Bailey, Mildred (1903–1951)

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Bailey, Mildred (1903–1951)

American jazz singer and first white female to be completely accepted in jazz circles. Born Mildred Rinker in Tekoa, near Seattle, Washington, on February 27, 1903; died in Poughkeepsie, New York, on December 12, 1951; sister of Al Rinker, who sang with Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys; married second husband Red Norvo (bandleader and xylophonist), in 1933 (divorced 1945).

Sang with Paul Whiteman's Band (1929–33), Ben Berney's Orchestra (1934), Red Norvo and his

Orchestra (1936–39), the Dorsey Brothers' and Benny Goodman's orchestras (from 1939 on); devoted to jazz, she helped move the genre into the American mainstream.

Born and raised in Washington State, Mildred Bailey loved jazz. While she was in high school, her brother Al Rinker had a six-piece band called the Musicaladers, with a fellow named Bing Crosby as its featured vocalist. "Mildred would get some great records from the East," wrote Crosby, and the band would copy them. Listening carefully to the singers, Mildred would mimic the Southern enunciation she heard, producing a perfect blues inflection. She listened so carefully that, after hearing her recordings, those who didn't know her voice often responded erroneously that she was African American. Bailey lent credence to the notion that impersonation is the highest form of compliment; she loved the blues and wanted to be a part of the culture to which the art form was inextricably bound. Bessie Smith was her idol. While Bailey and her fellow musicians wanted to reproduce the sounds they were hearing in black nightclubs, the general public was still not ready for this style of music. For people like Mildred Bailey, the music in white theaters and dance bands couldn't compare to black jazz.

Bailey began to sing in clubs. Crosby would later remember hearing her in a Spokane nightspot named Charlie Dale's Cabaret when he was in college. After she married and moved to Los Angeles, Crosby and her brother Al, who followed a year later, were soon listening to her at a plush club in Bakersfield called The Swede's. "She had a way of talking that was unique," wrote Crosby. "Even then I can recall her describing a town that was nowhere as 'tiredsville,' or a singer who was a little zingy as 'twenty dash eight dash four.'" Bailey was interested in all kinds of popular music—blues, pseudo-blues, gospel, pseudo-gospel, Tin Pan Alley, and show tunes. Every song she performed, she sang idiomatically, and an ability to move effortlessly from one kind of popular music to another spurred her career.

Her brother and Crosby became Paul Whiteman's original Rhythm Boys, a connection that would soon prove useful for Bailey. In 1929, hired as Whiteman's first featured female singer at $75 a week, she moved to New York, the center of the jazz world and the Whiteman radio broadcasts. The performers she recorded with read like a Who's Who of early swing—Bunny Berigan, Chu Berry, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson. She also met Red Norvo who became her second husband.

Meanwhile, Bailey's home functioned as a kind of clearinghouse for jazz musicians. Benny Goodman was a friend; his famous trio was hatched when he met Teddy Wilson at her home on Pilgrim Circle in Forest Hills, Long Island. Fats Waller, Jess Stacy, Hugues Panassié, Spike Hughes, Lee Wiley, Alec Wilder, and Red Nichols all hung out there, and Bessie Smith and her husband were frequent guests. Mildred and Bessie, both enormously overweight, loved to make jokes about their grand size. When Bessie arrived at Mildred's, one of them would continue a joke that never grew old: "Look, I've got this brand-new dress, but it's too big for me, so why don't you take it?" Bailey's love of jazz and her adulation of Bessie Smith grew into a treasured friendship.

Passionate about jazz, food, and life, Bailey sang with the top bands of the era from Benny Goodman's to the Dorsey Brothers'; she headlined the top nightclubs: Café Society, the Famous Door, and the Blue Angel. She made many recordings which are considered classics and was especially known for her recording of Hoagy Carmichael's "Ol' Rockin' Chair." Some have compared her voice to a horn, because, when she sang, she seemed more like a member of the band than a solo vocalist. Bailey adopted the black musician's way with a phrase and the pronounced nasal resonance which characterizes the singing of Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin , and other great black female jazz singers. Her voice was always fresh, her technical mastery superb. "Oh Daddy!," "Down Hearted Blues," and "Sweet Mama, Where Did You Stay Last Night" were some of her favorites.

Though Bailey's career prospered in the 1920s and 1930s, she struggled with an addiction to food and a fierce temper. While she claimed her weight problem was glandular, her friends claimed "overeating," but no one seemed to diagnose an underlying cause. When she became diabetic, she was put on a diet, reputedly commenting at meals: "Now I've ate the diet, so bring on the food." Her rages were as monumental as her appetite. Her husband Red Norvo recalled a time when he had gone fishing with Benny Goodman and stayed longer than he'd planned:

When I got home, I could tell that Mildred was hacked. Things were cool, but I didn't say anything, and a night or two after, when we were sitting in front of the fire—I was on a love seat on one side and she was on one on the other side—Mildred suddenly got up and took this brand-new hat she had bought me at Cavanaugh's and threw it in the fire. So I got up and threw a white fox stole of hers in the fire, and she got a Burberry I'd got in Canada and threw that in. By this time she was screaming at me and I was yelling at her, so finally I picked up a cushion from one of the love seats, and in it went. The fire was really burning. In fact, it was licking right out the front and up the mantel, and that was the end of the fight because we had to call the Fire Department to come and put it out.

Convinced she would never be the star she wanted to be, Bailey gave it all up in the late 1940s. She had watched as her career was eclipsed by singers whom she had clearly influenced, like Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald . In 1949, a combination of diabetes, heart trouble, hardening of the arteries, and disappointment forced her to retire to a farm outside of New York. When Jimmy Van Heusen found her living out her days in a Poughkeepsie hospital, he—along with Frank Sinatra and Crosby—paid for a private room. For a short time, Lee Wiley paid for Bailey to live in a Beverly Hills apartment, but it wasn't long before Bailey moved back East, made a few more appearances in 1950, and died penniless on December 12, 1951, at the age of 48.

For a time, Mildred Bailey was forgotten, but many recordings documented her marvelous abilities and increasingly informed jazz lovers sought them out. As Leonard Feather pointed out, in the history of jazz, she was a pivotal figure:

Jazz singing, until the late 1920s was largely confined to the Negro artists, and, despite occasional exceptions … was limited in substance to the form of the blues. The break on both levels may have been completed with the advent of Mildred Bailey. Where earlier white singers with pretensions to a jazz identification had captured only the surface qualities of the Negro styles, Mildred contrived to invest her thin, high pitched voice with a vibrato, an easy sense of jazz phrasing that might almost have been Bessie Smith's overtones.


Hemming, Roy, and David Hajdu. Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop. Newmarket Press, 1991.

Pleasants, Henry. The Great American Popular Singers. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1974.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia