Mabel Mercer (1900-84) lived at the crossroads of American vaudeville and English music hall, night clubs of Paris and New York, and the black and white show biz cultures of her day. She was a pioneer of the modern idea of intimate cabaret performance.
Mercer’s father was an African American musician; her mother was English (both ethnically and nationally) and a music hall singer. I hasten to point out the date. This was long before the advent of jazz, although ragtime was certainly in existence in 1900. That was the era of Scott Joplin and Williams & Walker. There were not many musicians of color touring around the UK at the time of Mabel’s birth in Burton Upon Trent. Sadly she never knew her father; he passed away before she was born. Schooled in a convent, she began touring English and continental music halls with an aunt by the age of 14 (which was still prior to the advent of jazz, btw.) For a time in the ’20s she toured England with an act called The Southern Trio featuring Clinton Rosemond and John C. Payne. In 1928 she was part of the West End company of Show Boat.
Throughout the ’30s, Mercer was the toast of Paris night clubs, performing before celebrity clientele at spots like Chez Bricktop and Le Ruban Bleu. (The photo above prepresents that period). In 1936 she made two short musical films in England, Everything is Rhythm and Tropical Trouble. When WWII hit Europe in 1939, she moved to the U.S., a move that turned out to be permanent once she became a major success as a New York nightclub singer and recording artist. She was associated with chic venues like the St. Regis Hotel and the Cafe Carlysle.
Over the decades, she collaborated with partners like Bobby Short and Cy Walter, and was influential on the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Surprisingly she only appeared on TV a few times, on The Tonight Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and, of all things, Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Her voice was also used in 1961 family film called The Sand Castle.
For more on Mabel Mercer’s legacy, check out The Mabel Mercer Foundation website here . The Foudnation’s artistic director is K.T. Sullivan!
To learn more about vaudeville and other forms of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,