While most everyone has gotten the word that this year marks the centennial of Johnny Mercer's birth, comparatively few people really know that much about the Savannah native and Oscar-winning lyricist himself.
Which is a shame. At their best, Mercer's tunes marked an early, successful example of racial crossover in popular music, and his rhyme schemes and linguistic skill remain ahead of their time decades later.
Count Ja Jahannes among the converts. The well-known local playwright, director, and composer weighs in on the Mercer myth with his own contribution, Mister Mercer, to be performed this weekend at the Lucas Theatre and starring some of Savannah's best-known vocal talents.
"I grew up singing his songs, but I didn't know it was Johnny Mercer. I did performances at the Johnny Mercer Theater and drove on Johnny Mercer Boulevard," laughs Jahannes. "Then I did about 18 months of research and found he had an absolutely fascinating personality. Many people portray him as kind of humble and gentle, which he was, but I saw a master showman who knew the right thing to say at the right time. He upstaged some of the best celebrities of the time on their shows."
A key, and unusual, aspect of Jahannes's play - directed by Jaime White - is the spotlight on Mercer's wife, Ginger, a bawdy chorus girl when they met, just off an affair with Bing Crosby.
"She was a Brooklyn Jew and this was Savannah - she wasn't really that welcome here," says Jahannes.
Despite heavy partying and various infidelities, their stormy marriage lasted 45 years until Mercer's death in 1976 (Ginger died in 1994).
Mercer's music reflected his Savannah roots, including a healthy dose of African American folkways he picked up from childhood. (Contrary to uninformed opinion, Mercer never lived in the Mercer House downtown - that's named for a distant ancestor, who interestingly also never lived in that house. Johnny Mercer grew up near the Isle of Hope/Skidaway Island area of Savannah on what was then the Back River, since renamed Moon River in his honor.)
"He had an innate talent and creative ear. He would go wherever there was music and language that spoke to the real world and made it palatable," says Jahannes. "He picked up things like ‘de Beaufort boat done come,' from the guys on the docks."
More than anything, Mercer simply loved the sound of language. "One of his great talents was as a linguist," says Jahannes. "He was able to use language that nobody would put in a song and have it make sense. And that language comes from the people. He was able to capture that language and show you the beauty of it, and develop rhyme schemes to enhance it - very, very complex rhyme schemes - and yet people would sing the music."
In casting the show, Jahannes says "I wanted the best singers, because we didn't want to do what so many people do - change the melodies and go off on all these runs. We wanted to do Johnny Mercer tunes the way Johnny Mercer did them, because he was a consummate singer and showman."
To that end, he says "we ended up with some of the best singers and actors in the city, Ray Ellis and Jamie Keena, and two of the best actresses, Pamela Sears and Pepi Streiff, who took on Ginger. And she's from Brooklyn and she's Jewish!"
When: Fri. Nov. 13, 8 p.m.
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
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