Charismatic singer Eric Mercury turned heads with the album Electric Black Man

Eric Mercury was an insistent soul-rock and R&B singer from Toronto who experienced occasional ups and downs during a long and successful career in the music industry.Handout

“It’s a long way down from up”, sang Eric Mercury on the first song of his debut album Electric black man from 1969. The line was verifiable – the singer-songwriter had done the calculations firsthand.

Mr. Mercury, an insistent soul-rock and R&B singer from Toronto who experienced occasional ups and downs during a long and successful career in the music industry, died March 14 in Montreal after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 77 years old.

In the summer of 1968, Mr. Mercury led one of Canada’s most popular R&B groups, the Soul Searchers. The group was working in Halifax when the charismatic, leader-like showman decided to strike out on his own. Devastated by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., inspired by the musical dynamism of American folk singer Richie Havens, and caught up in revolutionary notions of Black Power, Mr. Mercury ventured to New York with nothing but a library card in his back pocket and $52 in his name.

While trying to score gigs and build relationships, homeless Mr. Mercury found refuge at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and slept in an abandoned Studebaker. One evening, while passing the Cafe Au Go Go nightclub in Greenwich Village, Mr. Mercury noticed Blood, Sweat & Tears playing. He was standing in the doorway when the band’s lead singer, David Clayton-Thomas, spotted him.

“This guy is my favorite singer in the world,” Mr. Clayton-Thomas told the audience, pointing out Mr. Mercury.

The couple knew each other from Toronto. “Eric was my old friend from Yonge Street”, the Grammy winner spinning wheel the singer told The Globe and Mail. “We used to sing duets at the Zanzibar Tavern.”

At Cafe Au Go Go, Mr. Clayton-Thomas and Mr. Mercury found themselves on the fly, participating in an impromptu jam. The unexpected showcase exposed Mr. Mercury to a few talent scouts and led to his breakthrough in the New York music business. “My life changed from that moment on,” he later told Canadian music journalist Bill King.

After signing a deal with the well-established record producing team of Luigi Creatore and Hugo Peretti, Mr. Mercury recorded Electric black man, a brash, declarative exercise in psychedelic soul released on the AVCO Embassy label in late 1969.

From there Mr. Mercury went on to make two studio albums for Enterprise Records, an imprint of the prestigious Stax Records. The first dates from 1971 Funky sounds nurtured in fertile Memphis soil that smells like rockperhaps the most richly descriptive album title in the history of recorded music.

Eric Mercure in 2018.Bill King

Mr. Mercury’s singing style was comparable to the raw-voiced ardor of Wilson Pickett, without any small dose of the blue-eyed urgency of a Paul Rodgers. His career (which began as a singer of church music at the age when most children were still learning to tie their shoes) spanned vocalizing doo-wop as a teenager in Toronto in the late 1900s. 1950s until his last single. woman with bright eyes in 2019.

In between, the irrepressible and affable Mr. Mercury starred in a staging of Jesus Christ Superstarperformed a pair of songs at the legendary Wattstax benefit concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1972, appeared in films American hot wax and The fish that saved Pittsburghand co-produced the 1980 album Roberta Flack with Donny Hathaway.

For this album, Mr. Mercury and Stevie Wonder co-wrote You are my paradise, a duet of Ms. Flack and Mr. Hathaway. It was the last song Mr. Hathaway ever recorded. The tall but troubled soul singer was found dead on the sidewalk under his 15th floor bedroom window at the Essex Hotel in New York City on January 13, 1979.

Although a review of Electric black man in the Toronto Star predicted that Mr. Mercury “should become a major rock figure”, the projected fame did not materialize. At Memphis-based Stax Records, where Mr. Mercury worked with top producers Steve Cropper and Al Bell, his career did not accelerate.

“Eric told me he felt like a fish out of water at Stax,” said Rob Bowman, a friend of Mr. Mercury and an ethnomusicologist who wrote the 2003 book. Soulsville, USA: The History of Stax Records. “He was a Canadian that nobody in the American R&B world knew about, and the folks at Stax didn’t know what to do with him.”

Race may have been a barrier, especially in the singer’s home country. “Being in Canada, whatever your color, it was tough,” Mercury said in a 2006 interview, referring to his decision to try his luck in the United States. “But being black was harder.”

In addition to his skin color, Mr. Mercury’s intelligence could have worked against him. “Being a black male artist in the music industry has always had its downsides, especially if you were smart, which Eric was,” said TS Monk, a Mr. Mercury collaborator and son of the jazz icon Thelonious Monk. “Eric knew the job, and when you know the job, you ask yourself questions. We’ve talked about this many times – the industry doesn’t like smart artists.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Mercury never achieved the status many thought he was destined to achieve. “Unless you really wanted to know more about Eric,” Mr. Bowman said, “you wouldn’t know his story.”

