Mildred Bailey, the “Rockin’ Chair Lady,” began her singing profession demonstrating sheet music songs for individual customers in Seattle, Washington, when she was 17 years old. She would then go on to spend her entire career singing in the same intimate, person-to-person manner. Rather than shouting, scatting, or employing gimmicks, Bailey honored a wide variety of lyrics and melodies with her perfect diction and delicate voice, enchanting each listener who came under her spell. Some critics have questioned whether Bailey was truly a jazz singer or simply an exceptional pop singer. Nonetheless, her influence on generations of jazzvocalists who followed is unquestioned. Considered the first female microphone singer, Bailey taught the next generation how to use this new technology.
Born Mildred Rinker on February 27, 1907, Bailey grew up in a musical family. Her Irish father played the violin, and her mother was an accomplished pianist. Bailey’s brother Alton would later team up with Bing Crosby and Harry Barris to form the famous Rhythm Boys singing group. When her mother died in 1917, Mildred moved to Seattle to live with an aunt. While she was struggling early in her career, Mildred was married to Ed Bailey, and though the union was short-lived, the name became permanent. As Mildred Bailey, she played piano for silent movies, sang in clubs of various kinds, and moved to Los Angeles, where her brother and Crosby joined her, penniless and jobless. She helped them form a vaudeville act that landed them a job in 1927 with Paul Whiteman, perhaps the hottest name in music.
When the Whiteman troupe visited Los Angeles in 1929, Crosby and Al Rinker urged Whiteman to visit Mildred’s home for dinner—and an audition. Greatly impressed, Whiteman added Mildred Bailey to his traveling group, and she was soon singing on his popular radio program. In his Handbook of Jazz, Barry Ulanov asserted, “Mildred Bailey set the standards for band singing, first with Paul Whiteman and then with the orchestra that she and Red Norvo led; she was generously gifted with preciseness of intonation and tenderness of phrase; she could sing with lilt or a larruping good humor, as the song required; she had rhythmic and tonal instincts that could do justice to every one of the able lyrics and better tunes with which a few song writers were providing jazz singers.”
Thus Bailey became the first jazz singer—indeed, the first “girl” singer—to perform regularly with a band. In succeeding years, and throughout the swing and big band era, virtually every band would have a female
For the Record…
Born Mildred Rinker, February 27, 1907, in Teoka, WA; died December 12, 1951, in Poughkeepsie, NY; father was an amateur violinist; mother was a pianist; married Ed Bailey (divorced); married Red Norvo, c. 1931 (divorced, c. 1943).
Began career singing sheet music songs in a Seattle music store, 1924; played piano for silent movies; sang in Los Angeles clubs, 1925-28; joined Paul Whiteman Orchestra and began recording career, 1929; recorded first LPs under her own name, 1931; sang in Red Norvo’s band, 1936-39; star of The Mildred Bailey Radio Show, 1944-45; performed intermittently as health permitted until 1951.
Awards: Silver Award, 1944, and Gold awards, 1945-46, Esquire.
vocalist; many of those singers were influenced by or would try to pattern themselves after the original.
Emulating Bailey was not an easy task. She brought a unique blend of qualities to her singing, beginning with a gossamer soprano voice, which darkened slightly in its later years, and an ever-present, almost too–fast vibrato. Bailey sang simply, without pretense or adornment. Rarely substituting notes for the written melody, she relied on sure pitch and perfect diction throughout her career. The vocalist’s sense of time—without which a jazz musician sinks—was elegant.
To her exquisite phrasing of even the most common lyric, she brought a feeling, an accent that imparted new light and meaning to the words. She would often sing slightly ahead of the beat, creating an urgency; at other times she employed a slight pause, a dragging of the beat, a stretching of a word, a shaded intonation, or a glissando to deliver the message. All of this seemed effortless and natural for Bailey.
Throughout her recording career, which stretched from October 5, 1929, with guitarist Eddie Lang, to an April 25, 1950, session accompanied by Vic Schoen’s orchestra, Bailey sang the entire range of songs: popular novelty tunes, torch songs, blues, popular love songs, spirituals, and especially the great American classical music of the 1930s and 1940s. Believing that every song deserved her best effort, Bailey never sang down to a tune. In his In Quest of Music, Irving Kolodin remarked, “A special wing belongs to the Baileys of jazz, those of the quieter but no less insinuating persuasion, whose art is in the chamber music category.”
