Wednesday, September 24, 2014


 You may or may not recognize Johnny Mercer’s name, but you almost certainly recognize his songs.

Mercer was the lyricist for more than 1,500 popular songs. His music spans five decades, from the 1920s through the 1960s. He wrote the lyrics to such classics as “Blues in the Night,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Satin Doll,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Autumn Leaves,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “One More for My Baby,” “Skylark,” “Moon River” and “Emily” — to name only a few.

He composed lyrics to melodies written by Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen and Henry Mancini. Along the way, he co-founded Capitol Records, won four Academy Awards, was Bing Crosby’s drinking buddy and had a love affair with Judy Garland.

“Spotlight on Johnny Mercer!” is Camelot Theatre Company’s tribute to America’s greatest lyricist and his incredible life. The production previews Thursday, Sept. 25, opens Friday, Sept. 26, and runs through Oct. 5, at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $20 for the preview and $24 for all other performances, with reserved seating available for an additional $2 per ticket. They can be purchased at the box office, online at or by calling 541-535-5250.

“Spotlight on Johnny Mercer!” stars Laura Derocher, David King-Gabriel and Jade Chavis Watt. Backing them on stage is Steve Fain (bass), Randy Margulies (tenor sax, clarinet and flute), Brent Olstad (keyboard), Randy Scherer (trumpet), Steve Sutfin (percussion) and Michael Vannice (alto sax, alto flute and bass clarinet).

Presila Quinby directs. Charles Cherry wrote the script, music direction is by Olstad, with arrangements by Vannice.

The production features 22 of Mercer’s songs, covering his entire career, with narration connecting them to important events in Mercer’s life. There are well known songs — “the songs that have to be included,” says Quinby — but also some less familiar ones that mark milestones.

“For example, Mercer wrote ‘I Remember You’ for Judy Garland,” Quinby says. “They had an off-and-on romance for years. She was the secret love of his life.”

Quinby says she knew the performers she wanted when “Spotlight on Johnny Mercer!” was chosen for Camelot's 2014 season.

“The singers and musicians were already familiar with Mercer’s music,” Quinby says. “They knew the American Songbook — the musical standards of the '30s, '40s and '50s — and they also knew how to tell a story with a song.”

Over his career, Mercer was nominated for 19 Academy Awards and won four. His first win was for “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” in 1946, written for “The Harvey Girls” starring Judy Garland. His next was in 1951, for “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” written with Hoagy Carmichael. Mercer then won two more Oscars collaborating with Henry Mancini, in 1961 for “Moon River” followed by “Days of Wine and Roses” in 1962.

Mercer was born and raised in Savannah, Ga. He grew up familiar with a wide range of music, from classical to popular to African-American gospels and jazz. He started writing for Tin Pan Alley in the '20s, then for Broadway musicals, and moved to Hollywood in 1935. In the '40s, Mercer had a dozen hit records, singing his own songs. Cherry describes his style as similar to Bing Crosby but with more swing.

“He was sort of a combination of Crosby and Louis Armstrong.”

Cherry says he has wanted to do a show about Mercer for a long time because he feels we don’t honor lyricists the way we do composers or poets. He thinks that when poetry and music are combined, they become an art form that touches us more deeply.

“When Mercer writes about love, he is writing more than a love song,” Cherry says. “He is often writing about that place where love might be waiting for all of us.”

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at


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