Merceedees (1913-2000): Seattle's 1950s Bluesy Lounge-Piano Legend

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/08/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20187

Seattle was graced throughout the 1950s by the presence of an extremely elegant and popular local chanteuse who billed herself simply as "Merceedees." Born Mercedes Welcker, she was a piano-playing Chicago teen who moved at a young age to New York City and went on to compose a song recorded by big-time artists like the Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey orchestras. Merceedees came to Seattle as a World War II veteran in 1949 and her citywide popularity as an African American performer soon played a significant role in narrowing the cultural chasm between various racial communities. Pretty, glamorous, smart, and musically talented, she quickly scored her own Music with Merceedees show on early television station KING-TV and then a weekly radio program on KING-AM. Her star rose further with a regular gig at the swanky Sorrento Hotel and a recording contract with Seattle's pioneering Linden Records. Ever ambitious, she also built and ran a recording studio and founded her own Gold Seal publishing company and record label. But life's challenges wore on her, and Merceedees Walton ended up living alone in squalor during her final years.

By Any Other Name

Mercedes Antoinette Welcker was born on January 8, 1913, and raised on West Oak Street in Chicago. Her mother, Eliza "Ruby" Welcker, served for a time on the Chicago City Council, and her father was James M. Welcker (1873-1939). Mercedes learned piano from a young age and went on to join the union -- Chicago's American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 208. Being highly motivated, she moved to New York City at age 14, and by 1930 she was gigging in various supper clubs under the stage name "Merceedees." Little is currently known about the immediately subsequent years, but a newspaper account from 1935 has her (along with dancers from the Paul Asit College of the Stage, Radio, and Screen) performing at a fashion show. By August 1941 Billboard magazine noted that Merceedees was booked at New York jazz nightclub the Hickory House.

As a resident of the vibrant Harlem neighborhood, Merceedees would have been familiar with New York's fabled black-oriented nightclubs, including the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, Count Basie's Lounge, and the oddly named Gee-Haw Stables, which boasted a giant sculpted horse's head at its entryway. The Gee-Haw was an after-hours spot where African American arts, music, and literature luminaries gathered to hear performances by orchestras led by the likes of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Count Basie. Additionally, Gee-Haw patrons -- which included the famed vaudevillian dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as a regular -- might also have the chance to witness individual jazz headliners there like Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, and Art Tatum.

As it happened, Merceedes ended up running the Gee-Haw, and she excelled at entertaining people when they arrived in the wee small hours after most other clubs had shut down for the night. "She'd host the best of the best performers, serve up platters of fried chicken and they'd jam and sing and drink 'til dawn," according to a friend she described those days to years later (Pirtle email, April 4, 2016). Although one source states that the Gee-Haw was active up through 1945, Merceedees wasn't there at the end, because during World War II she volunteered to serve in the military.

You're in the Army Now

America entered the war immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and as the nation quickly mobilized, Mercedes Jordan-Welcker -- how, when, and why she took on the name "Jordan" remains a mystery -- was among the women who joined up. The unit she joined was the American Women's Voluntary Services (AWVS), where she became the head of a Harlem-based AWVS motor corps.

In 1942, as recounted in the 2013 book Double Victory: How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War:

"[One] black AWVS member became highly visible when she composed the catchy lyrics and music for the organization's official theme song, 'American Women for Defense' ... that one newspaper described as 'destined to be a great hit with orchestras and radio programs.' Mercedes donated the song to the AWVS on the condition that any proceeds from the performance of the song be divided three ways -- among the national AWVS committee and two Harlem units" (Mullenbach, 156).

Big-Time Big Bands

The book next noted Merceedees serving as a first lieutenant in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC -- later the Women's Army Corps or WAC), stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona: "Auxiliary Mercedes Jordan-Welcker, another former entertainer, had written the official WAAC song, 'We're the WAACs,' and quickly settled in as a motor transport specialist" (Mullenbach, 106). In 1943 The Afro-American newspaper reported that "Second Lt. Mercedes (Welcker) Jordan, a WAC Special Service Officer at Fort Huachuca ... is credited with composing a new hit song, 'Do You Know,' currently featured by Jimmy Dorsey's band."

