No visit to Savannah, Georgia is complete without paying tribute to one of the city’s favorite sons, songwriter supreme Johnny Mercer. Although he won four Academy Awards (for “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Moon River,” and “The Days of Wine and Roses”), worked on Broadway and was a best-selling recording artist, he always held Savannah close to his heart. His love of nature, African-American culture, and the language of the South permeated his work as a lyricist and vocalist.
If you’re in Savannah it’s easy to find living tributes to Mercer: there’s a bronze statue of him in a town square, a marker in front of his birthplace, his gravesite and more. My wife and I were lucky enough to get a tour from longtime Mercerphile David Oppenheim and a dynamic woman who works for the Johnny Mercer Foundation, Dianne Thurman. (You can learn more about their widespread work HERE
Together we visited the Back River, where young Johnny spent a lot of time in his youth. It was later renamed “Moon River” in honor of the song that it inspired, and there are streets named for it nearby. At Pinpoint, he would listen to the black women who worked “picking” oysters and crabs as they sang hymns and gospel music, which fascinated him no end. He also sought out what were then called race records featuring black performers. Those influences are clear in the work of the man who famously wrote, “My mama done tol’ me…” in “Blues in the Night.”
We rode around Burnside Island, which was purchased in its entirety by Johnny’s father in 1909, including a majestic house that became the family’s summer residence—and still stands, intact. (Johnny’s dad suffered a financial blow in the late 1920s and struggled to make good to his investors. Decades later when Johnny felt flush he repaid every debt incurred by his father and cleared the books.) There are still many people in and around Savannah who have clear memories of Johnny and other members of his family.
I was lucky enough to see Mercer perform an evening of his songs at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan years ago, but I was a fan long before that. When I was a kid I used to sift through my parents’ old 78rpm records. One of my favorite gatefold albums was a collection of tunes from Walt Disney’s Song of the South performed by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers. I played “Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place” and the other songs over and over again. My first acquaintance with Mercer was as a performer, not a songwriter. I also didn’t know at the time that he was cofounder of Capitol Records, which released those 78s I listened to so often.
I don’t need to tell you more, as there are many places to read about and listen to Johnny Mercer. But as a Mercer completist, I made a recent discovery. Warner Archive released an obscure 1935 RKO musical called To Beat the Band that not only includes one of his earliest movie scores (written with bandleader and composer Matty Malneck) but shows Johnny on-camera as a vocalist in a pop band. It isn’t what one would call a classic, but it has some amusing moments; the music is high-spirited and fun. It’s available on a double-bill with another early effort called Old Man Rhythm (1935) which also sees Mercer doing double-duty on and off-camera. You can purchase the double-feature DVD from TCM HERE
What I do recommend, even more than those obscure movies, is a visit to Savannah, even if there isn’t a film festival when you happen to be in town. It is a beautiful, gracious city with great food, friendly people and a charm all its own—not unlike the songs written by its famous home-town boy.