Cannonball Adderley’s introduction to today’s song is an apt response to today’s snowstorm for anyone who has been stuck in traffic or waiting for a bus delayed by the weather. We hope you get where you’re going safely, and we’re sure the day will get better once you’re inside looking out at the lovely snow with a warm cup of coffee or cocoa in your hands.
Joe Zawinul wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” for the 1966 album subtitled Live at “The Club” by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Producer David Axelrod conjured the idea of recording the “live” album in the Capitol studios before an invited audience (and an open bar) to recapture the energy of Cannonball’s Live at San Francisco album. That record had changed how how live jazz was captured, owing to the work of recording engineer Reice Hamel. Not exactly a “fake live album,” since there is an audience, the notes to Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live at “The Club” credit the location as a restaurant in Chicago which was owned by a friend of Cannonball Adderley’s.
The song is not a blues, although it is given that sense by Zawinul’s particularly inventive chord progression of dominant-sevenths. It’s really a showcase for his playing on an album which is otherwise focused on the horns, played by Cannonball and his brother Nat Adderley. On the record Zawinul plays the Wurlitzer electric piano, although in later live recordings with Cannonball’s group he switches to the Fender Rhodes for a warmer sound. The piano he used for the recording session once belonged to Ray Charles. After leaving the group Zawinul joined Miles Davis’ first fusion outfit where he played a large role in developing that new sound. He was also a founding member of Weather Report. He is widely considered one of jazz’s best electric pianists, and his work expanded the music’s oeuvre enormously, encompassing experiments with world beats, and musique concrete-esque sampling techniques.
But “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” remains one of his best-known compositions. It was a top ten hit on the R&B chart, something increasingly uncommon for jazz singles by 1966. The song is often performed with lyrics, but not often the same lyrics. The Buckinghams and the Mauds recorded versions with differing lyrics the following year (The Mauds’ lyrics were written by Curtis Mayfield). Here are our two favorite recordings of the song.