Mercer, Mabel (1900–1983)
Mercer, Mabel (1900–1983)
British-American nightclub singer. Born in 1900 (some sources cite 1890) in Staffordshire, England; died in 1983.
Moved to Paris (c. 1931); moved to New York City (1941); appeared at Le Ruban Bleu nightclub, New York City (1938, 1941); appeared at other Manhattan nightclubs, including Tony's (1942–49) and the Byline Room (1949–57); continued performing until late in life.
(Atl 1213) Mabel Mercer Sings Cole Porter; (Atl 1244) Midnight at Mabel Mercer's; (Atl 1301) Once in a Blue Moon; (Atl 1322) Merely Marvelous; (Atl 2–602) The Art of Mabel Mercer; (Atl S–604) Mabel Mercer at Town Hall; (Atl 402) Songs by Mabel Mercer; (De DL–4472) Mabel Mercer Sings.
New York nightclub singer and recording artist Mabel Mercer influenced a generation of performers and became indelibly associated with the vocal style known as parlando, a method of half-singing, half-speaking that emphasizes the emotional content in a song's lyrics. Born in Staffordshire, England, in 1900 to an African-American musician father and a white English actress mother, Mercer was schooled for a time in a convent but left at the age of 14 to live with her aunt. She then became part of a music-hall act with her cousins called The Five Romanys, so named because they were supposed to be of Gypsy (Roma) origin. Because her skin was darker than that of her cousins, Mercer was often teased by audiences and family alike; on one occasion, her cousins tried to wash off some of her pigment with soap and water.
Mercer moved from the English vaudeville circuit to performing in musical comedy on the London stage, and for a time conducted an orchestra. She was allegedly discovered by Josephine Baker and by the early 1930s was appearing at Bricktop's, the legendary Parisian nightclub owned by American Ada "Bricktop" Smith . Arriving in New York City in 1941, Mercer immediately found long-term employment that made her one of Manhattan's most popular supper-club performers. Her nightclub engagements were years-long affairs and included stints at Le Ruban Bleu, Tony's (from 1942 to 1949), and both versions of the Byline Room (from 1949 to 1957); she also sang at the RSVP Club and for a time had her own venue.
Her repertoire consisted mostly of Broadway tunes, including the works of Cole Porter (who had frequently visited Bricktop's to hear her), Rodgers and Hart, and, later in her career, Stephen Sondheim. She was said to be able to perform over 1,000 songs, however, and was by no means limited to Broadway. She sat on a chair to sing, and was accompanied only by a pianist. Frank Sinatra, who went often to see her at Tony's during her seven-year engagement there, cited Mercer as a great influence upon his own vocal phrasings, as did others, including Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee , and Tony Bennett. Mercer recorded a number of albums for Atlantic, including a tribute to Cole Porter and the two-record set The Art of Mabel Mercer. In 1975, at her gala 75th birthday party at New York City's St. Regis Hotel, the St. Regis Room where she had frequently performed was renamed the Mabel Mercer Room. Mercer continued to sing professionally until late in life, dividing her time between New York City and a farmhouse in Chatham in upstate New York. She died in 1983.
Biography News. March–April 1975, p. 387.
Hemming, Roy, and David Hajdu. Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop. NY: Newmarket Press, 1991.
Kinkel, Roger D. The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900–1950. Vol. 3. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1974.
Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan