Johnny Mercer (1909 – 1976)

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Felicia Lowman as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2014.

The Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) historical marker was dedicated on November 18, 2006. View the Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) historical marker listing.

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1. Johnny Mercer marker text, 2014. Courtesy of Felicia Lowman.

2. Photograph of Mercer as a child. From the Mercer Family Papers, MS 553.

3. Photograph of Mercer reading the paper. From the Mercer Family Papers, MS 553.

4. Statue of Mercer reading a book in City Market, 2014. Courtesy of Felicia Lowman.

5. Mercer burial site, 2014. Courtesy of Felicia Lowman.

6. Mercer burial site, 2014. Courtesy of Felicia Lowman.

7. Mercer burial site at Bonaventure Cemetery, 2014. Courtesy of Felicia Lowman.

The following essay is by SCAD student Felicia Lowman, 2014. 

John Herndon Mercer was born in Savannah, Georgia on November 18, 1909. To the world he was known as Johnny Mercer. He and his family resided in an upscale Savannah neighborhood on Gwinnett Street. By common consensus, Mercer is the most famous native-born Savannahian.[i] Growing up, he was exposed to eclectic genres of music ranging from gospel to jazz. Although Mercer left Savannah as a young man to pursue a career as a lyricist, he never forgot the roots and upbringing in Savannah that became the inspiration for much of his music.[ii]

To understand the enormous success of Johnny Mercer, one must look at both sides of his family. According to Glenn T. Askew, “Mercer descended from a line of Scots linked to Stuarts who fled to colonial America, settling in Virginia and Georgia.”[iii] Mercer’s father, George A. Mercer, Jr., was a prominent attorney and real estate developer. He passed on the patrician code of honor to Johnny, his half-brothers Hugh, Walter, and George, and his sisters Nancy and Juliana. His mother, Lillian Ciucevich Mercer, was of Croatian descent and instilled in all of her children the importance of family devotion and hard work.

The Mercers lived in a spacious two-story home located at 226 East Gwinnett Street. According to ward notebooks at the Georgia Historical Society, the grey wooden house was built for Mrs. E.L. Cohen in 1883.[iv] Most of the two-story homes that were erected at that time included large ceilings and windows.[v] Often, Mercer would sit outside and observe the hustle and bustle of the busy street. He liked to mimic all of the sounds in the natural, Savannahian world around him.

Mercer’s conventional upbringing in an affluent family was in sharp contrast to the kind of company that he kept while growing up in the South. Most of the people he spent time with were considered lower in class than his family. Some of his happiest memories were spending time on his father’s lap, as he belted out the tunes “Genevieve,” “Sweet Genevieve,” “In the Gloaming,” “When You and I Were Young,” and “Maggie.”[vi] Over the years, Mercer entertained his friends and associates by telling them that “he hummed back to his Aunt Hattie at six months old.”[vii] The Mercers were regular attendees of Christ Church in Savannah; each Sunday, Johnny secured a spot singing in the choir, thus honing his musical talent (fig. 2).[viii] As a young man, he would often frequent clubs and theaters. Strolling through the streets and hearing the soulful sounds in the air of African American jazz, blues, and spirituals had a profound effect on Johnny. Often, Mercer’s family would have to go out to search for him, only to find him at record shops or theaters. When he would go missing, Mercer was usually found enjoying the sounds of African American music that came from West Broad Street.[ix]

Mercer attended the Woodbury Forest School, where he received a stellar education with a strong emphasis in English and history.[x] He composed his first lyric, Sister Susie; Strut Your Stuff at the age of fifteen, without much fanfare from his peers.[xi] While Mercer was at Woodbury Forest, his family was dealing with a much bigger crisis. The downturn in the real-estate market in Savannah during the late 1920s forced Mercer’s father, George, to make the decision to allow the Chatham Savings and Loan to take over the G.A. Mercer Company.[xii] Although George Mercer was able to obtain a bank loan to resume his business, he was still faced with the heavy burden of debt. To make matters worse, he was no longer able to pay for Johnny to study at Princeton University, as his other relatives had.

