Lost Johnny Mercer tunes come to life courtesy of GSU music program

Johnny Mercer, the prolific songwriter from Savannah, left many unpublished tunes in his archives. Georgia State University is doing what it can to bring those tunes to light. Photo: courtesy Georgia State University

Johnny Mercer, the prolific songwriter from Savannah, left many unpublished tunes in his archives. Georgia State University is doing what it can to bring those tunes to light. Photo: courtesy Georgia State University

Johnny Mercer, the Bard of Savannah, wrote or co-wrote perhaps 1,500 songs, including such standards as “Hooray for Hollywood,” “Moon River” and “Blues in the Night.” But he never mastered the art of musical notation.

He didn’t need to. He was mostly a lyricist. On those songs for which he wrote both music and lyrics, he would plunk out a melody on piano, usually with one finger. Then he’d write down the result in his own peculiar code, using the letter names of the notes, and arrows to indicate whether the melody was rising or falling.

With these primitive tools he wrote music and lyrics for some gorgeous rhapsodies, including “Dream,” and the amusing, satirical “I’m an Old Cowhand.”

While co-founding Capitol Records, pursuing his own recording and performing career and collaborating with more than 230 composers, he also wrote songs that never saw the light of day. Most of them reside in the Johnny Mercer archives at Georgia State University, where there are notes for lyrics and melodies, and demo tapes of Mercer singing unpublished tunes backed by a pianist or a small combo.

Johnny Mercer’s cryptic code for the melody of one of his unpublished tunes, “Letter from my Mother,” demonstrate his unique system of musical notation. Image: courtesy Georgia State University

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Having those materials locked in the stacks at GSU is akin to keeping a beautiful car in the garage. “Music goes in your ears, not your eyes,” says Gordon Vernick, professor of music and coordinator of jazz studies at GSU. The school’s devotion to Mercer includes a commitment to staging biennial concerts of Johnny Mercer’s music, which it will do Sunday, Feb. 11, at downtown’s Rialto Center for the Arts.

The show will feature Joe Gransden on trumpet, vocalist Francine Reed, and the GSU Jazz Band under Vernick’s direction. It will also bring to life five unpublished Johnny Mercer songs, arranged by graduate student Jason Collier.

Collier, 36, not only arranged the tunes but became a co-writer on at least one.

Reading Mercer’s cryptic code outlining the melody for an unpublished song called “Letter From My Mother,” Collier found himself at a loss.

“I couldn’t figure out what he wanted, and I asked Kevin (GSU archivist Kevin Fleming) if it was all right to write my own melody,” Collier said. “Kevin said it was all right, so I just ran with it.”

On some other tunes there was more to work with. In 1967 Mercer wrote 19 songs for a never-produced musical, “Mike,” about Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled detective, Mike Hammer. Mercer had engaged an arranger to help flesh out his one-finger melodies and went on to record demo tapes of the tunes, some on cassette, some on reel-to-reel, some on vinyl.

For a song from “Mike” called “The Cat with Nine Lives,” Collier eyeballed Mercer’s code, then listened to the demo tape. It helped him decipher Mercer’s intentions, and also demonstrated how the skeletal melody might be fleshed out under Mercer’s supervision.

“It kind of made sense to me,” said Collier. “You could see from the syllables, the way they fit with the notes.”

How did Mercer’s arrangers derive harmony from those bare bones?

“This is my hypothesis,” said Collier. “Back then, with Tin Pan Alley, there was a certain sound anyway that went with these melodies that everybody already had in their heads. It wasn’t going to be anything too harmonically advanced or outside the formulaic model. Kind of like pop tunes today.”

Collier took some liberties with the material, putting a “Ray Charles spin” on an arrangement of another tune from “Mike,” “Ballad of a Private Eye.” But he was always aware of the company he was keeping.

“You know, I’m some unknown dude, nobody knows who I am, and I don’t want to not do service to this great music Mercer has written,” he said.

“I did my best; it was really daunting,” said Collier. “My feeling was, ‘don’t mess this up; don’t screw this up.’ ”

Johnny Mercer Tribute, 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 11, $37 and up, Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth Street, Atlanta; rialto.gsu.edu; 404-413-9849.

The Johnny Mercer archives, which include a permanent exhibit on his life and work, are open to the public, and are located at the Georgia State University Library, 100 Decatur Street, SE, Atlanta. 404-413-2880; http://library.gsu.edu/mercer