Anyone newly arrived in Savannah will learn soon enough about Johnny Mercer — the guy cast in bronze at the City Market end of Ellis Square. A Wilmington Island boulevard is named for him, as well as the largest theater in downtown Savannah.
A native of this city, Mercer (1909–1976) was one of the most successful American songwriters of the mid–20th century; primarily a lyricist, he gave the world “Moon River,” “Skylark,” “Blues in the Night,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and a hundred others.
The Johnny Mercer Theatre — part of the Savannah Civic Center complex — will reverberate with the words and music of the hometown hero Sunday, as The Friends of Johnny Mercer celebrate what would have been his 101st birthday.
One Savannahian who doesn’t need a Mercer primer is vocalist Kim Polote, who’ll be among the soloists at Sunday’s event.
“Mercer’s music is timeless,” she says. “He was, in my opinion, a lyrical genius. The foundation of his music was laid here in Savannah, no matter where he went. The term ‘huckleberry friend,’ that’s so Southern.
“You know, he said that he was born with rhythm; as a baby, his ‘goo–goos’ were probably lyrical words.”
Four years ago, Polote issued a CD, I Thought About You, consisting of all Mercer material.
She’s still thinking about him.
“So much of what he has done has been a musical foundation for my life. In different stages of my life. I had many huckleberry friends, you know? I was singing his music in chorus when he died in 1976. I graduated from St. Vincent’s in 1976.”
At Sunday’s tribute show – musically directed, as always, by Eddie Wilson – Polote will be joined by vocalists Huxsie Scott, Roger Moss and Trae Gurley.
Those four are the cream of the crop, Savannah–wise, when you’re talking about jazz, swing, rhythm ‘n’ blues and the light–touch torch tunes that were Mercer’s specialty.
Although she performs as part of a jazz trio weekly at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Polote doesn’t care to be referred to as a jazz singer.
“I’m a singer,” she says. “I’m a musical ambassador, that’s what I am. In traveling, with all the people that you meet, everybody is so different yet alike. And there are several common threads — the thread of love, the thread of music — that we should celebrate what we have in common, and also celebrate our differences.
“I learn from so many people, and music gets me in the door.”
A single mother of three, Polote is also an in–demand motivational speaker. Her unflinchingly positive attitude has taken her through some of life’s roughest terrain.
“I feel you gotta pass it on, and you don’t want to pass on any negatives,” she says. “I focus on the joys of my life, the victories. It’s been a lot of mountains to climb.
“They say if it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger. I feel stronger. I thank God for everything just the way it happened. I pour that into my music; I pour that into my speaking.”
Always, there’s music. Polote is getting ready to put out another album, of gospel songs.
Since 2005 she and her musical partner, pianist David Duckworth, have been working with Elderhostel, touring a program called the Johnny Mercer Music Lecture Series. Duckworth tells short narratives from Mercer’s life, while Polote interprets the songs.
Polote is good friends with Mercer’s niece, Nancy Mercer Gerard, and other members of his family.
“Through them,” Polote explains, “I was able to embrace Johnny Mercer the man. Nancy would tell me stories that I felt so connected with. And so the first celebration that I wanted to do in the form of a CD was Mercer’s music, for that reason. Because I grew up with a lot of this music. My mom was singing ‘Moon River’ when I was a little girl.
“And so I thought about all his music, and I thought ‘Wow, he’s right here. He’s just my brother from another mother.’”
Tribute to Johnny Mercer
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe
When: At 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14