The Lyrics of His Life
The Early Years of Mercer
John Herndon Mercer was born in 1909 in Savannah, Georgia to a fourth generation, pre-Revolutionary War Southern family. His great-grandfather was General Hugh W. Mercer and his great, great-grandfather was General Hugh Mercer who was killed at the Battle of Princeton in 1777. There is even a direct linage to Gen. George Patton through his great-grandfather. His grandfather was a prominent Savannah attorney and his father was a prosperous South Carolinian banker-businessman-lawyer who had joined his father’s law firm. The Mercers were active in Christ Church Episcopalian congregation and little Johnny sang in the choir. John’s father, George A. Mercer apparently was a genuine Christian man for he wrote to his new son-in-law’s family in a Detroit in l940 who had just lost their son to Savannah, “The great thing I am waiting for is that wonderful reunion in the higher life where I know I will be in my mother’s arms again. God always tried to make it merciful to a mother’s heart….Certainly I have asked for divine guidance and feel that I will get it. I have always felt that way. . . .I firmly believe divine guidance is in the whole affair, and that only happiness and joy can come of it. I want you and Mr. Keith to feel the same.” Johnny Mercer’s older brother, Walter, who was a successful Savannah insurance broker had a weekly prayer meeting in his office for years.
Following the family tradition, he attended the exclusive Virginia prep school, Woodbury Academy. While at Woodbury he wrote his first mentioned songs and acted in plays. Dad’s business (G.A. Mercer Realty Company) went broke in 1927 with the Florida real estate crash (he lost $1,000,000) thus dashing John’s plans to attend college. So off to New York he goes in 1928 at age 19 to seek his fame and fortune in the theater. At first, Mercer tried acting and then Wall Street running but nothing was happening. Then in l930 still trying to act, he unsuccessfully auditioned for but also wrote a lyric for the third Garrick Gaieties of l930. He was rejected but his song [“Out of Breath (And Scared to Death of You”] was accepted and it was sung by a young Georgian entertainer, Sterling Holloway. Holloway had sung “Manhattan” (Rogers/Hart) in the first Gaieties (l925) and “Mountain Greenery” (Rogers/Hart) in the second Gaieties (1926) and now this bust-out song for the third Gaieties. This was Mercer’s big break. His preferred style of writing would always be the occasional song, the stand alone lyric, the review song, and not the Broadway song style of advancing the plot made famous by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Anyway, he married Gaieties dancer and actress Ginger Meechan in l931 in New York City. My copy of Our Huckleberry Friend is inscribed “Jan 1988 – With all good wishes – Ginger Mercer.”