While Bailey’s exposure to national audiences began with the outsized Whiteman orchestra, and while much of her radio and recorded legacy is with full-sized orchestras, some of her most appealing work was done with smaller, more intimate, “chamber-sized” groups. Even while singing with Whiteman for about five years, Bailey made recordings with other groups, many composed of other Whiteman musicians. Among the noted jazz musicians with whom Bailey recorded were trumpeters Bunny Berigan, Roy Eldridge, and Ziggy Elam; saxophonists Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, and Johnny Hodges; the Dorsey Brothers; clarinetist Benny Goodman; drummer Gene Krupa; guitarists Eddie Lang and Dick McDonough; and pianists Mary Lou Williams and Teddy Wilson. Included on any list of the most brilliant Bailey recordings are those with her Alley Cats (Berigan, Hodges, Wilson and bassist Grachan Monchur), those with her Swing Band (Norvo, Berry, Wilson, McDonough, and others), and those made with variations on the Norvo orchestra.
One of the musicians Bailey met through Paul Whiteman was Red Norvo, the great xylophonist and vibraharpist. Bailey and Norvo were married for 12 years beginning in 1931, but their musical marriage proved far smoother than their personal relationship, which was marked by monumental and often well-publicized fights and arguments. Between 1936 and 1939 Norvo and Bailey performed and recorded regularly together as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing” with Red’s band of various sizes. This group, spiced by the subtle, swinging arrangements of Eddie Sauter, produced what is considered to be some of the most sophisticated jazz of any era.
Bailey and Norvo’s home was a regular gathering place for the elite of New York’s jazz and show world. During one party the famous Benny Goodman trio was born. Goodman and pianist Teddy Wilson, aided by a guest who was an amateur drummer, spontaneously began playing together. Within months, on July 13, 1935, the first Goodman trio recording surfaced with Gene Krupa on drums. This group, with the later addition of Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, became the nucleus of what was probably the first integrated band to appear in public.
Bailey first recorded the famous song “Rockin’ Chair” in 1932 with a Whiteman splinter group led by Matt Malneck and recut it several times thereafter. The song was written for her by Hoagy Carmichael, and Bailey became permanently associated with it as the “Rockin’ Chair Lady.” Bailey, with her light, airy voice, was a study in contrasts. Extremely sensitive, Bailey could sometimes explode into temper displays, but her generosity was equally renowned. Friends and audiences enjoyed her ready wit and outgoing, sometimes boisterous manner. Though she never achieved the commercial success she coveted, Bailey was hailed by fellow musicians and singers.
Bailey sought perfection in her performances and expected the same from her accompanists. Toronto trumpeter Paul Grosney, sitting in with a Norvo group in New York in the mid-1940s, received one order from the leader: “Don’t step on her lyrics!” Bailey was confident of her ability, but retained a modesty that bordered on self-doubt. She had listened early and often to the great jazz and blues singers who preceded her, especially Bessie Smith. Their styles were vastly different, however: Bessie’s was raucous and mesmerizing, while Bailey’s was understated and captivating. Smith’s only appearance on New York City’s 52nd Street, at the Famous Door in February of 1936, caused a sensation and was attended by Bailey. After the “Empress of the Blues” sang, Bailey refused to follow her.
Commenting on Bailey’s style, critic Nat Hentoff wrote in the Progressive, “Mildred Bailey may have been the first white female singer to understand what black singers and horns were about and to apply that knowledge to her own work without trying to mimic black ways of music … That is, she used her natural, white, rather small voice.… But what she did with time, with the inner dynamics of phrasing, and with her clear, deep feeling for the stories she sang made her work unfailingly absorbing.”
Surprisingly, Bailey’s style and basic sound changed little from her earliest to her latest recordings, except for the added self-confidence and sophistication that came with experience. Her radio program of 1944 to 1945 was followed by several years of irregular appearances—often labeled “comebacks”—in clubs and recording studios. When she died in 1951, Bailey left a legacy of recordings for contemporary and succeeding singers. Among those who heard and understood Bailey’s message were Irene Daye, Helen Humes, Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Peggy Lee, and Kay Starr.
In 1962 John Hammond and Frank Driggs produced a memorial set of Bailey’s Columbia recordings spanning from 1929 to 1946; complete with an informative booklet, the collection was re-released in 1981. This and other albums attest to Bailey’s vocal strengths and help explain why jazz historian and critic Stanley Dance, writing in his World of Swing, called Bailey “one of the greatest jazz singers, a legend in her own time, and a witty woman of taste, temperament, and keen appetites.” Bailey’s important place in jazz history was recognized in 1994 when, along with other jazz and blues greats, she was featured on her own U.S. Postal Service stamp.
Mildred Bailey: Her Greatest Performances, 1929-1946, Columbia, 1962, reissued, 1981.
Mildred Bailey, a Memorial: The Rockin’ Chair Lady, Realm, 1963.
The Mildred Bailey Radio Show—1944-45, Sunbeam, 1975.
