2008-11-27 13:54:01 UTC
Mae Mercer: Blues singer and actress whomade her name in
Europe and worked with Clint Eastwood
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
When the deep-voiced blues singer Mae Mercer ran away from
her native North Carolina to New York in 1957, the 15-year
old wasn't planning on going to Europe. Yet, within three
years, she was a regular at the Blues Bar in Paris, and
became the first blues artist to appear on French TV in a
programme entitled Singing The Blues: Mae Mercer Blues,
directed by Jean-Christophe Averty.
The programme-maker had already profiled artists like the
New Orleans cornet-player Joe "King" Oliver and Bessie
Smith, the blues singer Mercer idolised, but this was
groundbreaking. Since France only had one television channel
at the time, Mercer's appearance in May 1962 - three months
before another landmark programme featuring the pianist and
vocalist Memphis Slim - had a huge impact on her career.
The same year, she featured in Mondo Sexy Di Notte, an
Italian documentary shot by Mino Loy in Paris, and Le Glaive
Et La Balance (The Sword And The Balance), the 1963 crime
drama starring Anthony Perkins and Jean-Claude Brialy and
directed by André Cayatte. Mercer also performed and
recorded in the UK, most notably cutting an EP produced by
Mike Vernon in London for Decca in 1964. When she toured
France and other European countries the following year, she
was backed by the Artwoods, the British R&B group fronted by
Art Wood, the older brother of Ronnie Wood, and also
including the drummer Keef Hartley and the keyboard player
Jon Lord, later of Deep Purple. In the sixties, she also
toured with the British- born trumpeter Keith Smith and his
Climax Jazz Band.
Following a chanteuse role in The Hell With Heroes, a
post-Second World War drama from the journeyman director
Joseph Sargent (1968), Mercer went back to the US, where she
had several notable parts in film and television during the
Seventies. In particular, she acted opposite Clint Eastwood
in two pictures directed by Don Siegel in 1971; she was
memorable as Hallie, the slave who tries to help Eastwood's
character - a Union soldier wounded and trapped in a
Confederate girls' boarding school - in the Civil War drama
The Beguiled, and as Mrs Russell, the mother of a
10-year-old murder victim in Dirty Harry, the first
instalment of the vigilante cop franchise.
As well as guesting in episodes of the series Ironside,
Mannix and Kung Fu, she ran the gamut of genres and acted in
the horror movie Frogs (George McCowan, 1972), the
exploitation film The Swinging Cheerleaders (Jack Hill,
1974) and even portrayed the Wicked Stepmother in Cindy, an
all-black adaptation of the Cinderella story made for TV in
The same year, Mercer was cast as Mama Moseberry in Louis
Malle's Pretty Baby set in New Orleans, though her
involvement in A Woman Called Moses, the biopic of the
abolitionist and slave-escape leader Harriet Tubman (also
1978) chimed with her interest in strong African-American
women. In 1972, Mercer produced Angela Davis: Portrait of A
Revolutionary, the documentary about the Black Panther
leader directed by Yolande DuLuart.
Born Mary Ruth Mercer in 1932 to tobacco-croppers, she was
one of nine children and stood out as soon as he started
singing in church. Once in New York, she cut several tracks
for Atlas, the black-owned jazz and jump blues label, but
only her sterling version of Lee Dorsey's "Great Googa
Mooga" - paired with her take on Tampa Red's "Sweet Little
Angel" - was released in 1959.
The following year, Mercer travelled to Paris, where she met
Maurice Girodias, the French publisher of erotica alongside
avant-garde novels like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, J.P.
Donleavy's The Ginger Man and The Naked Lunch by William S.
Burroughs. He engaged her to sing at the Blues Bar, one of
four clubs he owned near the offices of his Olympia Press
company. She was an intense performer, often drinking an
ampoule buvable - a cocktail of vitamins - to boost her
stamina before going on stage. Indeed, she proved so popular
that she ended up running the venue and paved the way for
the success of Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson, two of
the many visiting American musicians she worked with. By
1965, she was such a prominent figure in Europe that she was
profiled in Ebony magazine.
Mercer spent much of the Eighties raising her own children,
as well as a niece and a nephew, but in 1996 she recorded an
album entitled When He Called It Quit for Blackhawk Records.
In recent years, she had guest roles in the TV series ER and
Tall, thin and strikingly beautiful, Mercer possessed a
powerful voice as mesmerising as her physical appearance.
Her stunning version of the blues standard "Careless Love",
shot for German TV in the Sixties and included on the 2004
DVD Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson: Blues Legends In
Europe, featuring Williamson on harmonica and Hubert Sumlin
on guitar, is a gem. The Chess Records legend Willie Dixon
rather misguidedly introduces Mercer as "the little girl
with the real low-down blues" - but there's no mistaking the
intensity of her performance.
Mary Ruth Mercer, singer and actress: born Battleboro, North
Carolina 12 June 1932; twice married (two sons); died
Northridge, California 29 October 2008.