Remember Babyface in the ’90s? He had some hits as a singer, but every year he’d draw Grammy nods for songs he’d written for Toni Braxton, Madonna, even Eric Clapton. The man is prolific — remember “End of the Road?”
Back in the 1940s, Johnny Mercer was that guy. Born in Savannah, Ga., he moved to Los Angeles in his 20s and started penning songs for musicals and films. After Bing Crosby picked up his song “I’m an Old Cow Hand,” Mercer’s career took off, and he went on to cofound Capitol Records and ‘discover’ Nat King Cole. At one point he consistently had a top-10 song on the charts for over 200 weeks. By the time he passed away in 1976, Mercer had written the lyrics for over 1,000 songs, including four Academy-Award winners.
Barry Manilow resurrected a collection of Mercer songs in the ’80s and films (most recently What Women Want) are often riddled with his tunes like “Moon River” and “That Old Black Magic,” but he’s no longer a household name.
Brad and Jennifer Moranz, the tag team behind last year’s and this year’s tribute to Gershwin, considered Mercer’s Lowcountry roots and felt that the time was right for a musical theatre piece utilizing his songs.
With a narrative written and read by Phil Furia, a consultant for PBS and a leading Mercer historian, the story utilizes archival video footage to chronologically follow the songwriter’s life, pausing whenever a song is mentioned to perform it with instrumentation, voices, and dance. Musical director Randy Myers is the recipient of six Emmy awards, and notable voices in the ensemble include Broadway veterans Laurie Williamson and Michael Demby-Cain. “This group could sing the phone book and it would sound great,” says Brad Moranz.
“We found it so amazing that over 40 years of writing, Mercer’s style of songs covered such an amazing variety,” says Moranz.
The show spans everything from country ballads to Sinatra-style swing. Whether you remember hearing Mercer’s songs on the radio when he was the preeminent songwriting star of Hollywood or you’re discovering his music for the first time, Blues in the Night will let you reminisce and reflect on those easy, pre-war days gone by.
Blues in the Night: The Songs of Johnny Mercer • Piccolo Spoleto Songwriters Series • $29; $26 seniors and students • (2 hours) • June 7, 8, 9 at 7 p.m.; June 9 at 2 p.m.; June 10 at 3 p.m. • Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St. • 554-6060