It’s a shame that more of us don’t know about Mabel Mercer. As KT Sullivan makes clear in Remembering Mabel, running this week at the Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel, Mercer was wrongly memorialised as a jazz singer -- rather than a cabaret singer -- and in this, her home country, she is scarcely remembered at all.
Mercer was born in Staffordshire in 1900 to a white, English mother who performed in music halls and an African-American father who played jazz, and whom she never met. After studying at a convent in Manchester, Mercer began her career in ’20s Paris, where she was discovered in a revue (whilst also working as a male impersonator).
With the onset of World War II in 1938, Mercer sailed to New York, her passage covered by one of several wealthy friends. In New York her cabaret career flourished, with a circle spanning Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra -- who said of her: ‘Everything I learned, I learned from Mabel Mercer’.
Sullivan herself notes, as head of the Mabel Mercer Foundation in New York and one of the more successful present-day American cabaret performers, that the magic of Mercer lay in her live performances. Through them one enjoyed her wryness, playfulness and talent. And because of them her fame was limited, as recordings allow for a larger following (though a listen on YouTube is worthwhile).
Listening to Sullivan describe and quote Mercer, and quote Mercer’s peers discussing her, one wished for the original. Sullivan’s keen sense of irony and comic timing provoked hearty laughs in such songs as ‘Remind Me’ (‘Remind me not to find you so attractive … Remind me to ignore you’) and, along with musical director Bill Zeffiro, the catchy ‘Lower Your Expectations’ (‘Lower your expectations with me!’). She evidently shares Mercer’s affinity for a song’s lyrics. ‘Mabel was all about the lyric’, she said, ‘and I’m all about the lyric’.
Yet her voice had an off night. Accompanied by the jovial Zeffiro, who played the piano with a spring in his fingers, it was at times hoarse, unable to hold notes or out of sync with the music. Over the course of Sullivan’s brief, hour-long set of twenty songs -- composed largely by Bart Howard or Cole Porter -- she warmed to the songs and the audience, and her voice strengthened. Yet she remained stiff, and one wondered if she was holding back.
The Art Deco ambiance of the Crazy Coqs conjured Mercer-era Paris for KT Sullivan, with its red curtains scalloped along the back of the stage, a mirrored ceiling and an intimate, round shape. ‘It feels like Cole Porter and Ginger and Fred could be here’, she said.
But ultimately, Remembering Mabel doesn't go far enough to conjure Mercer herself. Such a tribute demands more voice and more personality -- whether in direct homage or as a distinctive reinterpretation. It was enjoyable to learn about an seminal and under-known singer, but Remembering Mabel remains an unfinished piece.