Eddie Wilson is a cat who’s been around.
By his own account, he’s seen “all of the USA and many different countries” in his varying capacities as a musical director, singer/songwriter and journeyman pianist.
A native of Cleveland, Oh., at various points in his career to date, Wilson recorded commercial jingles, crafted original background scores for The Guiding Light soap opera, accompanied Tony Orlando as a touring keyboardist, and saw his own compositions used at both the G8 Summit and the 25th Jubilee for Pope John Paul II.
Until recently, Wilson served as the Musical Director for the Savannah Theatre, home to such long-running, mass-market stage productions as Lost In The ‘50s and Jukebox Journey. He was recently offered the chance to organize and direct the city’s annual Birthday Tribute Concert to our own native son, the legendary tunesmith Johnny Mercer.
In the past few years, that beloved free event (sponsored by the City of Savannah) featuring top-shelf local talent has been held at the Lucas Theatre, which holds a little over 1,000 people. This time, it returns to the 2,500-seat theater named in Mercer’s honor, inside the Civic Center complex.
David Oppenheim, Historian for the Friends of Johnny Mercer (a non-profit group which celebrates and preserves the legacy of the influential and commercially popular lyricist and composer of such timeless classics as “Jeepers Creepers,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and more than 1,000 others) says this time around, no tickets are required, as there is plenty of room.
He is optimistic, however, that since this show falls on what would have been Mercer’s 99th birthday (he passed away in 1976), and kicks off a yearlong centennial celebration of the man’s achievements, that the venue will be filled to capacity with young and old alike.
I spoke to Eddie Wilson immediately following a rehearsal for the upcoming two-hour show.
Is this the first time you’ve been involved with the Friends of Johnny Mercer tribute concert?
Eddie Wilson: I first sat in at a Friends of Johnny Mercer event a few years ago, at the old Hannah’s above the Pirate’s House. David Duckworth was in charge of it, and we’re great friends. This is the first time in over six years here that I’ve had enough time available to take on a project of this size. I’m sure glad they called.
When did you first become aware of Mercer’s work?
Eddie Wilson: Moving to Savannah for me is like a chocoholic moving to Hershey, or Switzerland or someplace! Every piano player loves songs like “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Skylark,” and “Fools Rush In,” because they’re so fun to play — having been composed by the great composers that Johnny worked with. The popularity of the songs and the pure communication in the lyrics make Johnny’s music perfect for entertainers. I’ve been playing his music for as long as I’ve been out there playing — which is about twenty years now.
How would you describe the importance of Johnny Mercer’s accomplishments to someone who is unfamiliar with his career?
Eddie Wilson: Johnny was many things in his career: a radio host, a singer, a recording studio executive, and even though he wrote some songs all by himself, the great contribution to American arts happened when circumstances paired him with excellent composers like Henry Mancini, Hoagy Carmichael, and Harold Arlen. You might come across one of Johnny’s novelty songs like “Hooray for Hollywood” or “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and think maybe he just got lucky and had a few hits. It’s only after you’re exposed to the depth of his work and your exposed to enough of his incredibly perfect lyrics that you get an appreciation for his giant legacy. There are a over a thousand great songs in Johnny’s book. He’s also responsible, through Capitol Records (which he cofounded) for the success of countless people we consider to be legends in the business.
What sort of influence has his work had on your own approach to playing and singing?
Eddie Wilson: Johnny’s greatest successes came in collaboration with others, so he’s teaching me every time I get together with another artist to create music. Also Johnny’s style of entertaining folks with easy, good manners and plain talk has been really good for my career in entertainment. Especially here in Savannah.
Can you point to a specific song that Johnny Mercer authored which had a profound impact on your own musical evolution?
Eddie Wilson: I was touring the country with a blues band the first time I head “Come Rain or Come Shine” as done by Ray Charles. It was total perfection, the way he took complex harmonic constructs and bent them to serve both his style and Johnny’s intentions for the story of the song. I remember the moment because it gave me something to shoot for musically in my life. I knew I wanted my music to do what Ray made Johnny’s music do for me.
Tell me a bit about what folks can expect from this show - how is it structured, and what sort of material will be included?
Eddie Wilson: The show features four of Savannah’s favorite singers singing Johnny’s music. We’ve got Huxsie Scott, Roger Moss, Kim Polote and Trae Gurley each giving voice to the regions and the people that Johnny met and wrote about. That’s why it’s called America Through Johnny’s Eyes. Songs range from the classic “Moon River” to songs from his Broadway shows, to some great songs folks might not have heard before. The show’s starting with a special appearance from the Savannah Theater cast, who graciously agreed to do a song for us before they go back to the Savannah Theater for their 3 pm show. We’re also going to have the Savannah Arts Academy’s Skyelite Jazz Band and the Savannah State University Gospel Choir, and during one special part of the show Ben Tucker will be joining us on bass. I’m really looking forward to working with Ben. All the people on stage are world class.
How much rehearsal time is going into this production?
Eddie Wilson: There’s a lot of preparation going into the show. I’ve worked extensively with the singers to customize the arrangements to their unique musical styles. We’ve got blues, jazz, Broadway, popular standards and dreamy ballads. The background vocalists (Cat Yates, Rebecca King, and Christy Wilson) have been working hard for a couple weeks now, and they sound great!
Is there any particular segment of the show you are most impressed with?
Eddie Wilson: There are a lot of interesting moments in the show that I’m really looking forward to doing on Sunday. I have favorite songs in each singer’s set that I’m anxious to do, and I can’t wait to hear the work our musicians are going to do. We’ll hear solo work from Bobby Lee Rodgers on guitar, Ricardo Ochoa on violin and Jody Espina on saxophone, among others. What a blessing to have all these great musicians on stage!If they asked you to be at the helm of this event in the future, would you consider signing up again?
Eddie Wilson: Well, this coming year is the centennial year and there are a lot events scheduled, culminating in the 100th birthday concert next fall. This organization is as passionate about great entertainment as it is motivated to honor Johnny’s legacy and educate America about the great treasure he is to Savannah. The hundredth birthday concert is going to be an amazing night, I’d be honored to be offered a chance to help shape that show.
Annual Johnny Mercer Birthday Tribute Concert
When: Sun., 2 pm
Where: Johnny Mercer Theater
Cost: Free admission & parking (doors open at 1:15 pm)