Mrs. Swing

How Mildred Bailey Helped Define Jazz Singing

Poor Mildred Bailey. Her life was short and difficult, and the neglect of her art has been long and impervious. During the height of her career, she was accounted one of the most important singers in jazz or popular music, universally admired by critics and peers. Yet she enjoyed fewer than a dozen hits, most of them in the years 1937 to 1939, when Bailey and her husband Red Norvo were optimistically promoted as "Mr. and Mrs. Swing." Norvo's band, with its plush Eddie Sauter arrangements, was no less prized, but it also eluded popularity. Mildred's deceptively girlish voice and Red's nuanced polish had to fight for a place at a banquet dominated by lusty swing and mooning nostalgia, when the only kind of fighting they knew was to remain stubbornly independent. After they split up, Red brought his xylophone and (as of 1943) vibes to Benny Goodman, bebop, and Woody Herman, and established himself as a maverick jazz star. Mildred recorded for small labels while fighting debilitating illnesses for nearly a decade, before dying, in 1951, at 48.

Every so often, someone mounts a tribute or mourns her lack of recognition or releases a CD, but attempts to restore Bailey to the pantheon never take hold. Part of the blame must go to Columbia Legacy, which controls most of her best records and has declined to reissue them. In 1962, John Hammond edited athree-volume LP set, Mildred Bailey: Her Greatest Performances 1929-1946, doing for her what Columbia had done for his other favorite singers, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Musically, the collection was superb, but Hammond, who favored singers and records he produced, had a self-serving agenda and ignored dozens of sides that have remained unavailable since 78s. Neither that set nor the better one Bailey merits has made it to CD. Her second act is long overdue.

She was born Mildred Rinker, in 1903, on a large wheat farm 12 miles from Tekoa, Washington, across the border on the Idaho side. Her mother, Josephine, was part Coeur d'Alene Indian, and as the farm was on the reservation, the land had been deeded to her tax-free. Mildred was the oldest of four children and their home was filled with music. On occasion, neighbors from miles around would arrive in buggies for socials at which Mr. Rinker played fiddle and his wife piano. Every evening after supper, Mrs. Rinker, who had studied music with the nuns at the Catholic Academy in Tekoa, ventured selections from opera to ragtime. She spent hours at the piano with Mildred, teaching her to play and sing. Mildred was a skillful bareback rider who rode a buckskin pony five miles to school every morning with her brother Miles clinging to her waist. Her brother Alton—who would become Bing Crosby's vaudeville partner and later a member of the Rhythm Boys and a radio producer and composer—remembered those early years as idyllic.

In 1912, Mr. Rinker bought one of the first automobiles in the area to transport equipment from the city. Realizing he preferred the city, he leased the farm and moved the family 60 miles west to Spokane, where he opened an auto supply shop. Mildred was enrolled at St. Joseph's Academy, where she studied piano and became an able player. Tragedy struck in 1916, when Josephine contracted tuberculosis and died. Faced with raising four children, Charles Rinker hired a string of housekeepers and married one—an abusive, grasping woman, who moved in with her daughter while insisting he send his kids to boarding school. Rinker resisted her threats, trying to keep the family together, but Mildred despised her. Al remembered her at the piano singing songs of longing and faraway places: "Siren of the Southern Seas," "Just a Baby's Prayer at Twilight," "Araby." In 1920, at 17, Mildred packed a bag and ran off to Seattle.

For a while she lived with an aunt and supported herself by demonstrating sheet music at Woolworth's. Within a year, however, she married a merchant named Ted Bailey; the marriage was brief, but she decided to keep his name because she thought it sounded more American than the Swiss-derived Rinker. With the advent of Prohibition, the government's gift to jazz, Mildred began to sing in speakeasies on the coast and in Canada. While working in Vancouver and Calgary, she met and married a bootlegger named Benny Stafford. In those days, she looked nothing like the overweight "Rockin' Chair Lady" of 1930s radio fame. She was barely five feet and weighed under a hundred pounds. When her father finally shed himself of the wicked stepmother, Mildred visited Spokane to sing at Charlie Dale's speakeasy.

Her brother Al, four years younger, was unable to see her perform, though she shared with him records she collected by Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. But Al's friend Bing apparently did see Mildred at Dale's, even if his recollection of her as "the area's outstanding singing star" was a substantial exaggeration; she appeared locally only once and was little noted—speakeasies weren't reviewed. "She specialized in sultry, throaty renditions with a high concentrate of Southern accent, such as 'Louisville Lou' and 'Hard-Hearted Hannah,' " Bing recalled.

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