Mabel Mercer Biography

3 February 1900, Birmingham, Staffordshire, England, d. 20 April 1984, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA. A celebrated and influential cabaret singer, as a young girl Mercer was educated at convent school, and underwent classical voice training. Her mother was a white variety singer and actress, her father a black American jazz singer who died before she was born. Her mother remarried and became popular in music hall in the UK, sometimes touring overseas. In her teens, Mercer became a professional dancer, and made one of her first appearances in a London production of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds, which starred Florence Mills. By the early 20s, she had become a singer, performing in various parts of Europe and the Middle East. Before the end of the decade she had settled in Paris, and was soon a featured attraction at the renowned Bricktop’s nightclub, mixing with and entertaining the ‘lost generation’ of American expatriates which included songwriters Cole Porter and Vincent Youmans, as well as leading literary figures such as Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.

In 1938 Mercer visited New York, and by 1941 had begun the first of two long residencies in the city, at Tony’s, and later at the Byline Room, which continued until 1957. In later years Mercer also became associated with the Café Carlyle where Bobby Short regularly held court, and recorded two live albums with him. In the 70s she worked at the St. Regis Room, appeared at Carnegie Hall and on UK television inMiss Mercer In Mayfair. In 1974 she received Stereo Review Magazine’s Award of Merit, which was renamed the Mabel Mercer Award in 1984. On being chosen as its first recipient, Frank Sinatra said: ‘Mabel Mercer taught me everything I know, she is the finest music teacher in the world’. She retired in 1979, but was back on stage at the 1982 Kool Jazz Festival, singing a programme of songs by Alec Wilder. The composer is said to have written one of his most appealing songs, ‘While We’re Young’, especially for her. Her final performance was at a charity benefit in November 1983, and in the same year she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by President Reagan.

One of the most respected singers, greatly admired by fellow artists and also by the composers whose work she performs, Mercer’s voice had a good range and a deep, melodious sound. Although she would sometimes use jazz phrasing, she was never a jazz singer, but remained one of the finest cabaret or supper-club singers of her generation. Her greatest talent lay in her masterly delivery of lyrics to which she brought intimacy and affection.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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