In the 1970s, my friend Sally introduced me to Mabel Mercer. And Bobby Short, Blossom Dearie, Noel Coward…. the whole world of café society and cabaret where men in supper jackets and women in sleek gowns with diamonds—not pearls—at their throats, passed long, leisurely hours listening to some of the finest music made in the 20th century. I’d already heard Billy Holiday and Edith Piaf and listened to the songs of Cole Porter. I had a dim understanding that once, in the 1920s and ’30s, there was a place called Chez Bricktop in Paris where Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars. And now, I found out, there was also Mabel Mercer.
She was born in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England in 1900. Her mother was a white English music hall performer, and her father was a black American jazz musician who Mabel never knew. In fact, nearly everyone in the family was in show business, and at the age of 14 she left school to tour with her aunt, uncle and their two sons with an act called The Five Romanys. Sometime after WWI, she began to perform at Bricktop’s and by the 1930s, she’d become the toast of Paris. (Bricktop will need a post of her own, and soon!) She went on to sing in clubs in other big cities, especially New York City—not that many of them really—her engagements generally lasted for years.
I never saw Mabel Mercer in person: we weren’t club goers. Not enough money. No sleek gowns. But we owned nearly every LP, and on hot summer evenings in Manhattan, we’d play her songs over and over again, canceling out the rock’n roll on the street with the cool grand dame of the popular song. Her voice had the timbre of a cello, her demeanor was elegant, her words beautifully modulated. The stories she told were lovely and only apparently simple. And she was funny.
The other night I saw a jewelry maker on PBS who worked miniature designs into metal and who loved the precise disciplined work they involved. She was content to pass hours and days working on the tiniest surface. Mabel Mercer worked in the same indelible way, articulating every phrase, and nuance, making lovely cameos, and all of it in an unaffected and straightforward manner. In the process, she became a favorite of America’s best songwriters and singers. Frank Sinatra credited her influence on his own phrasing and storytelling techniques. When she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983, President Reagan named her “a singer’s singer” and “a living testament to the artfulness of the American song.” She died in 1984 at the age of 84.
Critic Rex Reed describes her in performance in his liner notes for Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short at Town Hall (also published in the May 20, 1968 issue of The New York Times).
…. Sure and steady, perched on her throne, gently waving a chiffon scarf, she sang her windswept songs of children growing old and diseuses growing young while the audience sat transfixed, sensing her wit and her supernatural class, feeling her discipline and her craftsmanship, being touched by her sorcery. Listening to her rich, round tones hold hands with the greatest lyrics of our age, observing her love for what she was doing, watching her subtle mastery of how to turn a difficult phrase, some of the reasons why she is studied by all the serious practitioners of popular music (but never equaled by any of them) came through. Like Bambi in the forest, she has survived the fads and the fetishes with an aura of clockless grace. But as usual, Mabel sang it better that night than anyone could ever translate:
“I’ll go my heart’s direction
My story’s in the telling, not the told,
I’m staying young… I’m staying young…
It’s wonderful the way I hold my own
When everything surrounding me has grown… so old…”
— “Staying Young” by Bob Merrill