Johnny Mercer at 109: a tribute

The most beloved artist in Savannah music history gets a birthday celebration on Tybee Island

JOHNNY MERCER is just as beloved in death as he was in life – his legacy is something to behold, and he’s forever embedded in the fabric of American history.

Some of his most memorable compositions, like the heartbreaking “Moon River” or the Tin Pan Alley staple “Lazy Bones,” are perhaps more recognizable by name than the man himself, but he’s nonetheless become a huge source of pride in the local arts community for his contributions to music history.

Even after his untimely passing in 1976, Mercer’s music continued to make an impact. Prior to his death, he’d become a fan of Barry Manilow — who was approached by Mercer’s wife after his passing with some unfinished lyrics.

Some of those lyrics became the song “When October Goes,” which was a hit for Manilow in 1984 and has endured as a jazz standard ever since.

Mercer’s legacy has continued thanks in part to the Friends of Johnny Mercer organization, who notably staged a tribute show for years at the Johnny Mercer Theater. This year, FJM are organizing a similar tribute to the legend, this time at the Tybee Post Theater on Tybee Island.

Local pianist Chris Chandler, who’s producing the event, is a Savannah native who was contacted by FJM about being involved in this year’s celebration.

“We met, and of course they’re meeting all year long to keep alive the legacy of Johnny Mercer,” he says. “They said, ‘Well let’s do the birthday celebration this year.’ They didn’t have a huge budget to do something in downtown Savannah, but I’ve done several shows at the Tybee Post Theater. I turned the Friends on to my contacts at the theater – it’s a wonderful venue, and there’s not a bad seat in the theater.”

Chandler says that Mercer, were he alive, would be pleased with the venue considering his association with the island.

“He spent a lot of his time out on Tybee,” Chandler says. “He captured the essence of what the Lowcountry is about, which is the feel that we have here. It’s very unique to Savannah and Charleston.”

Chandler has a history with Mercer’s music, having been the President of FJM in 1996 before being contracted to play in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

“During that time, the Postal Service had issued a stamp honoring Johnny Mercer. And Ginger, his wife, had passed that year,” he says.

“It was a heartfelt year for me.”

Chandler speaks fondly and excitedly about Mercer’s career, with a deep understanding and knowledge of the impact he made on music.

“Every year there’s usually a celebration of life, because he was certainly the biggest star in the music world from Savannah,” he says. “We have a lot of talent here, but Johnny made it in the industry way beyond average.”

Mercer spent years in New York and Hollywood, writing with all the major composers of the era and providing lyrics for some of the most memorable songs of the last hundred years.

“I was very fortunate that when I moved back to Savannah as a young man, I’d ran into an arranger who worked with Johnny. That arranger’s name was Ken Palmer. He was a very talented, successful pianist in Savannah. Johnny loved Ken, and tried to take him to New York to become an arranger. Ken didn’t like being out of Savannah – he loved Savannah. I got to work with Ken, so I had a great introduction to how that music sounds. The musical gestures that you find in that style of music, which is Big Band-era sounds,” he says.

The Tybee Post Theater performance will feature a cast of local, regional, and national performers that all have notable careers in their own right but bond over a love of Mercer’s timeless music.

“I’ve got Jim Wann, who’s been successful on Broadway. His big success on Broadway was Pump Boys and Dinettes, it was a huge hit. Jim’s wife is on the board of the Tybee Post Theater, and he’s going to open the second act. He has an album out of Mercer [music].”

Other performers slated for the event include alto sax player and former director of Jazz Studies at Armstrong Randall Reese, singer/songwriter Gary Swindell, and Keith Gay. Up and coming guitarist James Lee Smith will also perform.

“He’s a fantastic musician,” Chandler says of Smith.

The performers will be accompanied by Chandler on piano as well as a group known as the Tybee Post Trio – Johnnie Kennedy on bass, Marc Cordray on drums, and Reese on sax. Other highlights include a performance from Gay and his two songs, Cody and Keith Jr., performing Mercer’s “Old Black Magic.”

Of all the songs that will be performed at the show, Chandler says there’s one in particular that holds a special place in his heart – a Christmas song he wrote with Mercer.

“I’m a choral director at Robert Groves High School, and few years ago I’d written a song called ‘A Merry Christmas To You All.’ I’m teaching here and the kids are all millennials, so they’re in the digital age so to speak. But I was so amazed in trying to find some common ground with these really bright students, they sang the theme from Homeward Bound,” he explains.

“Then I introduced the Christmas song that I co-wrote with Johnny, and they’re going to sing it at this concert. I’m so excited that they’re doing this, because they deserve it. And the song deserves it, in a way. It gives me so much satisfaction.”


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