Glenn Miller and the Army Air Forces Band also recorded "Do You Know (Well I Do)" -- which is still available today on the two-CD set Medley Time: Historic Recordings from the Golden Age of Swing -- as did Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra and about a dozen other bands. It was sometime after January 1945 when black WAAC members were first allowed to serve in the European theater, and Lieutenant Mercedes Jordan was shipped over to France to truck supplies to the troops. Afterward "[s]he told friends she got so used to bombing that she would just ignore orders in the middle of the night to retire to bomb shelters" (Eskenazi). But Merceedees never did get used to racial discrimination -- and one friend later recalled that "She was a lady with a lot of guts," but she "had kind of a chip on her shoulder over the way things were" (Eskenazi).

Seattle Bound

Among the many stray threads in the life story of Merceedees is the suggestion of an apparent marriage at a young age (hence the name Jordan?). Her Seattle Times obituary asserts, without naming him or providing any details, that her first husband died, and refers to her marriage in King County as her second. According to a brief 1952 feature in The Bothell Citizen, "Merceedees first came to the Coast after serving as a quartermaster corps lieutenant with the WACS during the war, later meeting and marrying [Russell] Walton, a well-known Bothell mink rancher" ("Jazz Jamboree"). According to King County records, Russell Walton married "Merceedess R. [sic] Jordan" on June 11, 1949 (Marriage Certificate No. 156540). Their ranch was near the old Northern Pacific Railroad depot in Bothell, a then rural-suburb located northeast of Seattle on the north end of Lake Washington.

In December 1949 The Seattle Times hyped this newcomer's talents by noting that she has "been charming 'em in Chicago, is making her western bow here" in a "one-woman floor show, come Christmas Eve" at Jules Daverso's American-Italian Cafe at 620 Union Street in downtown Seattle and "Plays a powerful piano, they say, and vocalizes torchy or classical" (Lund). At that time, Seattle was a bustling port town that had experienced rapid growth during the war years, including the influx of many new African American families. Sadly, the town still had two racially segregated musicians unions -- and so, on December 22, Merceedees by necessity joined AFM Local 493, which was composed of African Americans and other non-Caucasian players (while Local 76 was restricted to whites).

Merceedees's talents and glamorous beauty garnered her almost instantaneous popularity and notoriety. By August 1950 The Seattle Times even found it worthwhile to note that she was spotted strolling downtown: "Brightening Union Street ... en route to buy Aqua Follies tickets. Transplanted from Paris, New York and Chicago, she loves Seattle, and here she plans to stay ..." ("Strolling Around the Town").

The Waltons' marriage, however, was troubled and in May 1950 Russell Walton filed for divorce based on claims of "cruelty." The divorce was granted on April 5, 1951. Further troubles were afoot: Six months later, on December 7, 1951, The Seattle Times reported that "Mrs. Merceedees A. Walton, 39, housewife, Bothell," had been convicted of being "Intoxicated in a public place, driving while under the influence of liquor and reckless driving" and was fined $80, with "licensed revoked for a year and 20 days in jail, suspended" ("Seaman ..."). Perhaps things got a bit less complicated after that incident as, before long, Merceedees was living in her own home at 1612 28th Avenue in Seattle's Central Area.

Top o' the Town

In 1951 Merceedes was among the prominent black musicians who played benefit concerts to help AFM 493 acquire its own union headquarters building at 1319 E Jefferson Street, which also came to serve as the musicians' private nightclub, the Blue Note. Although traditionally AFM 493 members were excluded from working most nightclubs, theaters, and ballrooms in Seattle's downtown core and North-end rooms -- instead playing the more modest African American-oriented venues along East Madison Street and a string of bars and halls along South Jackson Street -- as the 1950s progressed, a handful of popular black artists occasionally were able to bend these unwritten segregation rules.