Eric Alexander Mercury was born in Toronto on June 28, 1944. He was the last child of seven children of Methodist minister George Luther Mercury and deaconess Gladys Viola Mercury (née Smith). Her father was from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; his mother was from Jamaica. They were community leaders who worked at the British Methodist Episcopal Church, just west of downtown Toronto.

At a young age, Mr. Mercury was a soloist in the junior choir, conducted by his aunt. By age 12, he was playing and touring with an ensemble of marching and maneuvering trumpets.

Inspired by American band Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, as a teenager, Mr. Mercury joined vocal group the Pharaohs along with other doo-wop enthusiasts, including Jay Jackson. (Along with his sister Shawne Jackson, Mr. Jackson would go on to lead the Majestics, a 13-piece R&B group that was part of the “Toronto Sound” of the late 1960s.)

After the Pharaohs, Mr. Mercury formed the Soul Searchers with singer Diane Brooks, William (Smitty) Smith on the Hammond B3 organ and others. The jazzy R&B ensemble moved from teenage clubs to licensed bars in Toronto before playing a show at The Scene club in New York, where Tiny Tim was the emcee of a bill headlined by the Doors and Chambers Brothers. “I was convinced that I was as good or better than anyone singing on the show,” Mr. Mercury recalled in 2019.

It was after Ms. Brooks left the Soul Searchers that Mr. Mercury left Canada and returned to New York as a solo artist. After his impromptu and captivating appearance with Mr. Clayton-Thomas at Cafe Au Go Go, Mr. Mercury returned to the venue with a band that included a four-piece horn section and guitarists Rick Derringer and Elliott Randall (a musician from session which later contributed to the Steely Dan song solo Reelin’ in the years).

Approached by Mr. Creatore and Mr. Peretti, Mr. Mercury was asked for his terms. The starving musician demanded US$25,000 and a green card. They gave him $12,500 and made arrangements to obtain his permanent resident status. Deal done.

Electric black man was recorded by eminent engineer Tony Bongiovi and produced by Gary Katz, who went on to produce a series of seven Steely Dan albums.

Background vocals on the album were Valerie Simpson (one half of Ashford & Simpson, the distinguished husband and wife production and songwriting team and recording duo with Nickolas Ashford) and Cissy Houston.

“Cissy couldn’t find a babysitter, so I told her to bring [her daughter] with her,” Mr. Mercury later told music podcast host Jake Feinberg. The Jake Feinberg Show. The child was Whitney Houston.

The tracks for Electric black man were dropped off at the Record Plant studio in New York at the same time Jimi Hendrix was there recording material for release after the guitarist’s death in 1970.

“We worked from noon until midnight,” Mr. Katz told the Globe. “When we left, Jimi was sitting in a plastic chair right outside the door, with a coterie of kids and other people. We’d open the door and he’d come in. The room was filled with Marshall amplifiers, from the floor We sat in front of the door and listened to Jimi play.

Upon its release, Electric black man makes noise on its own. Mr. Mercury and his band have played coast to coast, from the Fillmore East in New York to the Fillmore West in San Francisco.

Pop culture aficionados will remember Mr. Mercury as the lead singer of Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” ad campaign featuring Chicago Bulls basketball superstar Michael Jordan. Mr. Mercury lived in Chicago and Los Angeles before eventually returning to Canada.

Although Mr. Mercury had a personal (as well as professional) relationship with American superstar singer Ms. Flack, he tended not to speak publicly about the romance.

“I don’t think Eric had a hard time getting women to fall in love with him,” Mr Bowman said.

To those who knew Mr. Mercury well, he was known as “Merc”, an enthusiastic listener, spiritual seeker, inquisitive learner, socially conscious thinker and dedicated conversationalist.

In 2006, the musician was interviewed for a planned Canadian documentary about his life and career. A producer on the project recalled that the cinematographer feared that Mr Mercury would perform on camera, with a lot of bravado and spectacle.

“But I told the cinematographer that I thought it was just Eric,” Daniela Saioni told The Globe. “He was a showman, right? It was natural for him, not staged. I had the impression that Eric did not go out.

The cover of Eric Mercury’s 1969 debut solo album, Electric Black Man.Handout

The film, which was to include a concert proposed by luminaries such as Ms. Flack and Mr. Clayton-Thomas, never saw the light of day due to lack of funding. “I think the project was a bit ahead of its time,” Ms. Saioni said. “I think Canada is only now investing in its black stories.”

Existing footage shows Mr. Mercury being asked to define success. “It’s the depth of the journey,” he says, mentioning his belonging to the lineage of musicians he admired. “I am a soldier, he continued, “a successful soldier”.

Mr. Mercury leaves behind his son, Blake Mercury; 19 nieces and nephews; her close friend Martine Levy and many other friends.

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