The composer of more than 1,500 songs, Johnny Mercer is one famous personality that called Savannah home. Johnny Mercer is best known as a lyricist, but he also composed music. He was also a popular singer who recorded his own songs as well as those written by others. From the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, many of the songs Mercer wrote and performed were among the most popular hits of the time. He wrote the lyrics to more than fifteen hundred songs, including compositions for movies and Broadway shows. He received nineteen Academy Award nominations, and won four Best Original Song Oscars.

Mercer wrote some of the most popular standards in the American songbook, including “Jeepers Creepers”, “Fools Rush In”, “That Old Black Magic”, “Blues in the Night”, “Skylark,” “Moon River” and “One for My Baby. Johnny Mercer is to Savannah what James Brown is to Augusta and what Little Richard and the Allman Brothers are to Macon.

Johnny Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia. His father, George Anderson Mercer, was a prominent attorney and real estate developer, and his mother, Lillian Elizabeth.  The construction of Mercer House in Savannah was started by General Hugh Weedon Mercer in 1860 (although never finished by him; the next owners of the house finished it), later the home of Jim Williams, whose trial for murder was the centerpiece of John Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Neither the General, nor Mercer himself, ever lived there.

Mercer liked music as a small child and attributed his musical talent to his mother, who would sing sentimental ballads. Mercer’s father also sang, mostly old Scottish songs. The family’s summer home “Vernon View” was on the tidal waters and Mercer’s long summers there among mossy trees, saltwater marshes, and soft, starry nights inspired him years later.

Johnny Mercer’s exposure to black music was perhaps unique among the white songwriters of his generation. As a child, Mercer had African-American playmates and servants, and he listened to the fishermen and vendors about him, who spoke and sang in the dialect known as “Geechee”. He was also attracted to black church services. Mercer later stated, “Songs always fascinated me more than anything.” He had no formal musical training but was singing in a choir by six and at 11 or 12 he had memorized almost all of the songs he had heard and became curious about who wrote them.

Despite Mercer’s early exposure to music, his talent was clearly in creating the words and singing, not in playing music, though early on he had hoped to become a composer. In addition to the lyrics that Mercer memorized, he was an avid reader and wrote adventure stories. His attempts to play the trumpet and piano were not successful, and he never could read musical scores with any facility, relying instead on his own notation system.

A life-size bronze statue can be found in the beautiful Ellis Square. Sculpted by artist Susie Chisholm, the statue was unveiled on Nov. 18, 2009, which would have been Mercer’s 100th birthday. He is remembered as one of America’s greatest lyricists.


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