The daughter of an English vaudevillian and an American jazz musician, Mabel Mercer has been called the most influential cabaret singer of all time. Though her voice was unremarkable, her interpretation of lyrics is legendary. She is said to have been a major influence on some of the most important and popular singers of the twentieth century, including Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Bobby Short, Leontyne Price, Barbara Streisand, and Tony Bennett. According to show business lore, when Mercer had a regular show at Tony’s on 52nd Street in New York, Billie Holiday, who worked in the club across the street, snuck away from work to hear Mercer sing so often that she nearly lost her job. Frank Sinatra once said, “Mabel Mercer taught me everything I know.”1
After leaving school at the age of fourteen (Mercer’s diction training at a convent school is thought by many to be at the root of her precise and powerful enunciation), Mercer joined her aunt’s vaudeville troupe and began performing regularly. By the 1920s, Mercer was singing in Paris where she met Ada “Bricktop” Smith, owner of the popular nightclub Bricktop’s. Mercer sang nightly at Bricktop’s throughout the 1930s, performing for the jazz age elite of Paris café society. At Bricktop’s, Mercer was often asked to join guests at their tables and sing for them—she is said to have sung Cole Porter’s songs to him while sitting beside him at his table. From this point forward, Mercer sang sitting down, even when performing on stage to a larger audience. This unusual performance style became a trademark, as much a part of her singing style as her personalized presentation of lyrics and the intimate tone of her shows.
Of seeing her in Paris, Carl Van Vechten wrote, “Mabel Mercer was [Bricktop’s] leading singer at the time, a Mabel in her thirties, fresh from England, a very dear Mabel; whose singing I have enjoyed so much in New York, especially her interpretation of ‘Sunday in Savannah.’”2 Van Vechten photographed Mercer some thirty years later.
After leaving Paris in 1938 to escape the war, Mercer spent much of the next three decades performing in nightclubs in New York City. She spent her later years living on her farm in upstate New York, and though she still performed frequently, she no longer played the regularly scheduled shows she had in the past. After spending decades away from her home country, Mercer returned to England in the 1970s and was given a warm welcome. During this visit, she appeared in a five-part BBC special, Miss Mercer in Mayfair.