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.

Mildred and Benny moved to Los Angeles, where they bought a house at 1307 Coronado, a few blocks off Sunset Boulevard. He was prospering with his bootlegging and she was earning a reputation singing sad songs in local dives. In 1925, she was working for tips at a speakeasy in the Hollywood Hills run by a friend, Jane Jones. The place was a converted private house set back from the road and surrounded by a fence. A lookout vetted customers and ushered them into a large crowded room with tables, a bar, and a small platform for the piano and singer. The regulars, many of them movie stars, could avail themselves of prostitutes as well as booze. When the spirit moved her, Jane Jones, a big woman with a brassy style (Crosby later featured her in his movie East Side of Heaven), would sing a song or two, but her customers preferred the cooing subtlety of Mildred, whose melodramatic warhorses, such as "Ships That Never Came In," generated a river of generous tips.

Mildred was working at Jane's when Al and Bing arrived, unannounced, on her doorstep, hoping she could help start them in show business. She took them in, encouraged them, advised them of auditions, played records she thought they ought to hear, and boarded them until they were on their feet, which did not take long. By then, she had become an obsessive cook, and Al was shocked to see how heavy she was. She instantly hit it off with Bing, who called her Millie. They both liked a good time and shared advanced and expansive tastes in music. Al found her "a little too barrelhouse for me," but to Bing she was "mucho mujer, a genuine artist, with a heart as big as the Yankee Stadium, and a gal who really loved to laugh it up." Within a year, Paul Whiteman hired the boys, who resolved someday to help her attain the break she deserved. Nearly three years later, they had their chance.

The Whiteman band returned to Los Angeles in 1929, to make King of Jazz, but everything went wrong, and after weeks of waiting for the studio to come up with a script, the frustrated bandleader prepared to pull out. Whiteman made it clear he was not hiring anyone, least of all another singer (he had turned down Hoagy Carmichael that week), but Bing and Al were certain that if they could just get him to hear Mildred he would fall under her spell. Millie had become friendly with several guys in the band that summer. She took them horseback riding, cooked up a storm, and served her home brew, which created a sensation, as good beer was hard to find. Bing and Al persuaded her to throw the band a farewell party. Whiteman, a prodigious beer drinker, happily accepted the invitation. As Bing recalled, "Paul didn't know it at the time, but he was a goner when he walked into the house."

Hoagy Carmichael, Roy Bargy, and Lennie Hayton took turns at her Steinway. Rinker described what happened next: "Bing turned to Mildred and said, 'Hey, Millie, why don't you sing a song?' No one had ever heard her sing, but they all joined in, 'Yeah, c'mon, Millie, let's have a song.' At first, Mildred acted reluctant, but I knew it wouldn't last long." She asked Al to accompany her on "(What Can I Say) After I Say I'm Sorry," and "she sang the hell out of the song." After a brief silence, everyone started to cheer, and Whiteman, who had been in the kitchen, asked who was singing. Bing barked, "That was Millie, Al's sister." Whiteman walked over, kissed her, and asked for an encore. "All her past experience singing in speakeasies and night spots came out as she sang. Her small, pure voice gave the songs feeling and meaning, and you knew you were hearing a singer who was very special," Al wrote. That night Paul hired her to sing "Moanin' Low" on his Old Gold radio show. Weeks later she was on a train to New York, a contract in her purse—the first "girl singer" to tour with an orchestra. A year later she was the highest-salaried performer on Whiteman's payroll.

She made her first record in 1929, with Eddie Lang, and became an instant favorite of the jazz elite—the one white woman (she preceded Lee Wiley and Connie Boswell by a couple of years) with an identifiable style who could hold her own in a field dominated by black singers. She had been one of the first to assimilate the styles of Bessie Smith (whose blues she sang in an audition for Hammond), Ethel Waters (whose lighter voice was closer to home), and Louis Armstrong (whose time and invention liberated everyone). She would emerge as a transitional figure between them and the band singers that followed, including Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, though Bailey had a style all her own. Her high, light voice inclined to a whirring in the top notes while packing plenty of power; her time and enunciation were exemplary. After a couple of years as a sidewoman, indulging in excessive vibrato, she rid herself of affect and ornamentation. She focused on the language of a song, the meaning, the special story it had to tell. She was funny, cool, smooth, and always in a groove.

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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