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Moon River man
Legendary Johnny Mercer to be honored at Georgia Days 2009
Johnny Mercer in an archival photo - photo by Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library

EVEN AFTER winning four Oscars, songwriter Johnny Mercer never forgot his roots in Savannah.

Memories of the sultry South followed Mercer throughout his lifetime, and inspired hits such as Moon River and In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening. Savannah never forgot Mercer, either, and continues to honor him long after his death in 1976.

The Georgia Historical Society is honoring Mercer during Georgia Days 2009, which will be held Feb. 3-14. “This year is the centennial of Johnny Mercer’s birth,” says GHS President and CEO Dr. Todd Groce. “We are pleased and proud to join others across the state as we honor this native son whose remarkable 50-year career was deeply grounded in and influenced by his Savannah and Georgia roots.”

The kickoff event for Georgia Days 2009 is Pardon My Southern Accent: The Life and Legacy of Johnny Mercer in Word, Song and Art. This free program will be held Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 6 pm at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church.

While many people remember Mercer as a songwriter, not many realize he also was an artist, says Christy Crisp, GHS Director of Programs.

“Following the event itself will be a reception in the square which will feature exhibits of some Johnny Mercer original watercolors, as well as a portrait of him,” Crisp says.

Painting was Mercer’s hobby. “We want to point out the many creative sides of Johnny Mercer,” Crisp says. “Most all of the works that will be displayed are landscapes. They include scenes that are reminiscent of Savannah, but also of California and the West, the different places he probably lived and traveled.”

Jim Wann has recorded a CD of Mercer covers and has done research on Mercer at Georgia State. He not only will perform some of Mercer’s songs, he’ll talk about Mercer’s life and share stories about Mercer received from Savannahians who knew him.

“We’ve gotten stories from people both local or who have been out of town a while,” Crisp says. “There also are stories passed on by older people to family members. These are good and often funny memories.”

Mercer joins Flannery O’Connor as a more contemporary honoree for Georgia Days. Last year’s celebration honored Gen. James Oglethorpe, Savannah’s founder.

Wann is a professional composer/lyricist and performer in musical theater and in concert. He is the principal author/composer of the Broadway hit, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and sang and acted the role of “Jim” in its original New York incarnations.

Pump Boys was nominated for several awards, including the Tony, and is the longest-running musical in Chicago theater history. Wann also has had several Off-Broadway successes, the most recent being The People vs. Mona, co-written with his wife, Patricia Miller.

Wann is a part-time resident of Tybee Island, and when the GHS approached him about the Mercer show, he readily agreed. “As a songwriter myself, I explore the way he does things in songs, how he tells a story and the grace and style his music seems to have,” Wann says.

Wann and Miller read some stories about Mercer as part of a lecture series held at the Unitarian Church of Savannah a few years ago. Many people there had their own memories of Mercer.

“Sharing their stories is the most fun part of these kinds of occasions,” Wann says. “I enjoy singing and playing, but it is exciting to get people talking.”

Miller is originally from Vidalia, and introduced Wann to Georgia after the couple met in New York in 1994. “I had lived a lot in New York and a lot in North Carolina since my college days, but had never spent any time in southeast Georgia,” Wann says. “When we got serious about each other, I visited her. We went to Savannah and came to Tybee. I was fascinated with the landscape and taken by the beauty of the place.”

Wann also was taken by Mercer’s music. “One of the first things I heard was an old Emma Kelley cassette tape,” he says. “I really liked the way she sang those songs.

“We went to see Miss Emma. She played You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To because we were still engaged at that point. Through her and then just realizing the way you start to realize when have you have a mild interest in a subject, I became interested in Johnny Mercer.

“You hear the phrase ‘I’m an old cowhand,’ Wann says. “Who knew it was a song by Johnny Mercer and not something that just emerged from the folk songs of the West?”

Mercer slipped from style to style. “Songs like Days of Wine and Roses and Charade are so poignant,” Wann says. “He had amazing range as a songwriter.”

The Savannah landscape and the natural beauty surrounding it inspired Mercer, Wann says. “Everything that really built Johnny Mercer as a kid came out in the form of Moon River,” he says.

“One of the reasons people love Johnny Mercer so much is because they love the same things so much,” Wann says. “They can see them right outside their window - the water, the light, the slow Southern way of life.”

Wann decided to do a CD of Mercer’s music. “It was part of having come down here,” he says.

“I always liked the way Audrey Hepburn did Moon River,” Wann says. “It’s in between parts of the story, while she’s sitting on the fire escape with a small guitar, reflectively singing Moon River.

“I started singing it and played it at a concert with a group of mine,” he says. “We do coastally themed material and slipped Moon River in there. The audience liked it so much.”

Wann began doing research on Mercer in earnest to prepare for recording.

“I was a teen in the ‘60s. I heard a lot of folk music, a lot of soul, a lot of rock music. Some of those styles made it onto the album with kind of a delicate touch. The song always comes first,” he says.

“I tried to do them as he might have done if he had grown up in the ‘60s instead of the ‘20s,” Wann says. “Not as if he was surrounded by big bands and energetic jazz, but if he’d been surrounded by folk musicians and soul music from Motown and Memphis, and rock music from great American and British bands.”

The CD was recorded in a church in Charlotte, N.C. “I really do associate a lot of his lyrics with a sense of spirituality,” Wann says.

“It’s obvious in his lyrics of Accentuate the Positive. It’s kind of what our new president is trying to tell us. It’s timeless, like reading from the Bible if it had been written by a hipster like Johnny Mercer.”

Wann particularly looks forward to sharing the stories about Mercer that were submitted to the GHS. “I hope that people who come to the show and have stories about Johnny Mercer will get up and tell them,” he says.

“Sandy West from Ossabaw sent in a great story of dancing with Johnny during the ‘30s,” Wann says. “Someone else sent in a story about Johnny Mercer telling an impromptu story in an old Gullah-Geechee dialect about alligators and rabbits, like he was making it up on the spot. Apparently, he was a really charismatic man, as well as an incredible songwriter.”

The kick-off is just one of many events planned for Georgia Days 2009, including the parade on Feb. 12 and the annual awards gala on Feb. 14.

“Our inaugural gala was a wonderfully well received success,” says Laura García-Culler, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Society. “Magic in the Moonlight will provide our members and friends with a memorable, very romantic night out on February 14, Valentine’s Day.” cs

Pardon My Southern Accent: The Life and Legacy of Johnny Mercer in Word, Song and Art

When: Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 6 p.m.

Where: Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church

Cost: Free