A Singer’s Story
History Professor Glenn Eskew dives into the library’s Mercer Collection for his new book, “Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World”
Not many people realize the Georgia State library holds the Johnny Mercer Collection. How did we get it?
George Manners, the first dean of the business school, and his brother Nick were friends of Johnny’s wife Ginger and persuaded her to donate to Georgia State his private and professional papers as well as his memorabilia and unfinished biography. Manners also convinced the school to create a new Popular Music Archives in its Special Collection to attract the Mercer papers.
My interest in Mercer derived from a love of jazz music and a desire to undertake a research project on a Georgia topic that focused on southern culture. As a scholar of the U. S. South in the 20th century, I was familiar with the bigger historical issues —indeed many of my publications concern race relations and the civil rights movement— so I had written about black and white southerners engaged in social movements.
With Mercer, I could write about black and white southern entertainers engaging in popular culture. Indeed, here’s Johnny Mercer, a white man from Savannah, who had close working relationships with such African Americans as Nat “King” Cole from Montgomery, Billie Holiday from Baltimore, Louis Armstrong from New Orleans, and Lena Horne from Atlanta, etcetera, from the 1930s into the 1970s. This is the same time frame as when the South undergoes its transformation from being a separate nation-within-a-nation to becoming integrated into the national mainstream, just as the separate hybrid culture of jazz, blues and country that black and white and red southerners created becomes America’s popular music. Mercer played an integral role in that process as a songwriter, as one of the country’s most popular entertainers on radio and records, and as co-founder of Capitol Records.
What are some of the highlights of the collection?
Throughout the Mercer Collection are letters between Johnny and just about everyone who was anyone in American entertainment in the 20th Century. I loved reading the personal correspondence he received from his friends and colleagues such as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire. The photos are also amazing. It would be hard to select a single one to highlight.
Also the collection contains many of Johnny’s draft lyrics. Among the most famous is the back of a daily calendar page on which Sadie Vimmerstedt wrote “I Wanna Be Around To Pick Up the Pieces When Somebody Breaks Your Heart,” that she mailed to “Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, New York, NY” and that he received! It was the idea of a lyric she sent to Johnny that she explained was inspired by Frank Sinatra’s breakup with his wife Nancy over Ava Gardner.
Mercer took that scrap and turned it into a song which Tony Bennett made into a No. 1 hit.