By Linda Sickler/SMN
Bless us, we residents of the Coastal Empire do love our homegrown hero, Johnny Mercer.
On April 21, a celebration of all things Mercer will be held at Tybee Post Theater. “Johnny Mercer on Tybee” will be hosted by Jim Wann, a Broadway actor, writer and producer who spends six months a year on Tybee.
“A lot of elements are going into this,” Wann says. “Tybee folks and Savannah folks feel such a kinship with Johnny Mercer. He said the kinds of things in songs we all think.
“People feel his spirit in the air,” Wann says. “It’s the spirit that draws us to this place. When we’re celebrating Johnny Mercer, we’re really celebrating Savannah and Tybee and the air that surrounds us.”
A lyricist, composer, songwriter and singer, Mercer was also a record label executive who co-founded Capitol Records. He recorded his own songs and those written by others.
Many of the songs Mercer wrote and performed were among the most popular hits of the time. He wrote the lyrics to more than 1,500 songs, including music for films and Broadway shows.
During his career, Mercer received 19 Academy Award nominations, winning four Best Original Song Oscars, including awards for “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” He died in 1976 at the age of 66 of a brain tumor.
The unique production will include music, storytelling and archival footage of Mercer on talk shows in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“One of the things we want to emphasize is that Johnny Mercer was the creator of outdoor songs,” Wann says. “In the music biz, that’s an actual term.
“His songs are full of birds and critters and rivers and creeks, the rhythms of the South that all Southerners are familiar with that others become familiar with through his songs,” Wann says. “There’s a symbiosis between Johnny Mercer songs and things that enjoy living in this place.”
Mercer often drew upon his Georgia heritage for inspiration and ideas. Born in Savannah, he also had well-established ties to Tybee Island, where legend says as a youth, Mercer could be found sneaking bootlegged liquor with his older brothers and cousins at Tybrisa, and attending dances on the beach.
In addition to Wann, the show will feature singers Claire Frazier and Patti Kelly. Pianist Steven Bryan will lead the onstage ensemble, which will include Ryan Kelly on bass, Matt Fallin on drums, Larry Golden on sax, Bobby Hanson on harmonica and Wann on guitar.
“I’m a ‘pardon my Southern accent’ kind of singer of Johnny Mercer songs,” Wann says. “Claire Frazier is a jazz singer who has been all around the world, opening for Ella Fitzgerald and other accomplishments like that.
“We also have Patti Kelly, who is married to Ryan Kelly, a grandson of Emma Kelly. Ryan is going to play and Patti is going to sing.
“Stephen Bryan of Tybee, a keyboard ace who helped me put together last November’s benefit concert, is going to oversee the band, which also includes other local favorites,” Wann says. “There’s going to be a lot of variety in the music.”
A book signing also will be part of the evening with Wann reading from Julius “Boo” Hornstein’s “Sites and Sounds of Savannah Jazz” and Polly Wylly Cooper’s “Tybee Days.” The authors will sign books in the lobby.
One of Wann’s goals is to bring singers and musicians together.
“I’d like to have a community of singers and musicians here that get together as often as they would like,” he says. “One of my goals is to get some of these folks together to try to be involved in an ongoing thing at the Tybee Post Theater.”
The Mercer show is a result of a collaboration between Wann and the Post Theater.
“Being here on Tybee six months of the year, I want to contribute whatever I can that will work for their supporters and the public. Next Christmas, we’ll probably do a holiday-themed show.
“This is springtime, and it seems like a good time to celebrate Johnny Mercer music,” Wann says. “It’s so full of life and feels good.”
But even the sad songs feel good when they’re Mercer’s.
“Even the sadder songs, if they’re done really well, really touch your heart and make you feel things,” Wann says. “He was such a gifted writer and a great man. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know him.”
Mercer’s many sides are reflected in his lyrics, Wann says.
“There are not many people who can write at his level,” he says. “The other sides to him are fascinating.
“There was Johnny Mercer, the businessman who founded Capitol Records. There was Johnny Mercer, the Southern gentleman everyone remembers being so kind and friendly.
“There’s the somewhat darker side that came out when he had too much to drink,” Wann says. “In these videos, I see someone a bit edgy.”
In New York, Wann is known for composing and performing Broadway and off-Broadway hits, including “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” “Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James, A Saloon Musical,” “The People Vs. Mona” and “King Mackerel & The Blues are Running.”
“Pump Boys” was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical in 1982. It has been presented across the country and around the world.
In addition to his work in New York, Wann supports and participates in a number of Savannah musical organizations. He has served as a judge and board member for the American Traditions Competition, and in 2015, the Savannah Philharmonic performed one of Wann’s songs, “Christmas in Savannah” at the annual Holiday Pops concert.
“I was very excited to be asked to develop a Mercer show by the Tybee Post Theater and I think the audience will really appreciate the mix of Johnny Mercer tales, music, pictures and other memories we’ve put together to pay homage to one of the best songwriters of the 20th century,” Wann said.
“It’s highly entertaining, thoughtful, lighthearted and personal. I’m eager to treat Mercer fans to this glimpse back to the time he spent on Tybee, and I hope those who love Mercer will tell all their huckleberry friends.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Johnny Mercer on Tybee”
When: 7:30 p.m. April 21
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.
Cost: $20-$25 for adults; $10 for children/students