Among them was Merceedees. As early as November 1951, she was booked to perform at a Carnival event at the Catholic Seamen's Club at 412 Olive Way. And as her public profile rose, so did her fortunes. The management at the still-new KING-TV discovered her, and the Music with Merceedees program debuted on January 24, 1952. The show's sponsors included Amana Appliances and Merceedees composed a clever little theme jingle with the hook "It's So Nice to Have A Man A-round the House." As television itself was a fresh phenomenon, Merceedees became the talk of the town. In particular, her performance style caught viewers' attention -- especially since she often "added a bit of drum-like rhythm to her music by vigorously snapping the piano pedals with her foot" (Richardson).

On October 27, 1952, KING-AM (1690) radio added the Merceedees Show at 6:30 p.m. Mondays and by November the show had expanded to a daily slot. On January 25, 1953, Merceedees was among the talents who performed at a benefit show for the March of Dimes Polio Fund held at the Metropolitan Theatre at 4th Avenue and University Street. The program featured a trio headed by Art Barduhn -- a host of KING-TV's Clipper Capers show -- along with numerous local African American jazz aces, including Gerald Frank, Floyd Standifer (1929-2000), and Billy Tolles (1934-2005). Then on February 20 and 21 Merceedees -- along with another Clipper Capers star, accordionist and humorist Stan Boreson (1925-2017) -- provided musical interludes at the 1953 All-Coast Press Clinic convention in Bothell. In November Merceedees was the awards presenter at another Carnival event at the Seamen's Club, and on November 25, 1953, a new era dawned with her debut at the Top o' the Town rooftop lounge at the uptown Sorrento Hotel at 900 Madison Street -- a booking that broke the color barrier, as this venue was within AFM 76's traditional turf.

It was at about this time that Adolph Linden (1889-1969) made the decision to have Merceedees cut a few discs for his pioneering company Linden Records and the resulting recordings included "Do You Know What It Is to Be Lonely"/"Have Faith in Me as I Have in You" (No. 138), "The Craziest Thing I Do"/"Like a Ship at Sea" (No. 139), "Hungry for Love"/"I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" (No. 160), and "Christmas Eve in a Monastery." With each record release, radio show, and TV appearance, her fan base grew and attendance at the Top o' the Town increased further.

There was a growing sense that what would become known as the civil rights era was dawning, and more and more people looked to pitch in on the struggle. Merceedees had always kept an eye on politics. As she noted in 1953, when she informed The Seattle Times that she'd filed the necessary paperwork to run for a seat on the Seattle City Council, "my family has long been deeply interested in political affairs. My mother ... was a member of the City Council in Chicago and our family always used to discuss public questions at home" -- but, she added, "I was quite startled -- although pleased too, of course -- when representatives of several community and civic groups urged me to file for the council" ("Singer Files ..."). She told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that "If elected, I would like to help in every way to make Seattle a better city. I am interested in my race and feel we should have representation on the City Council" (Eskenazi). For unclear reasons, the singer withdrew from the race by year's end.

Gigging Around

The years flew by with Merceedees firmly established as a popular draw at the Top o' the Town -- which still catered to a strictly white crowd -- and occasionally taking leaves of absence to play elsewhere, including the Harrison Hot Springs Hotel in British Columbia. But as 1958 dawned, the lay of the land was changing. On January 14 the leadership of AFM Local 76 and that of AFM Local 493 finally completed the merger of the two unions and tried to move past the decades of segregation. It seemed that new opportunities awaited. In late April -- and as a new member of AFM Local 76 --Merceedees announced that after five years gigging at the Sorrento, she would be moving on to a different nightclub, and it "will definitely be in Seattle" (Guzzo).

In October 1958 the New Washington Hotel at Second Avenue and Stewart Street booked Merceedees into its Pompeian Lounge and in December moved her up to the Brigadier Room. In July 1959 she began working in the Dominote Room at Caston's Charcoal Broiler at 2620 Third Avenue -- while simultaneously, and humbly, taking on a day job in the cafeteria at the AFM 76 union hall. She then returned to the Pompeian Lounge, and in October she performed at University District's Edmund Meany Hotel at 4507 Brooklyn Avenue NE.

