Arts - Winter 2019

Come to the Cabaret

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Remembering Mabel Mercer, whose voice was intimate and wise

By Willard Spiegelman | December 3, 2018

A half century ago, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and others ensured the irrevocable and absolute triumph of rock music in American culture. In the realm of musical comedy, Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl, and Hello, Dolly!—embodiments of the genre’s golden age—were still playing in New York, but the Broadway debut of Hair on April 29, 1968, seemed to bring that age to a jolting halt. This tribal-rock musical inaugurated the Age of Aquarius, as well as a period in popular culture in which youth began calling the shots. The Dionysian impulse—with its celebration of rock, drugs, hedonism, noise, and the worst excesses of spontaneity and ravenous appetites—had won out over the Apollonian.

That impulse persists to this day. Noise is pervasive in modern life, with rage erupting in the public sphere, and personal courtesy at a premium. When I find myself yearning for politeness, courtliness, elegance, restraint, and dignity, I often turn to the work of Mabel Mercer (1900–1984). The finest cabaret singer of her time, Mercer may have had only modest operatic training, but she had, according to one biographer, “a natural ear for nuance.” That ear, and the voice that came from this quiet woman, were instruments of divine grace. No less an eminence than The Voice himself, Frank Sinatra, once succinctly said, “Everything I know about phrasing I learned from Mabel Mercer.”

As with any great artist, the circumstances of her life were the necessary but not sufficient cause of her artistry. Margaret Cheney describes that life briskly and admirably in her centennial biography, Midnight at Mabel’s. Mercer was born in Staffordshire, England, to a white Welsh vaudevillian teenage mother and an itinerant black American musician father who probably died before she was born. For the most part, she was an orphan, having been essentially abandoned at the age of eight by her mother, who went on tour in the States. Parked in a convent boarding school in Manchester, young Mabel first sensed her apartness. She didn’t know what the word Negro meant. She was also left-handed, a condition the nuns tried to correct. She was taunted for her hair, and although she suffered from stage fright, she knew from the start that she was destined for show business. The years at the convent were hard but formative, hardly bleak and Dickensian, and she was grateful for them. Years later, after settling in America, she named her Upstate New York farm Blakely, in honor of the school that was her first home away from home.

At 14 she left school, and her real musical education—in vaudeville, English music halls, and theater—began. Borders between high and low culture were porous, as they are now. Mercer was trained to be loud and clear, but she also learned, like Eliza Doolittle, what was called received pronunciation. A typical vaudeville show would include one of the “Zulu” numbers from In Dahomey (the first black American musical comedy) followed by the sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor : a rich and unexpected conflation of elements. In 1928, at London’s Drury Lane, she sang in the chorus of Show Boat, with Paul Robeson, one of her idols, who was performing the role of Joe. Then came the Depression years spent in Paris, at the Chez Bricktop nightclub, with café society at her feet: Cole Porter, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, everyone. In 1931, she performed briefly with Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. She had fame and poverty together. As Ada “Bricktop” Smith said, “No one sold her talent short—it was just they felt she didn’t have the personal aggressiveness to put it over.” Because there were no microphones in the clubs, she moved from table to table to increase audibility and intimacy.

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