape outside their apartments.
There was an eruption of behind-the-scenes consternation when a Paramount Pictures executive, Martin Rackin, suggested removing the song from the film after a tepid Los Angeles preview. Hepburn’s reaction was described by Mancini and others in degrees varying from her saying, “over my dead body”, to her using somewhat more colorful language to make the same point. Hepburn’s version was uncredited in the original movie soundtrack.
An album version recorded by Mancini and his chorus was released as a single and became a number 11 hit in December 1961. Due to unpublished charts in Billboard, Joel Whitburn’s Top Adult (Contemporary) Songs variously reported the song as a #3 or #1 easy listening hit. Mancini’s original version was also featured in the film Born on the Fourth of July (1989). In 1993, following Hepburn’s death, her version was released on an album titled Music from the Films of Audrey Hepburn. In 2004, Hepburn’s version finished at #4 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.
“Moon River” was a hit single for Jerry Butler in late 1961; it reached number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December, two weeks before Mancini’s recording reached the same spot. Danny Williams had a hit version of the song that reached number one in the UK in the final week of 1961. Although Andy Williams never released the song as a single, his LP Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes (1962), was certified gold in 1963 for sales grossing over $1 million.
Hundreds of versions of the song have been recorded, and it has been featured in numerous media. Mercer recorded the song in 1974 for his album My Huckleberry Friend. In 2007, saxophonist Dave Koz recorded a version from his standards music album, At the Movies, sung by Barry Manilow. In 2013, Neil Finn and Paul Kelly performed the song on their Goin’ Your Way Tour, during which their performance at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall was recorded for the live album, Goin’ Your Way, released the same year. The title of the album comes from a phrase in the song’s chorus: “Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way”. Lawrence Welk’s 1961 instrumental version was featured in Mad Men season 6, episode 13, “In Care Of” (2013). A version of the song was featured in Asif Kapadia’s documentary film, Amy (2015), about Amy Winehouse. Winehouse’s version, sung at age 16 with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2000, is the opening song in the film.