Mildred Bailey, Tono, 1984.
Mildred Bailey: All of Me, Monmouth-Evergreen.
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One of the first female singers to make a name for herself in the American pantheon of jazz, Mildred Bailey (1907-1951) managed to capture the subtleties of the era's African American blues and ragtime music. Bailey early on developed her own unique way to underline the meaning of the words she sang. She performed with some of the finest musicians of the swing era—including Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, and Red Norvo, her husband for most of the 1930s. Plagued by health problems for much of her life, she died when she was only 44 years old in 1951.
Many jazz lovers had a hard time reconciling Bailey's high, dulcet tones with her rather corpulent body. During the hey-days of the Swing Era, she and Norvo, her husband at the time, were dubbed "Mr. and Mrs. Swing." Influenced by the stylings of Ethel Waters, Connie Boswell, and Bessie Smith, she developed a uniquely soft yet swinging delivery that delighted nightclub audiences wherever she appeared throughout the United States. Although she is perhaps best remembered for her work in jazz, Bailey enjoyed a good deal of success in popular music as well. Although she appeared with some of the most successful bands of the Swing Era, she ended her career as a solo performer, drawing thousands of appreciative fans to her appearances at some of New York City's most popular jazz clubs.
Began Performing at an Early Age
Bailey was born Mildred Rinker on February 27, 1907, in Tekoa, a small town in eastern Washington state, close to the border with Idaho. While she was still quite young, Bailey moved with her mother and three brothers to nearby Spokane. Her mother, who was part Native American, schooled Bailey and her brothers in Native American traditions, and the family often visited relatives on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in nearby Idaho. Bailey learned music from her mother and began performing at an early age, playing the piano and singing in movie theaters in the early 1920s. Her interest in jazz was shared by older brother Al and a neighborhood friend, Harry Lillis (Bing) Crosby. In writing the liner notes for one of her early albums, Crosby recalled, as quoted in Dictionary of American Biography: "Mildred Bailey gave me my start. She took off Hollywood for newer and broader fields, and a year or so later, Al and I followed her there. She introduced us to Marco [Wolff], at that time a very big theatrical producer, and we were on our way—with a lot of her material, I might add. She was mucha mujer, with a heart as big as Yankee Stadium."
By the mid-1920s, Bailey, who had married and divorced at an early age, retaining nothing of her first husband but his last name, was headlining at a club in Hollywood, performing a mixture of pop, vaudeville standards, and early jazz tunes. In quick succession she worked as a "song demonstrator," toured with the dance revue of Fanchon and Marco Wolff, and was a solo vocalist on Los Angeles radio station KMTR. Bailey's first big break came when she sent a demo record to popular bandleader Paul Whiteman. The bandleader had already hired Crosby and Bailey's older brother, Al Rinker, to appear with his band as the "Rhythm Boys." Impressed with Bailey's vocal stylings, Whiteman hired her to sing with his band, making her one of the first female singers to be featured with a major dance orchestra. In 1932 Bailey gained added fame when she recorded Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair," written especially for her. It became Bailey's signature song and earned her the moniker "The Rockin' Chair Lady."
Bailey developed a relationship with jazz xylophonist Red Norvo (Kenneth Norville) not long after he joined the Whiteman band in 1931. Shortly thereafter the couple was married. Not long after they were wed, Norvo left Whiteman to start his own band and Bailey went off on her own to build a career for herself as a radio vocalist. Norvo's band soon ran into trouble and appeared likely to break up. Bailey offered to join the group as vocalist in an effort to prevent disbandment. Some of the finest work of Bailey's career came from her collaboration with Norvo. Working together, the couple came to be known as "Mr. and Mrs. Rhythm." One of the most memorable of their collaborations was on the album Smoke Dreams.
In a review of Smoke Dreams (reissued by Definitive Records in 1999) that appears on the Songbirds web site, Jeff Austin wrote: "The Red Norvo Orchestra with Mildred Bailey had an unmistakable sound, with Bailey's feather-light vocals paralleled by the delicacy and grace of Norvo's xylophone, all couched in light, ever-swinging arrangements by the likes of Eddie Sauter. The title track, 'Smoke Dreams,' epitomizes what made Bailey/Norvo different than anyone else. Legend very credibly has it that, subsequent to Sauter's being the object of a Bailey rage, he fashioned for her an arrangement that would be any other singer's worst nightmare, riddled with ear-bending dissonance that might have permanently traumatized most other lady band singers. Undaunted, Bailey sails serenely through the din—and one is left wondering what other band (save, perhaps, for Stan Kenton ten years later) might have attempted a chart so avant-garde."
