Ever now and again, one really reaches out and touches your heart and gives you something beyond the general patronage of my tour. Which I’m always honored by. After all, they could spend their money LOTS of places, but are spending it with you on that day.
One of the bigger story presentations I do in Bonaventure is at the songwriter/singer (poet in his world), Johnny Mercer’s grave for all of the reasons he deserves as such an accomplished artistic and business spirit. Cole Porter once said, “Johnny Mercer is beyond category.” He wrote over 1500 songs, won 4 Oscars with 19 nominations and founded the biggest record company in the world, Capitol Records.
I grew up with my mother always having a piano & organ in the living room and teaching music in our house. I learned to play to some degree even though it never took really, but other than singing out of The Elvis 101 Songbook, my brother and I sang occasionally out of the Johnny Mercer books too. And nothing improves the mood for me than putting on some Johnny Mercer. Living in Savannah of course gives it something “extra”, and it reminds me of a simpler human feeling of living. The world is always chaos but its good to escape for awhile and feel more lovely about it inside of such songs.
Through the years, I’ve had people who worked with Johnny Mercer at Capitol who have taken my tour and not too many months back, had a woman on the tour that had a memory of him on Regency Street in London around 1970 or so (he died 1976). She was all of 21 and was in a sandwich shop near her home and while in the busy place she heard more than one person chattering “Thank you Mr. Mercer” and “You’re welcome Mr. Mercer.” She looked over and saw him eating and naturally, being a fan of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” she went up to him and said, “Excuse me Mr. Mercer, I just wanted to say I’m such a big fan.” He looked up from his sandwich and with a big smile, piped, “So am I!” Classic Johnny. Always “On.” The tour had a good laugh over that and how interesting to have met him, had such a moment, and then finding yourself at a person’s grave so many years later to share such a story? It left me envious quite honestly. I’ve met my share of Savannah characters but the closest I will ever get is next to his grave. I did meet his wife, Ginger, an amazing woman before she died in 1994 but that’s another story for another time.
Elizabeth “Ginger” Meltzer as Broadway Show Girl & Later As V.P. Founder of Capitol Records and yes, Mrs. Mercer!
So couple of weeks ago, on one of those Savannah days in November where — well you can’t believe its so perfectly warm and sunny in November — I had a pitch perfect combination of the weather, a group of tourists and some level of good feeling that seemed too good to be true but so wonderful when you know its there and you ride the wave of it all. Attending that day was an older couple and the wife, Terry, had a khaki satchel over her shoulder which at first glance sort of fit their “safari” look as a couple. I paid it no real mind but it would have such special relevance after awhile..
So about 90 minutes in to what at times is a 3 hour story extravaganza, we arrived to the Johnny Mercer family plot on the Johnny Mercer Aisle and I did the big story show at this plot per usual. There’s truly something very spiritual about this plot too. It has this gorgeous live oak and its branches seem like a parasol spreading out protecting the family plot, giving it shade but just enough sun too. And I’ll share with you one of the mysteries of Bonaventure here. The cemetery has 27 miles of azaleas that bloom in March and April. The azaleas around this one patch of cemetery blooms all year long. Rarely do I see them without flowers, even in colder months. I can’t figure it out but I don’t try to either. To me the explanation is in the Mercer plot itself and all of the love and legacy that lives here and that so many people come here adoringly and as they stand there together, pour over their minds remembering all of the life moments they shared around Mercer’s music. Humans feel free to open all of their heart’s chambers there. Their minds too. That’s what fertilizes those flowers. I’m sure of it.
As I went on to tell my version of Johnny’s tale, it was then this lovely couple revealed their true purpose. They announced that they’d brought something to give to me personally. At first I was kind of speechless because I’m so “giving” in my story mode, that I’m not used to having someone present me with gifts in the middle of it! Hah! I kind of felt like someone was talking to me in a dream and that’s the best way I can explain it. Which yes, this is symptomatic of being both in the storytelling zone and the Bonaventure one at the same time.
So once I sort of shifted mental gears, the woman, Terry, started again and said, “Well, when we heard that you were so into Johnny Mercer, we knew we had to bring you these things for your collection.” While the tour looked on also surprised and intrigued, they pulled from their bag a collection of photographs and papers and Terry went onto explain the following living memory of Johnny Mercer and in a very distinct, elegant, Scottish accent I might add.
“When I was a younger woman, in my teens, I lived in Edinburgh and my mother worked at a very grand hotel there where lots of famous people stayed so I was used to my mother (Molly), telling me about seeing Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and lots of different celebrities in movies and music. I’d gone into the lobby one day and was waiting for my mother to take a break and suddenly I hear a man say, “Hey there Molly,” and I turned to see this short man walking through the lobby and really he was nothing to look at, but my mother replied, “Hello Mr. Mercer,” and they began talking to each other. It was then I realized it was Johnny Mercer. My mother knew that I was fan and when she took a moment to introduce me, and I expressed myself as much, he was legitimately surprised that someone so young knew who he was and took great interest in this fact. He told me he was in Europe to record an album with Bobby Darin and that when he finished it he would send me an autographed copy. He took all of my information and to my great surprise he sent my mother and I an autographed photograph(See Images) and then later some correspondence from his hotel in Paris, a couple of letters from California, a Christmas card, and of course, an autographed copy of the album, “Two of A Kind” with Bobby Darin.”
As Terry handed me all of this, I wanted more than anything to sit down with her and just talk but knowing I had a tour to finish, I was very fumbly and felt that having to just move along was somehow an insult to this lovely gesture so did all that I could to show my appreciation as we continued to walk onto the the last few grave sites of the day. Sometimes you just feel so blessed by the actions of others that you kind of want to cry with happiness and this for me was one of those times. I’m not sure if it will make sense to others, but it was like two angels had given me such treasures and then just walked back into the clouds. I wanted more time with them for such thoughtfulness.
Which is the thing. Even now as I’ve been typing this and scanning the images I’ve come to realize that I’m holding these very personal items 2nd hand. 3 hands ago? They were in his. Its 3 degrees of separation in my world. Johnny Mercer took the hotel’s stationery in Paris, probably smoking and a drink nearby, inserted into the typewriter and typed it up reflecting on the meeting with the young girl who was the woman on my tour. And yes, as you’ll read, flirting openly with them both. Perhaps he was just being “Johnny,” but maybe as he typed, it wasn’t a far cry from the feeling of a piano and as he thought himself the poet first, songman after, such letters may have seen more close to the heart of himself and his craft. Perhaps he whistled while he did and maybe flashes of song lyrics came to his lips, words for a future song. Who knows, maybe he even thought, “that’s witty” and jotted a note to the side. Surely there was music playing nearby? Yes, its fun to romance such things. And as I said earlier. I can’t bring him back to life. I’ll never get to really meet him. I can just be inspired in my stories by his spirit and conjure him up for audiences graveside. No, he doesn’t need me to do this but I love doing it. Johnny was known to be very personal with his fans. We’re a lot a like that way too. Mike Douglas once reflected to Tom Waits that he was the most personal, down to earth guy you could ever hope to run into in Hollywood. I don’t doubt it. He was from Savannah after all. He was everyone’s huckleberry friend.
Even now, Johnny Mercer is making magic happen through moments like this in Bonaventure…