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'Moon' Struck

It's not all wine and roses when the songs of Johnny Mercer meet the dark-edged South in the book-turned-concert 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.'

November 17, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Savannah, Ga., is a grand old Southern city, resolutely looking inward, its greenery-fringed squares filled with elegant houses and stately facades.

But John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" describes a darker world behind the Spanish moss-decked live oak trees and the heavy evening mists. The Savannah of his best-selling 1994 book is home to an intriguing gallery of eccentrics, rogues and slightly off-center society types whose sometimes murderous interaction mirrors the shadowy life beneath the city's enchanting exterior.

"The tourists would leave Savannah in a few hours," writes Berendt, "enchanted by the elegance of this romantic garden city but none the wiser about the secrets that lay within the innermost glades of its secluded bower."

The characters who saunter through Berendt's compelling chapters are, to say the least, colorful. Minerva, a voodoo priestess, is one; Lady Chablis, a black drag queen, is another. There's a recluse with a powerful bottle of poison, a redneck stud and an elderly porter who sings the "Hallelujah" chorus while walking an imaginary dog.

And another important "hovering presence over the book," Berendt says, is songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Johnny Mercer? For many, the name's familiar, but the game is vague.

Consider this: Mercer is the guy who wrote the words for such lighthearted songs as "Accentuate the Positive," "Lazybones," "I'm an Old Cowhand," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" and "G.I. Jive," as well as such romantic classics as "Autumn Leaves," "Charade," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Fools Rush In," "Moon River," "One for My Baby," "Skylark" and 'That Old Black Magic." And that's just a brief, random listing of the tunes for which Mercer provided lyrics to music by, among others, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren . . . and, let's not forget, Johnny Mercer.

Mercer won four Academy Awards for his lyrics, two with Mancini ("Moon River" from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the title song for "Days of Wine and Roses"), one with Warren ("On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" from "The Harvey Girls") and one with Carmichael ("In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" from "Here Comes the Groom"). He was a director of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, wrote or co-wrote more than 1,000 numbers and was the co-founder of Capitol Records.

But why the connection between the apparently lighthearted Mercer and the dark-toned "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"?

In part because Mercer was a native of Savannah, still recognized--20 years after his death in June 1976--as one of its most illustrious figures.

"A tidal creek named Moon River [renamed in Mercer's honor after he won his Academy Award for the song] meanders within sight of the summer house he used to live in," Berendt explains. "Several of the real-life characters in the book were friends of Mercer's. Finally, the book's main event--a murder--actually happened in 1981 in Mercer House, a magnificent Victorian mansion built by Mercer's great-grandfather."

There's no doubt about Mercer's deep attachment to Savannah, his hometown, and to the South, his home territory, both of which he insisted upon visiting annually, even during the decades in which he lived in Los Angeles.

"Pardon My Southern Accent" was his signature song, and he continued to celebrate his heritage for the next four decades whenever he wrote about "meadowlarks" and "nightingales," "winding streams," "shadowy lanes" and clouds that were "cotton blossoms in a field of blue."

Because of his intimate association with Savannah, because of the quintessential Southern-ness that remained part of his character even during the years when he was a Hollywood insider and a successful businessman, the association of Mercer with "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" works. The South has always had contradictory facets of darkness and light, as did Mercer, whose darker songs provided the perfect reflection to the shadowy inner world that courses through Berendt's book.

Mercer's songs are the centerpiece for a concert version of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which is touring Southern California (it will be performed tonight at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater). The production juxtaposes passages from the book with carefully chosen Mercer songs. And the emotional contrasts--sometimes confrontational, sometimes indirect--between Berendt's pithy text and the multilayered Mercer lyrics are what gives the show its special panache.

The concert version of "Midnight" features singers Margaret Whiting, Julius LaRosa and John Pizzarelli; actors Claiborne Cary and Carrie Nye; and jazz players Warren Vache on cornet and Joe Temperly on clarinet and saxophone. Berendt will participate in some of the readings, and two performers who play prominent roles in his book--Lady Chablis and Emma Kelly, "The Lady of 6,000 Songs" (a nickname bestowed upon her by Mercer)--are also featured.

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