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Mabel Mercer Biography

Born February 3, 1900 at Burton-Upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England, Mabel Alice Wadham had entertainment in her blood, as both of her parents were performers. Her father, Benjamin Mercer, was a jazz musician who died before Mabel was born. Her mother, Emily Mame Wadham, was a music hall actress and singer who wanted her daughter to follow in her footsteps.

Mabel, raised by her grandparents, started school at a Catholic convent in Manchester, England where she became conscious of her race. The white students called her a “golliwog.” At 14, she adopted her father’s surname as she started her career as a performer.

She toured the Midlands with her aunt, uncle and their two sons who together formed a singing group called The Five Romanys. During WWI, she paired up with a cockney girl with whom she toured Europe. She often performed with her kinky hair tucked under a tall, blonde wig.

It was in postwar Paris where she established herself at Bricktop’s nightclub frequented by the likes of Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway. Mabel Mercer’s gentility influenced other singers like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Nat Cole, to name a few of her fans.

In the mid-seventies she made a dramatic comeback after hiring agent Donald Smith, who helped her begin a heavy touring schedule performing to sell-out crowds in the biggest venues of Los Angeles, London, Chicago and San Francisco.

In 1983, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan, the highest award given to a civilian. On April 20, 1984 she passed away in Pittsville, Massachusetts. Today, the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which Donald Smith helped create, still operates with the continued objective of showcasing upcoming cabaret singers and giving new and continued life to the genre of cabaret music.