Johnny Mercer is one of the best-known lyricists and singers of the 20th century, with a style distinctive for its catchy words that frequently evoke memories of love and home. Mercer wrote such classic songs as "Moon River," and was the singer of others like "G.I. Jive." He was also one of the co-founders of Capitol Records, and performed as their main singer for many years. Few biographies of Mercer contain much negative commentary; as Wilfrid Sheed says in his biography: "No one has ever wanted to write anything bad about Mercer, nor has anyone ever wanted to read it." 1Mercer sang and wrote over a thousand songs, many of which hit the top of the charts, won four Academy Awards, wrote six Broadway shows, and created the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was praised by critics for staying with the times, introducing modern slang and lingo to keep his songs up to date and commercially successful.
Sheed explains that Mercer had a "laid-back, easygoing Savannah style." 2 His Georgia roots are reflected in the themes of many of his songs, demonstrating affection and longing for home. His family had lived in Savannah for generations before Mercer struck out for New York to pursue an acting career. Although he physically left Savannah behind at that time, he always considered it to be his home and remained very attached to his family. When contemplating why he had never written a song about Savannah, he remarked:I guess the idea intimidates so that I've been afraid to try. If it weren't a giant hit, I'd feel I let them down...They'll just have to be satisfied with a lot of songs that 'sprang' from there...like 'Blues in the Night,' 'Moon River,' and... a State Song ["Georgia, Georgia"] that the Georgia Legislature turned down after they had requested it to be written, as being too 'Savannah' for the whole state.
The South remained present both in his life and in his lyrics and songs. By introducing "black" dialect into some of the most popular songs of the time, he crossed boundaries many others were unwilling to do. He also showed others in the nation that Georgia was not a backwoods area in terms of the arts; real talent, musical and written, can be found in the region.
He continued to evoke his Georgia heritage in his work, and was eventually able to pay off a great debt that his father had accumulated during the Depression; though he tried to keep this remuneration secret, it was widely praised by the press and fans as an act of Southern honor. Mercer died in 1976 of complications following brain surgery and was buried in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia. In 1995 the Georgia legislature declared April 19, 1995, to be Johnny Mercer Day.
Sources: Allen, Patrick. Literary Savannah. Athens, GA: Hill Street Press, 1999.
Friedman-Abeles photo of Johnny Mercer; from Ward Morehouse collection, Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
The Georgia State University Library Popular Music Archives holds Johnny Mercer's personal papers and various other related collections documenting Mercer's career as lyricist, composer, performer and businessman.
Born: November 18, 1909
Died: June 25, 1976