Good Times/Troubles Ahead

Meanwhile, Merceedees had earned a reputation among her circle of friends for throwing great parties at her house at 1612 Empire Way, to which she had moved from the 28th Avenue house. By early 1959 Merceedees had invested a small fortune in building a recording studio in the basement, where she also launched her own Gold Seal Music Publishing Company and record label. Around June 1959 Gold Seal issued a bluesy single (No. 7x 1000) -- "Please, Baby, Be Mine"/"Not Me" -- which featured her overdubbed harmonized vocals and music by a combo billed as the Individuals. Then Gold Seal published sheet music for several of her compositions, including 1960's "(That Wonderful) Evening in June" and "These Are the Things You Are" and 1961's "I'll Remember Winter."

In May 1961 newspaper ads appeared trumpeting the fact that "Merceedees Is Back" at the Sorrento's Top o' the Town lounge, and it seemed that the good times were back. Part of the deal struck for that gig was that the hotel would be paying her a rental fee for the use of her piano and her stage lights. But a few months later, something untoward must have occurred, because -- as she would note in an angry three-page letter of complaint to AFM 76 -- on September 13 "I was advised to 'take two or three days off and wait until I was called by the manager to come back to work'" (Walton letter, 1961). In short, Merceedees was indignant about not being called back to the Top o' the Town, about being given the runaround in getting her gear back, and because according to union rules she couldn't take on another job because she was still contracted to the Sorrento (even though that venue apparently didn't want her back), and she felt that the union wasn't backing her:

"I am hurt and hurt deeply because my union failed to fight for my rights. I have tried always to be a member in good standing and adhere to the laws and rules. ... I feel I have been treated unjustly and the indifferent attitude taken by the board has only added fuel to the fire. It is hard to believe this has been done intentionally, but I do feel it has been done through ignorance of what is right and what is wrong and if I am so wrong in my thinking then there is no place in this society for such as I" (Walton letter, 1961).

After hearings were held at AFM 76 headquarters with each of the involved parties throughout November and December, the union sent Merceedees a letter on December 12, 1961. Its final conclusion was that her claim against the Sorrento (seeking interest on late paychecks and gear rentals) "could not be allowed." Although Merceedees popped up at occasional gigs around town after all this, she would later write that "I have been out of the union since 1961" -- although, perhaps out of mercy, AFM 76 did not officially expel her until December 31, 1964 (Walton letter, 1969).

And there was more bad news to follow. On December 21, 1961, Merceedees reported to the Seattle Police Department that someone had broken into her home while she was napping and stole her sable stole that she valued at $1,200. And, somewhere along the line, Merceedees was hospitalized three different times -- something she noted in a letter to AFM 76 along with the bitter fact that no one from the union ever visited her or sent a get-well card. By September 1969 she seemed to be panicking. In a sadly desperate letter mailed to AFM president Herman Kenin in New York, she complained at length about all the union dues she'd paid over the years and, citing the lack of benefits she'd ever received, demanded a complete refund:

"I've paid from Chicago to New York to Seattle Washington, a lot of money that I need now to save my home. Money that belongs to me and I want it back. Due to an accident my musical career had to end and things have been and still are pretty miserable. For me what good was the union, with all of the years and money I've put in ... what do you ever get back -- nothing ... I am sending a letter to the legal department of the NAACP, one to the Labor Department of the Federal Government, one to the President of the United States and anyone else I can find to help me. If I had that money I could save my home ..." (Walton letter, 1969).

Alas, neither the union nor anyone else came through to help Merceedees. Due to the steep construction costs of building the recording studio, her finances were overwhelmed, she ultimately failed to make mortgage payments, and her house was foreclosed.

Final Years

Merceedees was eventually able to buy a different house, at 1611 E Union Street, where Seattle's Central Area and Capitol Hill neighborhoods merge. There, as her obituary put it, "For most of the last half of her life, she lived alone in a two-story house on a busy Capitol Hill street. She wouldn't allow even a friend of more than 70 years past her front door" (Eskenazi). On the night of Wednesday, March 22, 2000, she passed away at Harborview Medical Center, where she'd been admitted two days prior with respiratory problems, and was then laid to rest at the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Washington.

