MABEL MERCER by James Haskins


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A sketchy but passable life of cafÉsinger Mabel Mercer, who never made it big or--she thought--achieved her full potential. Mercer was born in Staffordshire, England, to a white mother and a black American father, both vaudevillians. From childhood on, she went over 30 years without seeing her mother (whom she later met in America but who was afraid of being exposed as having a black daughter), and apparently saw her black father but once and then not to speak to. In any event, Mercer got into entertainment early, as a tap dancer, singer, acrobat and male impersonator, was finally ""discovered"" by legendary chanteuse Bricktop in Paris, and was installed as a table singer in Bricktop's various cafÉs over the years. Mercer's voice--she was a well-spoken Brit who had not rouble telling off cab drivers--was a pleasant mezzo until age and a tonsillectomy darkened it into the throatier, more intimate vehicle she's best remembered for. The Jazz Age was her first great heyday (though she never pushed herself as an entertainer); her second was on 52nd Street during WW II, followed by many lows and then phoenix-risings in New York cafes. Into her 80s, she would sing and talk sad little songs seated at people's tables or by the piano with her hands folded in her lap. In her last years, she was awarded the Medal of Honor. This is one of Haskins' (Lena, Nat King Cole, Bricktop, The Cotton Club) better biographies of black entertainers and, despite its padding, one does get a clear--if not pungent--sense of Mercer's life.

Pub Date: Nov. 24th, 1987
Publisher: Atheneum