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Countdown to Savannah: Johnny Mercer, Savannah's Songwriter

Kathy Wood (kaydee)

In early 2007, we started our official Countdown to Savannah. Each Sunday, we posted a different topic about this special city where we met for our first Great Slow Travel Gathering in Spring 2008.

With 63 posts over 14+ months, we learned a lot about the many facets of this historic, hospitable and intriguing American city. Our weekly posts touched on Savannah's history, famous people, architecture, food, culture, surrounding area and much more. We hope this information acquaints you with Savannah, entices you to visit this historic city, and prepares you for a very memorable trip.

A True Son of the South

The man from Savannah who wrote the song “Hooray for Hollywood,” was nominated for 19 Academy Awards, and took home four Oscars. Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) was a “true son of the South,” whose roots and heart were firmly placed in the unique world of Savannah. “His love affair with music didn't come from the glitter of Broadway or Hollywood, but as a country boy growing up near a small park, where on Sundays he went to listen in wonder to a local band play Irving Berlin.” (Johnny Mercer Foundation website)

Born in Savannah in 1909, Johnny was a member of a well-to-do and prominent Savannah family. His great-grandfather Hugh Mercer (who built the famous Mercer House on Monterrey Square) was a Confederate general in the Civil War. An earlier Hugh Mercer was a Revolutional War brigadier-general. Johnny’s father lost the family fortune during the financial turmoil of the late 1920’s. Instead of going to college, Johnny left Savannah and went to New York to pursue a career in show business, initially hoping to become an actor.

Move into Music

Johnny’s focus soon shifted to music, and during a career that spanned more than four decades, he became one of the most influential figures in the popular music of his time. Most experts consider him the greatest American lyricist. In addition to writing lyrics for more than 1,000 songs (including songs for 90 motion pictures and six Broadway shows), Johnny Mercer composed some of his own music and was a popular radio personality and recording artist. He was also a successful music industry executive. The founder and President of Capitol Records, he discovered and nurtured other performers like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Nat King Cole.

Johnny teamed up with many noted composers including Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Henry Mancini, Hoagy Carmichael and Marvin Hamlisch to write some of the most memorable songs in American popular music. His four Oscar winners were “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," and "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe." Other famous songs include “Jeepers Creepers,” “Charade,” “Laura,” “That Old Black Magic,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and “Something’s Gotta Give.” Many of his songs have become jazz classics.

The movie soundtrack for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (set and filmed in Savannah) is a tribute to Johnny Mercer, and features Mercer songs recorded by a variety of contemporary artists. The film opens in Bonaventure Cemetery, eventually zooming in on Johnny’s grave, where the stone bears an inscription from one of his songs—“And the Angels Sing.”

Today in Savannah you can drive down Johnny Mercer Boulevard, see a show at Johnny Mercer Theatre, sit on the Johnny Mercer memorial bench in Johnson Square, enjoy a Johnny Mercer exhibit at the Savannah History Museum, and pay your respects at his grave in the family plot in Bonaventure Cemetery. The river behind Johnny and Ginger Mercer’s former home on Burnside Island outside of Savannah was renamed “Moon River” in his honor.

When you feel like getting in the mood for sultry Savannah, pour a glass of wine, turn down the lights, settle back, and savor a little Johnny Mercer music. Enjoy a sample of some of his best-known songs-- including Doris Day singing "Hooray for Hollywood"-- here.

Learn more about Johnny Mercer:

Johnny Mercer Educational Archive - an extensive hobby website

The Johnny Mercer Foundation

Georgia State University - Johnny Mercer archives

Songwriters Hall of Fame - tribute to Johnny Mercer (inducted in 1971)

The New Georgia Encyclopedia – overview of Johnny's life and work

My Huckleberry Friend - The Lyrics of Johnny Mercer - interesting article about Johnny's music

And the Angels Sing - another interesting article

Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer - a recommended biography

See Johnny Mercer's Savannah connection:

Savannah's Huckleberry Friend - slide show

Enjoy the music of Johnny Mercer (Amazon links):

My Huckleberry Friend: Johnny Mercer Sings the Music of Johnny Mercer
Capitol Collectors Series: Johnny Mercer
Frank Sinatra sings the select Johnny Mercer
The Complete Johnny Mercer Songbook
Ella Fitzgerald sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook

Resources

All About Savannah: Links to many information pages about Savannah (where to eat, where to stay, places of interest, getting around town, and more)

Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood


Kathy is a former Human Resources executive who now works as a consultant and part-time college professor. She and Charley also lead The Luberon Experience (www.luberonexperience.com), a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence.

© Kathy Wood, 2007


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