Although Merceedees Walton's final years were a struggle -- living solo with a couple of pet dogs in the remains of her house, which had suffered a major fire -- she did still accept visits from old friends and a couple of neighbors. Among the latter was Rebecca Pirtle, who befriended the aging musician and in 2016 provided this poignant epitaph:

"Even though Merceedees was a recluse and stopped taking care of herself, it was marvelous to know her for that brief period of time. I only talked to her from the alley while she sat on her front porch. Merceedees talked to me about life on the mink farm some, and she always wore a big, tattered mink coat when she sat on her front porch. Her house was rat-infested, a burned shell -- and who knows how terrible it was inside. I had a babe-in-arms at the time that she took a keen interest in. We were all concerned about her health and safety but she made it clear she chose to remain there -- so we'd bring her food and provisions. In return we got her hearty laugh, snippets of stories and a fierce twinkle in her cloudy eyes. She was a quintessential character of a time long gone who wore its brilliant and raucous sheen still" (Pirtle email, April 4, 2016).


Sources:

Peter Blecha interview with Merceedees Walton, 1996, transcript in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Leslie Meyer, MLIS (genealogy research consultant), emails to Peter Blecha, September 21-22, 2016, in possession of Peter Blecha; Peter Blecha interviews with Rebecca Pirtle, March-April 2016, transcript in possession of Peter Blecha; Rebecca Pirtle, emails to Peter Blecha, March-April 2016, in possession of Peter Blecha; Kirsten G. James, emails to Peter Blecha, February 22, 2016, in possession of Peter Blecha; "Beautiful Models 'Show Off' Latest in Fashion World," The Pittsburgh Courier, March 2, 1935, p. 8; "Acts-Units-Attractions-Routes -- Nightclubs-Vaudeville," Billboard, August 2, 1941, p. 20; "Pens Smash Song Hit," The Afro-American, October 23, 1943, p. 8; Cheryl Mullenbach, Double Victory: How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War I (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013), 106, 157-158; Marriage Certificate No. 156540 (Russell Walton and Merceedess R. Jordan), King County, June 11, 1949, copy available at Washington State Digital Archives website accessed November 7, 2016 (http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/DigitalObject/View/DFFE687E4A111B9559BDCD807703F192); Nat Lund, "Enjoy Your Christmas Dinner With Us," The Seattle Times, December 21, 1949, p. 18; "Strolling Around the Town," Ibid., August 11, 1950, p. 21; "Seaman, Already Convicted of Assault ... ," Ibid., December 7, 1951, p. 20; "Carnival to Be Held by Seamen's Club," Ibid., November 15, 1953, p. 74; "For Polio Fund," Ibid., January 22, 1953, p. 13; "Singer Files as Candidate for Council," Ibid., December 2, 1953, p. 26; Ross Cunningham, "Municipal Politics: Anti-Odell Forces Seek Technicality," Ibid., January 1, 1954, p. 17; Louis R. Guzzo, "Words and Music," Ibid., April 28, 1958, p. 15; "$1,200 Sable Reported Stolen" Ibid., December 22, 1961, p. 2; Stuart Eskenazi, "Chanteuse to Recluse: Merceedees Walton Dies," Ibid., March 24, 2000, p. B-1; "'Jazz Jamboree' Due Wednesday," The Bothell Citizen, October 23, 1952, p. 1; Merceedees Walton, letter to AFM 76, November 16, 1961, AFM 76-493 archives, Seattle, Washington; AFM 76 "Acting Secretary," letter to Merceedees Walton, December 12, 1961, AFM 76-493 archives; Merceedees Walton, letter to Herman Kenin, AFM president, New York, NY, September 15, 1969, AFM 76-493 archives; David Richardson, Puget Sounds: A Nostalgic Review of Radio and TV in the Great Northwest (Seattle: Superior Publishers, 1981), 104; " Merceedees Walton," Find a Grave website accessed June 6, 2015 (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi- bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=walton&GSfn=merceedees&GSiman=1&GScid=109448&GRid=46137383).


Related Topics:   Biographies | Black Americans | Music & Musicians

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