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Mae Mercer: Blues singer and actress whomade her name in Europe and worked with Clint Eastwood

Wednesday 26 November 2008 01:00 GMT

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 1978.

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 The Shield.

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.

Pierre Perrone

Mary Ruth Mercer, singer and actress: born Battleboro, North Carolina 12 June 1932; twice married (two sons); died Northridge, California 29 October 2008.

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