Eric Mercury, the Canadian interpreter of Electric Black Man, singer of the “Be Like Mike” campaign, has died

TORONTO — Eric Mercury’s raw, soulful voice pushed the boundaries of rock music so successfully that the late musician’s 1969 debut solo album, “Electric Black Man,” earned him the nickname for its title.

While the Toronto singer-songwriter’s friends called him “Merc,” those who admired his music crowned him “the electric black man,” a testament to the impact of an album that never didn’t sell in great numbers, but won over his most esteemed contemporaries, including Miles Davis.

“He’s a pioneer of black rock stardom,” suggested Mark Ruffin, one of Mercury’s friends and host on Sirius XM’s Real Jazz channel.

Mercury died Monday in Montreal after a battle with pancreatic cancer, his niece Lee Ann Mercury said. He was 77 years old.

Born in Toronto to a Methodist minister and a deaconess, Mercury was the youngest of seven children in a musical family. Together, many of the siblings have performed in choir and in bands at church functions and other community events.

These early experiences opened his eyes to the world of live music, and in the late 1950s he began playing in Toronto rock and R&B bands just as the city’s live music scene caught fire.

The Pharaohs welcomed Mercury into their band before he came to the fore as part of the Soul Searchers, an act where he co-headlined with fellow singer Dianne Brooks.

Four-time Grammy nominee Brenda Russell met the Soul Searchers when she was 14 and hoped to perform live. Eventually, she opened for the group.

“They were the most amazing things I had ever seen,” she recalls.

“They were the biggest soul band in the country; there was no one like them.

By 1968 Mercury had parted ways for New York in pursuit of a solo career. It was a rocky start with friends saying he spent his early days in the Big Apple effectively homeless.

When he found his footing, he landed in the recording studio to make “Electric Black Man,” a bold and vibrant debut album that showcased his vocals against a wall of electric guitars.

The songs were urgent and unpredictable, ranging from the funky “Long Way Down” to a cover of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” to the nearly seven-minute psychedelic journey of “Earthless.”

The album was recorded while Jimi Hendrix was composing his own songs at the Record Plant studio in New York. The two musicians often meet.

“We were working from noon to midnight,” said Gary Katz, who produced “Electric Black Man.”

“When we were leaving at midnight, we would open the door and Jimi was sitting outside with a group of six or eight people, some of whom were young children all in tie-dye. We would go out the door and they would come in. The room was filled with Marshall cabinets, floor to ceiling, I can’t even tell you how many, and we sat right outside the door and listened.

Upon its release, “Electric Black Man” found its fans, one of the most notable being jazz legend Miles Davis who, as Mercury’s friends tell the story, gathered his bandmates together in a room with a supply of drugs to help them immerse themselves in the album. .

“He made them listen – and they loved it,” Russell said. “They listened to it again and again.”

After a falling out with his original label, Mercury jumped onto Enterprise Records, an imprint of famed Memphis label Stax Records that was created to branch out of the traditional soul market.

He released three more solo albums with singles including ‘I Can Smell That Funky Music’, which fused elements of roots and soul, and ‘Don’t Lose Faith in Me Lord’, an exuberant call to the track. dance that draws from its church roots.

His other work included writing and producing for several other artists, including Dusty Springfield, Donny Hathaway and Dionne Warwick, while his song “You Are My Heaven”, co-written with Stevie Wonder, was recorded by Roberta Flack .

Mercury continued making music later in life, contributing vocals to “Bright Eyed Woman,” a 2019 song by Montreal composer Anthony Aramouni.

He also dabbled in acting over the years and appeared in a stage production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and on the big screen in “American Hot Wax,” a 1978 drama about the career of the record- radio jockey Alan Freed.

Mercury has left his mark on other corners of popular culture, including as the lead singer in Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” ad campaign featuring basketball superstar Michael Jordan.

His song “Long Way Down” would also be sampled by hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest for their 1991 track “Rap Promoter”.

“He was a creative junkie,” Ruffin said of his friend.

“He absorbed pop culture more than anyone I know. And by absorbing it, I mean everything. When we were hanging out in Chicago…we used to go to that place and play Trivial Pursuit and he wore people out, no matter what.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 16, 2022.


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