Mrs. Swing

How Mildred Bailey Helped Define Jazz Singing

In 1933, she married Whiteman's xylophonist, Red Norvo, and during the next couple of years, before he organized his own orchestra, she became famous for her radio appearances, billed as the "Rockin' Chair Lady," after her 1932 success with the Hoagy Carmichael song. For a while, she and Red lived with violinist Joe Venuti and his wife Sally on 55th Street. Along with Bing, himself a radio star, and his wife Dixie, living at the nearby Essex House, the two couples often socialized, anticipating few hardships in riding out the Depression. But Mildred was bedeviled by a fierce temper, enormous pride, and a lonely soul that she attempted to soothe with food. Al thought she used the dishes she prepared and her pets—a fleet of dachshunds—as a substitute for children. As sentimental as she was high-strung, she was an easy touch and a formidable enemy. Trombonist Milt Bernhart related a story he learned from Norvo, years after her death, when he mentioned that the first time he heard the classic records she made with Teddy Wilson, he—like many others—assumed she was black. Red chuckled and told him a story that he thought summed her up.

After Mildred became a star in the early 1930s, headlining on radio and in theaters with Whiteman's orchestra, a rival singer spread rumors that she was black and a Hearst columnist began publishing hints to that effect. Whiteman didn't care in the least—he would have hired black musicians if his management hadn't talked him out of it. But Mildred was incensed. One day she asked Whiteman if he was still friendly with William Randolph Hearst, whom he had known during his salad days in San Francisco. Whiteman said he was. She demanded he phone Hearst and have the columnist fired. Whiteman complied, as did Hearst. A couple of years later, she and Red emerged from a theater when a man in a threadbare overcoat walked over and asked, "Miss Bailey?" The former columnist apologized for what he had written and turned to go, by which time Mildred was convulsed with tears. She asked his name and address, then went to Whiteman and got him rehired.

Her marriage to Red lasted until 1945, but by then the war and changing tastes had challenged them in a way the Depression could not. Bailey adapted to a modern context with an even more robust yet austere attack, but was relegated to a fading era. Unlike Billie and Ella, whose producers recorded them in pop contexts with saturated strings, she pressed on with small-group sessions devoted to mostly good but little-known songs. She recorded some of her finest work in her later years, while suffering from diabetes and heart disease. Yet attention was no longer paid.

Several excellent CDs track her progress while skirting the period owned by Columbia; unfortunately, they duplicate each other. The best introductory discs are The Rockin' Chair Lady (Decca) and the British import, That Rockin' Chair Lady (Topaz), both of which have the Teddy Wilson date with Johnny Hodges and Bunny Berigan. The Decca includes her 1941 session with the Delta Rhythm Boys, stunning versions of "Lover Come Back to Me" and "It's So Peaceful in the Country," and her last studio records, from 1950, which reveal how vital she remained. The Topaz is a 1930s greatest-hits anthology, including sessions with the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, an all-star band with Teddy Wilson and Chu Berry ("When Day Is Done" and "Someday Sweetheart"), and a few of her and Norvo's Columbias, notably "Thanks for the Memory," "Don't Be That Way," and the incomparably spooky "Smoke Dreams."

For a closer look at how she developed, two volumes on TOM track her from 1929 to 1934; they repeat all the Dorsey and Goodman tracks from Topaz and the Casa Loma date from Decca, but offer much more. Volume One, Sweet Beginnings, shows how labored her Ethel Waters-influenced vibrato was in the early years—to the point of a Jolson-esque theatricality that is oddly effective on "Travlin' All Alone," one of two tracks heightened by Jimmie Noone's stirring blend of clarinet and alto sax. She jettisoned a trademark hanh-h'-hanh-h'-hanh humming bit, thankfully, heard on the Casa Loma "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," which is not nearly as good as the Whiteman version, recorded months later and also included. By November 1931 ("Too Late"), she is entirely in her element, and remains there for Volume Two, Band Vocalist, which is marred only by a few "darkie" songs—but that's history. Red Norvo Featuring Mildred Bailey is an enchanting selection of Columbias, including the very swinging "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," but most of her benchmark performances from that period are unavailable—the sublime 1938-39 dates with Mary Lou Williams ("Ghost of a Chance"), "Bob White," the hilarious "Weekend of a Private Secretary," and many more.

The later period is spottily covered by The Legendary V-Disc Sessions (VJC) and The Blue Angel Years (Baldwin), which duplicate some of the same V-Discs. But the former, though impaired by the most unctuous radio announcer ever heard, includes four duets with Teddy Wilson, among them an achingly slow "Rockin' Chair," and a few intriguing breakdown takes with Norvo, as well as a definitive reading of the song that should have been her second signature tune, "I'll Close My Eyes." That little-remembered gem is also included on the Baldwin CD, which focuses on the sessions she made for Crown and—far better—Majestic with pianist Ellis Larkins. The best-known of the Majestics (produced by Hammond in 1946), however, are found on the unreasonably short Me and the Blues (Savoy), though a more comprehensive edition has been issued in Europe. Among the highlights are the studio version of "I'll Close My Eyes"; the best song written by her brother Al, "You Started Something"; the first date-rape anthem, "It's a Woman's Prerogative"; and her heavenly "Lover Come Back to Me." Once you get Bailey's light liquid voice in your head, you want more and more.

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