Bailey and Norvo Divorced
Other songs closely identified with Bailey during her years with Norvo's band include "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "Weekend of a Private Secretary." Although they remained close friends, Bailey and Norvo realized by the end of the 1930s that their marriage was no longer working and divorced. They continued to work together from time to time, however. About 1940, economic pressures forced Norvo to reduce the size of his group, freeing Bailey to once again pursue her solo career. Through the first half of the 1940s she was backed on her recordings by some of the era's finest musicians, including Johnny Hodges, Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Having performed with scores of African American musicians throughout her career, Bailey took an extremely enlightened view of race relations and at one point in her career had sung at a benefit in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom to aid the Scottsboro Boys.
Famed record producer John Hammond worked with Bailey on a number of her recordings in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In his liner notes for the three-LP retrospective album, Mildred Bailey: Her Greatest Performances (1962), which are discussed on the Songbirds Web site, Hammond asserted: "Mildred was resentful that she was not a commercial success, and there was always a battle between us over the kind of accompaniment she should have on records." Taking sharp issue with Hammond's observations is reviewer Austin. In his review of Bailey's All of Me (reissued by Definitive in 1999), Austin wrote: "This idea has been recycled time and again in biographical material about Bailey. Not only is it probably untrue, it casts her in a slightly pathetic light. Hammond's remark is particularly strange when one considers that commercial success in terms of hit records had infinitely less to do with accompaniment than with material. Any singer wanting to hit it big on jukeboxes would not have recorded such a wealth of unusual songs by Willard Robison… . More importantly, documentary evidence exists in interviews about Bailey with Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer (both of whom knew a great deal about commercialism), and her brother Al, that Bailey resolutely wouldn't compromise on material, and simply wasn't interested in doing what it took to make herself a commercial entity. According to Crosby, she frankly didn't want to work all that hard."
Whatever the reasons may have been, superstardom eluded Bailey. The singer blamed her plumpness for her lack of commercial success, while others suggested that it was really Bailey's temper and sharp tongue that were her undoing. There's plenty of evidence that Bailey felt especially bitter towards better-looking female vocalists, many of whom she felt lacked her talent. Throughout her life, Bailey blamed her obesity on a glandular condition, although many of her friends attributed it instead to her great love of food.
Bailey continued to perform and record until the mid-1940s. She appeared on Benny Goodman's Camel Caravan radio program and was given her own radio program for a brief period in the mid-1940s. However, mounting health problems forced her to step away from her career by mid-decade. A longtime diabetic, Bailey also suffered from a heart condition and hardening of the arteries. With her two pet dachshunds, she retired to a farm in upstate New York, returning to the New York City club circuit now and again for a solo engagement. She was a particular favorite at the Café Society. Bailey got some financial help from composer Jimmy Van Heusen, who arranged to split her medical bills with Frank Sinatra and longtime friend Bing Crosby. Finally, by the early 1950s, Bailey's health had deteriorated to such an extent that she was forced to give up performing altogether. On December 12, 1951, Bailey died penniless at Poughkeepsie Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Enjoyed Resurgence in Popularity
A unique talent in almost every respect, Bailey will long be remembered as one of the great jazz stylists of her time. Although her singing—swinging, straightforward, and delivered with superb diction—was very much of her time, it remains fresh and sparkling. Perhaps Bailey's career was best summed up by jazz musician Loren Schoenberg in his review of The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey (released by Mosaic on CD in 2002) for National Public Radio's (NPR's) Jazz Reviews. Schoenberg wrote: "Mildred Bailey was one of the greatest jazz singers in the Swing Era. Yet today her name is unknown, largely because the great majority of recordings have been out of print for decades. Like Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey could transform the most hackneyed Tin Pan Alley trite into something beautiful and, at times, profound." Of Bailey's rendition of the 1938 tune, "I Can't Face the Music," Schoenberg wrote that "the phrasing is worthy of Maria Callas or of Armstrong. However, Bailey had something that Armstrong never had—a genius for an arranger. Eddie Sauter was one of the most original arranger/composers to emerge … in the 1930s."
Late in the 20th century and in the early years of the new millennium, Bailey's work enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as a number of her recordings of the 1930s and 1940s were reissued on compact disc. She received another posthumous honor in September 1994 when the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent stamp bearing her image as part of its Pop, Jazz, and Blues Legends series. Bailey's vocal style has often been likened to that of jazz great Billie Holiday, whom Bailey, husband Red Norvo, and record producer John Hammond discovered singing in a small club in New York City. Bailey's influence is also seen in the work of Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett. Sadly, Bailey's low self-esteem, body image problems, and failing health prematurely crippled her career and kept her from developing into the superstar she so richly deserved to be.
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