The lyrical world of Johnny Mercer

Savannah native Johnny Mercer was a prolific lyricist who composed more than 1,400 songs, including “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” and whose personal papers, correspondence, first drafts and afterthoughts are held at Georgia State University in the Johnny Mercer Collection.

It is a fascinating archive, and thumbing through it is like strolling through the mind of an offhand genius.

But papers in a box won’t show you the essence of the man, said Gordon Vernick.

This is why the school stages the Johnny Mercer Celebration every other year or so, said Vernick, professor of music and director of jazz studies at GSU. The tradition of performing Mercer’s songs continues Friday with a concert at the Rialto Center for the Arts.

“Music goes in your ears, not your eyes,” said Vernick. “I love museums, they’re really cool, but we have to turn this museum into a zoo. A zoo is a living thing, it’s organic, it’s smelly, it’s noisy.”

Vernick’s GSU jazz band, with guest trumpeter Joe Gransden and guest vocalist Carmen Bradford, will give life to two Mercer songs that have been dormant until now. Mercer wrote lyrics for a musical about the hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer, leaving behind manuscripts and a tape recording of a small combo performing the tunes, but the show was never produced.

What this tells us is that the Mercer Collection is more like a seed bank than a museum. With water and sunlight, even more Mercer creations could sprout from this nursery. (There are 17 more songs in the Mike Hammer show alone.)

Museum or not, the immersive experience of the archive offers a glimpse of Mercer’s life, his family, his many collaborators and his working methods that is unavailable elsewhere. Here is his almond-colored Princess 300 typewriter, here is the Oscar he used for a doorstop, here are the handwritten songs, with cross-outs and rewrites, that have touched the lives of millions.

What made Mercer special?

“It’s the hybridity of that Southern culture,” said Mercer biographer and GSU professor Glenn T. Eskew, who drew heavily on the archive for his book “Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World.” Mercer, he said, brought a breath of Savannah to the Big Apple.

The American songbook took shape in New York City, where Irving Berlin and the Gershwins made Tin Pan Alley the center of pop culture. Mercer, who was born in 1909 and began writing songs at 15, gravitated to New York immediately after high school, with the hopes of becoming an actor.

Finding roles scarce, he fell back on his songwriting skills, and was soon collaborating with the greats. His colloquial language and rural imagery connected with listeners in ways that his smarty-pants New Yorker friends did not.

Mercer also appealed with his laid-back style and his instinct of celebrating the simple things in life: love, dreams, and goofing off. One of his early hits was “Lazybones” written with Hoagy Carmichael, which declares, “Long as there is chicken gravy on your rice/Ev’rything is nice.”

The characters in his show “Li’l Abner” elevated indolence to an art-form, singing, in “If I Had My Druthers,” of watching daisies grow and raindrops fall. Work? They’ve considered it, but “This thing called employment/Detracts from my enjoyment.”

Behind this soothing conceit was a mind that never stopped working. Mercer’s pencil editing on his own copy of “Druthers” includes the thought “Improve?” next to the timeless line “While I’m doing nary a thing that’s necessary/I’m happy as a cherry-stone clam.”

Certainly his drive to create contributed to his remarkable success. He won four Oscars for best song, a benchmark that has since been met but not surpassed, and sent 14 songs to the top of the Hit Parade.

He was also an excellent businessman, co-founding Capitol Records, and making millions when the label was sold to EMI.

Yet there is something dreamlike and non-corporate in the man who wrote both words and music for “Dream”

“They called him ‘Cloud Boy,’” said archivist Kevin Fleming, of Mercer’s many collaborators, who included Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren and Richard Whiting, with whom he wrote “Hooray for Hollywood,” the theme song for his adopted home town.

Fleming helps guide scholars, writers and members of the general public who are curious about Mercer’s life. His offices are in the GSU library, near the Mercer Reading Room, and a few floors up from a permanent vest-pocket exhibit of Mercer memorabilia, including photographs, manuscripts and recordings. (Visitors can queue up an old Capitol 78 rpm record in a restored Wurlitzer jukebox and listen to Louis Armstrong singing “Blues in the Night.” Hint: the music actually comes from a hard-drive hidden inside the jukebox.)

Despite his accomplishments, Mercer never played an instrument, except one-finger piano, nor did he ever score any music, except in his own primitive code, using letter names for notes. The first line in the melody of “I Want to Be Around” he notated as “A-E-E-E-E-E.”

“When I found out that he couldn’t read or write music,” said Fleming, “that blew my mind.”

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