Growing Up in Savannah
Johnny’s childhood in Savannah had a tremendous impact on his future career as a songwriter. Through his parents, his church, and his interactions with others, he learned to appreciate and love music. Southern life and culture would also become a significant influence on his writing later on as he found inspiration in the land of his youth.
An Early Love of Music
Johnny was born in Savannah, Georgia, on November 18, 1909. His father was an attorney and had a real-estate business, and he had a sister and three half brothers. Music was a big source of entertainment at the time, and Johnny grew up listening to his parents sing. His mother loved to sing ballads while his father favored turn of the century standards.
When he was six years old, Johnny began singing in the choir at Christ Church. He sang there until he left Savannah and was always entertaining his family and friends with performances. Johnny went anywhere he could to hear music.
I was always drawn to music and once followed a band around the town when I was six, which my mother must have found difficult to understand. And of course songs always fascinated me more than anything.
Before the age of digital music, the Mercer family relied on a Victrola phonograph to listen to music records. Johnny was constantly going to record stores to hear new music. In these stores, he would often listen to music by African-American musicians – kept separate from music by white performers during the time of segregation.
His family had a second home on Burnside Island, outside of Savannah. The family would spend summers there, his father driving the Model T automobile back and forth into Savannah each day to go to work. Their home backed up to the Back River, which was later renamed Moon River after one of Johnny’s most famous songs. Johnny and his friends would pass their days exploring the island’s wilderness. The beauty of the island would stay with Johnny for the rest of his life, and he would often draw on images and experiences from this time when writing lyrics.
Growing up in Savannah, Johnny attended Massie School in the city. Following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, Johnny went to the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia for high school. Here Johnny began experimenting with writing songs and poems, sketching and testing out rhyming word pairs as he embarked on his journey to becoming a lyricist. He also participated in literary and poetry clubs and was known for his humor writing.
Despite his love of music and his interest in writing songs and lyrics, Johnny never learned how to play an instrument. His parents continually encouraged him to learn piano or trumpet, but he didn’t pursue it. Even as a successful singer and songwriter, he never learned to read or write music properly. Instead, he would write lyrics to harmonies that were already written or use his own notations if he came up with the musical tune to accompany his lyrics.
Johnny and Geechee Culture
Johnny grew up in coastal Georgia in the early 20th century, a time when racial segregation affected many areas of life. However, segregation didn’t necessarily extend to children and black and white children were allowed to play together until they were about 14 years old. Johnny had playmates who were often the children of black servants employed by his family.
In the summers, the Mercer family would escape the heat of Savannah for their home Vernon View on Burnside Island. A community of African Americans lived on the island, and their ancestors had been slaves before the Civil War. This group of people spoke an African-American dialect called Geechee, which was unique to the low country of Georgia.
Johnny, who was always interested in language, became fluent in the Geechee dialect during his summers at Vernon View, as did his mother. For the rest of their lives Johnny and his mother would sometimes speak to each other in Geechee dialect.
Not far from Vernon View, back on the mainland, was a small community called Pin Point. The African Americans in Pin Point caught and sold crabs, shrimp and oysters and sold them through the Pinpoint Oyster Factory. Johnny would go over to buy food for the family dinner and would end up staying and listening to the women talking and singing hymns as they shelled crabs or shucked oysters.
Johnny would also go to black churches in Savannah and Pin Point to listen to the black hymns and gospel music, which was different from the music he sang in the choir at Christ Church. He also attended the African-American Easter Day parade every year to hear the bands play.
Unlike many other songwriters of his time, Johnny was exposed to the music and language of southern African Americans. When Johnny was growing up and began writing songs, popular music had begun to absorb influences of black musical culture, such as jazz and blues. Segregation was so prevalent that it could dictate that whites should only listen to white music and blacks should only listen to black music, but Johnny contributed to the merging of music into a new sound.