Although she died in 1984 and is probably not a familiar name to current music fans, cabaret singer Mabel Mercer is still fondly remembered by many. She rose from humble beginnings to become a respected and much-admired performer during a colorful career that stretched out for many years. Along the way she influenced countless stars, among them Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, and Frank Sinatra, who always said he learned technique and phrasing from her.
Mabel Mercer’s start in life was anything but easy. Born in turn of the century England, the child of a white British music hall dancer and a black American jazz musician, she never met her father and spent most of her childhood in a convent school. By her mid-teens she’d embarked on a burgeoning music hall career of her own, accompanying her aunt on tour around Europe.
Although she’d studied singing while growing up, she began as a dancer. By the time she reached adulthood, she also added singing to her resume, and throughout the 1920s she toured extensively around Europe and beyond. By the end of the decade she’d settled in Paris, where she became a star on the cabaret circuit.
With Europe in turmoil by the late 1930s, Mercer emigrated to the U.S. and was welcomed into the New York nightclub scene, where she became a fixture for many years. She often teamed up with her fellow New York favorite, pianist/singer Bobby Short, on stage and on records. Those albums, along with a few solo efforts, are now considered classics.
As the years passed she gradually became a beloved performer, starring at Carnegie Hall and other prestigious venues, and receiving honor after honor. The year before her death at age 84, she was given the Presidential Medal of Honor by Ronald Reagan, who called her “a singer’s singer” and “a living testament to the artfulness of the American song”.