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VISITING JOHNNY MERCER’S MOON RIVER

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.

johnny-mercer-birthplace

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.”

moon-river-1

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.

moon-river-drive

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.

johnny-mercer-78rpm-album

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.

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Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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