“Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over. And I have advice for all of us. I got it from my pianist, Joe Zawinul, who wrote this tune. And it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. It’s called, ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.’”
—Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
Jazz piano legend Joe Zawinul was a composer, performer, electronic keyboard innovator, and band co-leader who left his enduring mark on music through the songs he wrote and in collaborations with the likes of Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Jaco Pastorius and “Cannonball” Adderley.
The hit single “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” was written by Zawinul and recorded by Adderley’s quintet for the Grammy Award-winning album, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at ‘The Club’” in 1967. “He just captured the essence of the African-American heritage, just the statement of melody and feeling of that song,” Herbie Hancock said of Zawinul.
On the song, Zawinul can be heard playing on a Wurlitzer electric piano, an instrument that strikes metal reeds (as opposed to strings in a piano) with felt hammers, to produce a range of sounds from those similar to a vibraphone, to those reminiscent of an overdriven electric guitar. First introduced to him by Ray Charles in 1959, Zawinul brought the electric sounds of the Wurlitzer, and later the similar yet mellower Fender Rhodes, to jazz and even rock.
Zawinul said, "It was the whole kick-off to that electronic thinking… The electric piano I was playing with Cannonball crossed over to the rock & roll kids.” Harold Rhodes was known to have accompanied Zawinul at shows where they would discuss the continued development of the Fender Rhodes electric pianos.
Zawinul’s use of new sounds led him throughout his musical career. His composition, “In a Silent Way” and contributions to the album “Bitches Brew” highlight his seminal work with Miles Davis. He co-founded the band Weather Report with Wayne Shorter to make, as percussionist Alex Acuna would put it, “music with all the sounds that the world generates.”
According to Zawinul, “For me, music is not notes, not chords. For me, music is atmosphere. And what you bring to it is your own life.”