Come to the Cabaret

Remembering Mabel Mercer, whose voice was intimate and wise


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.

When I find myself yearning for politeness, courtliness, elegance, and dignity, I often turn to the work of Mabel Mercer, the finest cabaret singer of her time.

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.

She arrived in New York in November 1938, appeared regularly at Tony’s and other clubs along 52nd Street, also at Downstairs at the Upstairs, the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village, and later at the St. Regis Hotel and the Café Carlyle. Sinatra, famously, was in the audience at Tony’s, taking notes on a napkin. Others joined the crowd through the war years and into the ’50s: Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Nat Cole, Blossom Dearie, Ethel Merman, Rod McKuen, Eileen Farrell, Andy Williams, even Van Cliburn, shortly after the pianist’s triumph at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Mercer’s gigs at Tony’s started at 11 P.M. and lasted until four in the morning—seemingly impromptu but studiously planned.

Mercer’s greatest years happened to coincide with the rise of rock music and the noise that I have semi-seriously regretted. In May 1968, she appeared at New York’s Town Hall with Bobby Short. Although the producers were initially fearful, they had no reason to be. The hall sold out in a couple of days. The critic Rex Reed wrote, “In the burnished hush of the concert hall, so jammed that pop society and old guard duennas crowded together onstage like Brueghel paintings, Mabel and Bobby were there … like two butterflies on their way to the sun.” Their last duet in the program, a nod to contemporary tastes as well as their own, was a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 “Feelin’ Groovy,” in which they extended the song’s penultimate syllable—“grooooo”—with flippant charm. In 1975–76, she appeared at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, as part of a series celebrating the nation’s bicentennial, and at the Merry-Go-Round Room at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel (I was in the overflowing audiences). Her performances had been improved, even polished by time. A stately, almost regal woman in a black dress sat on a chair and delivered her material to hushed, enthralled crowds that included young people as well as veteran admirers. In 1983, Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is buried near her much-loved country house in Chatham, New York.

Her enduring legacy is her voice, the evidence of which is both plentiful and frustrating. Mercer herself playfully described her instrument, which noticeably declined after her Parisian period of the 1930s, as a “noise” not a “voice.” No matter: for many of her fans, her prime came after a tonsillectomy in 1939, after her voice had deepened with age, even after it was almost gone. In her last years, she did not so much sing as employ a form of Sprechstimme, or “speech sound.” She loved words and brought them to life through the vocal resources and registers still available to her. (At one point she decided to record the New Testament, accompanied by a pianist. Nothing ever came of this, but what an idea.) A song was a story, whether sung, intoned, or spoken mellifluously and rhythmically. The columnist Liz Smith once observed that Mercer encouraged you to remember your worst love affair with warm affection. The composer and lyricist Stan Freeman recalled that when he was producing a Cole Porter album, he reminded Mercer of Porter’s rhyme: “Looking at you / I hear poets tellin’ of / Lovely Helen of Troy.” But Mercer, always a stickler for correctness, insisted on enunciating the word telling in her performance. Indeed, the clarity of her line and the crispness of her diction make every Mercer song unforgettable. In a recording of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from the 1940s, with Cy Walter at the piano, Mercer’s voice is clear and high, her diction exquisite, her tempo slow, and her early operatic instincts on display.

Because Mercer was not a jazz singer but a cabaret singer, intimacy was her stock-in-trade. She made you feel as if she were singing to you alone. By comparison, Ella Fitzgerald had a voice as mellow and smooth as fine old Scotch whisky. Bessie Smith had fierce power. Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan had the greatest vocal and generic range of any pop singer. Billie Holiday made you hear her suffering. Mercer had charity, sympathy, and understanding. Porter said she was his favorite interpreter of “Just One of Those Things,” that wise and soulful depiction of how love can go awry. Like every great song, it encourages a range of interpretations. Mercer’s is wry, all-accepting, even jaunty. George Wein, the impresario and producer, said that even if you’ve never heard the word gossamer, you know exactly what “gossamer wings” are because Mercer knew what the words meant. Her renditions became the external articulations of a listener’s own private, seemingly unique feelings. I think of John Keats’s comment in an 1818 letter that poetry “should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” This is exactly what a Mercer song does. Video snippets from a 1977 appearance at London’s Playboy Club appear in a Canadian Broadcast Corporation documentary; seeing her at 77, wattled throat and all, sing “[Oh, I Was Something in] Days Gone By,” you think of saying to her on the screen, “My dear, you still are.”

Five years earlier, in a PBS program called An Evening with Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short and Friends, Mercer, with ramrod posture in a large overstuffed chair, sings “These Foolish Things,” into which she injects not merely regret but almost happy acceptance. Her eyes are closed or lowered; her voice sounds breathy at times; her hands are clasped. “The winds of March that make my heart a dancer”—she nails that great line. On the same program, she waxes positively giddy in “Isn’t He Adorable,” all girlish hopefulness. And in “It Was Worth It,” she accepts the depredations of age (“Sag must come”) and looks backward with pleasure: “As years go by, in memory I fly with romance again, / When down in the dumps, I can put on my pumps and dance again.” She is always the belle of the ball, regardless of age.

In our present moment, how can we not long for that distant world of subdued, classy sophistication—the suave supper clubs, the sounds of chatter and the clinking of martini glasses, the soft voices and intimate settings, the gracious manners and graceful behavior? I feel nostalgia for that setting but also for the material itself, Mercer’s signature songs. Take Alec Wilder’s sentimental “Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s?” a song of mingled hope and disappointment (“I know that I’ll see you no more”), with its memories of a youthful, calm, and steady Eden (“All the wide-branching elms then were saplings”). Even though the voice sounds a little frayed in its lower register, and more than a little shrill at the top, Mercer the artist, Mercer the communicator, does not disappoint.

A great singer knows what suits her, musically and temperamentally. In her 1958 album Once in a Blue Moon, Mercer makes the pastoral ballad “Guess I’ll Go Back Home This Summer” sound fresh, a product not of the prewar years (it was written in 1937) but of the Eisenhower era. Her voice, with a lovely legato (not always something she could muster), has a slow, dreamy quality, that of a woman who has been disappointed by big-city life. This is the same artist who memorably sang Porter’s urban torch song “Down in the Depths (On the 90th Floor)” and that other quintessential Manhattan number, Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” Yet Mercer escaped to her house upstate whenever possible, and we believe her when she yearns here for country peace:

Guess I’ll go back home this summer,
Leave this daily grind behind;
There’s nothing wrong, I’m sure,
That going home won’t cure;
I’ll find my peace of mind!

Nostalgia is the terrain of the old, who look back to youth, and of the displaced, who look back to a vanished, or destroyed, or never-existing home. “Guess I’ll Go Back Home This Summer” is a natural choice for a woman who felt disenfranchised, or never quite at ease. The biracial English girl abandoned to the nuns and the convent who became the toast of society, the cynosure of sophisticated audiences, was still searching for the simple pleasures afforded by a home, and a family, she never had.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English, emeritus, at Southern Methodist University. His latest books are Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead and If You See Something, Say Something: A Writer Looks at Art, a selection of his reviews from The Wall Street Journal..


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