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."1 Mercer 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.
1Sheed, Wilfrid. The House that Georgia Built. New York: Random House, 2007. 263. Print.
Friedman-Abeles photo of Johnny Mercer; from Ward Morehouse collection, Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
The following works containing lyrics or other writing by Johnny Mercer can be found in the Hall of Fame collections of the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library:
Johnny Mercer's Music Shop. [Vocal scores.] New York: Edwin H. Morris, 1944.
Moon River. [Vocal score.] Words by Johnny Mercer; music by Henry Mancini. New York: Famous Music, 1961.
The Geechee Cook Book: Savannah, Georgia. [Gene Nichols]. Introd. "Opinion" by Johnny Mercer. 1973.
Our Huckleberry Friend: The Life, Times, and Song Lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Ed. by Bob Bach and Ginger Mercer. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stewart, 1982.
Johnny Mercer: The Life, Times, and Song Lyrics of Our Huckleberry Friend. Ed. by Bob Bach and Ginger Mercer. Atlanta: Cherokee Publ., 2009.
The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Ed.by Robert Kimball. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009.
Georgia State University Library's Special Collections department is the major repository for Johnny Mercer's personal papers, and also for various other related collections documenting Mercer's career as lyricist, composer, performer and businessman.
The Georgia Historical Society holds a small collection of materials related to Johnny Mercer's family and career.