Since Johnny Mercer did not have the financial means to attend college, he decided to go to New York City to follow his passion to become a lyricist. Mercer chose New York because the city was known for having a thriving arts community. While in New York, he was seen in a few plays and met his future wife, Ginger Meehan. More success came for Mercer once he moved from New York to Hollywood, where his career as a lyricist took off. He wrote over a thousand songs in the next few decades, with almost four hundred heard in films such as Hollywood Hotel, Cowboy from Brooklyn, Going Places, Daddy Long Legs, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and most notably, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (fig. 3).[xiii] One of Mercer’s most remembered songs, “Moon River,” won him an Oscar in 1961 and was lip-synched by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The song was inspired by his childhood summer home on the Burnside Island on the Back River.[xiv] Mercer received three additional Oscars in the Best Song category for “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” and “Days of Wine and Roses.”[xv]

Wanting to branch out further in his career, in 1949 Mercer helped to establish Capitol Records with Glenn Wallichs and Buddy De Sylvia.[xvi] Capitol Records would enjoy much success by signing Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee to its roster. Mercer’s goal was to create a record company that fostered a supportive environment for its artists. He also founded the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Even with his success, Mercer never forgot his father that had guided and loved him from his childhood. When George Mercer died in 1940, he still owed $300,000 to bankers. Although Johnny was not legally obligated to pay off of his father’s debts, he decided to pay the $300,000 to the bank for “moral reasons.”[xvii]

Johnny Mercer rests today in Savannah at Bonaventure Cemetery. Although he has been dead for nearly forty years, his presence is still felt through his songs, which shape popular culture. According to Philip Furia, Mercer was inspired to write one of his best-known songs, “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,” to give back to his country during the difficult days during World War II. The song became a catchphrase for many to dwell on the positive aspects of their lives.[xviii] When in conversation about Hollywood, California, sometimes people will still hum Mercer’s song “Hooray for Hollywood.”

Over the years, Johnny Mercer has been remembered locally and nationally for his contribution to society. His hometown of Savannah, Georgia has named streets and a theater in the Civic Center after him. In the City Market area of downtown Savannah, there is an elongated statue of Mercer reading a book (fig. 4). An elaborate burial site sits in Bonaventure Cemetery (figs. 5-7). On the other side of town, the house that he grew up in is a tourist attraction for sightseers. Mercer’s image has even been reproduced on stamps. The songwriter never forgot about his hometown of Savannah, and in turn Georgians have not forgotten about him.

[i] Gene Lees, “The Making of Johnny Mercer,” Woodbury Forest Magazine and Journal (Winter-Spring 1999), 17.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Glenn T. Eskew, Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter For The World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 21.

[iv] Ward Stephens, 224-226. Binder 19, Ward Notebooks, MS 1320.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Lees, “Making,” 20.

[vii] Ibid., 19.

[viii] Ibid., 20.

[ix] Diane S. Thurman and Sandy Traub, “If We Forget: African American Influences,” Johnny Mercer Centennial, Special Commemorative Supplement (2012).

[x] Lees, “Making,” 20.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Lees, “Making,” 21.

[xiii] Lees, “Making,” 22.

[xiv] Sandra Mudge, “Dream Maker: A Trip Down Moon River,” Connect Savannah, (September 7-13, 2001).

[xv] Johnny Mercer historical marker.

[xvi] Lees, “Making,” 22.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Philip Furia, Skylark (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003), 134.

Glenn T. Eskew, Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter For the World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013).

Philip Furia, Skylark (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).

Gene Lees, “The Making of Johnny Mercer.” Woodbury Forest Magazine and Journal (Winter-Spring 1999): 17-22.

Sandra Mudge,  “Dream Maker: A Trip Down Moon River.” Connect Savannah (Sept. 7-13, 2001).

Ward Stephens, 224-226. Binder 19, MS 1320. Georgia Historical Society.

Dianne S. Thurman and Sandy Traub. “If We Forget: African American Influences.” Johnny Mercer Centennial, Special Commemorative Supplement (2012).