Episode 164. Mabel Mercer

Episode 164. Mabel Mercer (Season Four Premiere)



Welcome to Season Four of Countermelody! My long-time listeners know a few things things about the podcast. First, the most important quality in a singer is not voice, but communicative skills. Second, I have posted episodes in the past on singers that I dub “voiceless wonders,” artists whose primary virtue is exactly that ability to convey the meaning of the words. Third, though the music I play is primarily opera and so-called classical music, I often explore genres that move outside of those boundaries. Fourth, from the very beginning of my podcasting career, I have made it a point to highlight the careers of artists of color as well as queer artists. Throughout this season of the podcast, I will also be focusing on great singers in their later years. All these aspects are in evidence in today’s subject: Mabel Mercer (1900-1984), the doyenne of cabaret. Born to a teenage mother of Welsh heritage whose father was an itinerant African American musician, Mercer first pursued a career in British music hall. From there, she made her way to Paris, where she soon became a fixture at a nightclub run by her pal Bricktop (AKA Ada Smith). As WWII loomed on the horizon, she made her way, with the help of her friend (and possible lover) the wealthy and eccentric lesbian Joe Carstairs, to New York, where she soon established herself at the pinnacle of cabaret culture by virtue of her impeccable diction, intimacy of delivery, sense of story-telling, and unbounded repertoire of upwards of a thousand songs. Most of Mercer’s recordings represent the artist well into her middle age, when her once beautiful soprano voice had become little more than a croak. And yet, perched regally on a chair at the Café Carlyle and other nightclub venues, she gave definitive performances of nearly every song she touched. The episode offers a hint of the interpretive depth displayed in repertoire ranging from the traditional Great American Songbook (especially the songs of Cole Porter) through Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. Guest artists heard include Kaye Ballard, Bobby Short, and Julie Wilson, as well as Bricktop and Madame Spivy, both nightclub hostesses and close friends of Mercer’s who were celebrated performers themselves.


Alec Wilder, William Engvick: While We’re Young. Mabel Mercer, Cy Walter, Stan Freeman [1954]

Cole Porter: Just One of Those Things. Mabel Mercer, unknown personnel [1951]

Jerome Kern, Anne Caldwell: Once in a Blue Moon. Mabel Mercer, Orchestra arranged and conducted by George Cory [1958]

Harvey Schmidt, Tom Jones: Try to Remember (The Fantasticks). Mabel Mercer, Orchestra conducted by Ralph Burns [1964]

Marie Lloyd (1870 – 1922)

Bennett Scott, Arthur J. Mills: When I Take My Morning Promenade. Marie Lloyd [1913]

Ada “Bricktop” Smith (1894 – 1984)

W.C. Handy: St. Louis Blues. Ada “Bricktop” Smith, unknown pianist evidently named Charley [Italian television, 1970]

Joe Carstairs (1900 – 1993)

Johnny Green, Edward Heyman: Hello, My Lover, Goodbye (Here Goes the Bride). Mabel Mercer, Orchestra conducted by Ralph Burns [1964]

George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Ira Gershwin: I Loves You, Porgy (Porgy and Bess). Mabel Mercer, Cy Walter [1942]

Spivy [née Bertha Levine] (1906 – 1971)

Guy Monypenny: Auntie’s Face. Spivy [née Bertha Levine] [1947]

Austin C. Johnson, Clarence Moore: Thank You for the Flowers. Mabel Mercer, Cy Walter [1954]

Kaye Ballard, Mabel Mercer, Sylvia Syms, Tony Bennett

Cole Porter: Down in the Depths (On the 90th Floor). Mabel Mercer, Buddy Barnes [live Town Hall 18.V.69]; Kaye Ballard [as Mabel Mercer], arranged and conducted by Skip Redwine [1966]

Julie Wilson (1924 – 2015)

Cole Porter: The Tale of the Oyster. Julie Wilson, William Roy [1989]

Mabel Mercer and her musical family, 1972. (first row): Buddy Barnes, Mabel Mercer, William Roy;
(second row, standing): Bobby Short;
(third row, standing): George Frazier, Alec Wilder, Bart Howard, Willa Dean Mustin

Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart: Wait Till You See Her (cut from Simple Simon). Mabel Mercer, Loonis McGlohon [1976]

Harry Beard with Mabel Mercer

Cy Coleman, Joe McCarthy: Isn’t He Adorable? Mabel Mercer, Jimmy Lyon [live Town Hall 19.V.68]

Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh: When In Rome. Mabel Mercer, Loonis McGlohon, Terry Lassiter, Jim Lackey [1976]

Bob Russell, John B. Brooks: You Came a Long Way from St. Louis. Mabel Mercer, Loonis McGlohon, Terry Lassiter, Jim Lackey [1976]

Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green: Some Other Time (On the Town). Mabel Mercer, George Cory, Sam Hamilton, Milton Hinton [1956]

Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson: Trouble Man (Lost in the Stars). Mabel Mercer, Cy Walter, Stan Freeman [1954]

Willard Robison, Ray Mayer: Guess I’ll Go Back Home (This Summer). Mabel Mercer, Orchestra arranged and conducted by George Cory [1958]

Oscar Levant, Edward Heyman: Blame It on My Youth. Mabel Mercer, George Cory [1956]

Marvin Hamlisch, Marilyn and Alan Bergman: The Way We Were. Mabel Mercer, unidentified pianist [The Mark of Jazz, Philadelphia PBS program 1976]

Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now. Mabel Mercer, Buddy Barnes [live Town Hall 18.V.69]

Paul Simon: The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Jimmy Lyon, Beverly Peer, Dick Sheridan [live Town Hall 19.V.68]

Jerry Herman: Time Heals Everything (Mack and Mabel). Mabel Mercer, Loonis McGlohon, Terry Lassiter, Jim Lackey [1976]

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