Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Blues Moon Radio: Women's History Month Profile - March 22, 2011

Thanks to my guest host, Jazz and Blues singer, Jean Calvert who will be sharing historical information about tonight's roster of fabulous Blues babes!

We'll start with Victoria Spivey:

Victoria Spivey 1908 - 1976  Any-Kind-A-Man

Victoria was a prolific songwriter, pianist, and singer who produced over 1500 songs. Ida Cox was her role model. She was in the first black talking film. She was consistently working in the late 1920s and through the 1930s when most blues women's careers were sagging. She performed in vaudeville musical revues, including the acclaimed Hellzapoppin' Revue in New York City and recorded and toured with Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra. Victoria left the business in the 1950s, but returned in 1962 with her own record label, Spivey Records. Her first record employed Bob Dylan as an accompanist. She performed and recorded through the rest of her life.

Sippie Wallace 1898 - 1986 (aka The Texas Nightingale) - I'm a Mighty Tight Woman

Possibly a cousin to Victoria Spivey, the two were definitely good friends. Sippie’s career spanned seven decades. Her brother George is credited with creating the boogie-woogie piano style. Bonnie Raitt produced and played on her album in 1981. The album was nominated for a Grammy in 1983, and won the W.C. Handy "Blues Album of the Year" in 1983.

Bessie Smith 1895 - 1937 (aka The Empress of the Blues)  - Young Woman's Blues

Although she was the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Bessie became a rough-and-tumble woman. Young Bessie and her brother became a busking duo on the streets of Chattanooga after their parents died. In 1904, an older brother left without a word and joined a traveling troupe. He returned in 1912 with the Stokes troupe, which hired Bessie as a dancer because they already had Ma Rainey as their singer. Ma became her mentor and Bessie remained with with the troupe until 1915. She was suggested as the singer for the first recorded Blues record, but the job went to Mamie Smith because Bessie was considered "too dark." She then joined the TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Agency), built up her own following and became the highest paid black artist of the 1920s. A career downturn during the depression was followed by a brief comeback that ended when she died in a car crash in 1937.

Clara Smith 1984 - 1935  - Don't Advertise Your Man

Clara (aka Queen of the Moaners, in spite of her light, sweet voice) was born in Spartanburg, SC, but not much is known of her early life. In the 1910s, she was a headliner in New Orleans at the Lyric Theater, on the TOBA circuit. She moved to New York in 1923, and to Detroit in 1933. She and Bessie Smith were not related, but were close personal friends --- until Bessie got drunk one evening in 1925 and beat Clara up! Incidentally, Clara gave 13-year-old Josephine Baker a job as her dresser on tour.
Mamie Smith 1883 - 1946 - What Have You Done to Make Me Feel This Way?
Mamie (aka America's First Lady of the Blues or Queen of the Blues) was the first to record a Blues song in the 1920s with Crazy Blues being a wild success, selling a million copies in under a year, with total sales of two million. Smith's traveling show included trapeze artists, comedians, dancers, as well as lavish costumes and jewelry. One night in 1921, she heard a sax player in the orchestra pit. It was Coleman Hawkins. His family would not allow him to travel with her; after all, he was only 16 years old. But on her next trip the following year, his family relented.

Trixie Smith 1895 - 1946 - My Man Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll)

Trixie was born in Atlanta in 1985, and became known for her sense of humor. Daphne Duvall Harrison in "Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s" said Trixie was "a pleasing singer of humorous … songs." Trixie performed on the TOBA circuit. She made her first recording in 1922, for the Black Swan label in New York City, and won a blues singing contest in New York later that year. Though she made a few recordings in the 1930s, Trixie’s career essentially ended when the Depression contributed to the demise of the Classic Blues Singers.

Alberta Hunter 1895 - 1984 - You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark

Alberta Hunter had a very interesting career history. Alberta began her career in the 1920s, enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, and had another come-back in the early 1980s. She ran away to Chicago from her Memphis home at age 12. After a bit of a slow start, she became one of the most popular singers in the 1920s, and was quite popular in Europe as well and was part of a USO tour in World War II. After the war, she returned home to care for her ailing mother until she died. At the age of 59, she lied about her age, drew up a fake high school diploma, enrolled in a practical nursing course and worked as a nurse for 20+ years, until she was forced into retirement. Then restaurateur Barney Josephson offered Hunter a limited engagement at his Greenwich Village club, The Cookery. She accepted and a two-week gig, proved a smash, and people started flocking into The Cookery. I saw her at the Cookery many times, and would take family and friends to see her when they were in town. I ran into Alberta Hunter on the cross-town bus one day, and we had a lovely, intimate chat. She was a fixture of New York nightlife until her death in 1984.

Edith Wilson 1986 - 1981 - Rules and Regulations 'Signed Razor Jim'

Edith was from Louisville, Kentucky. She worked predominantly as a nightclub singer and in the music revues, but she was picked up by Okeh Records in 1921. She traveled the world with the revue "Chocolate Kiddies." She acted on TV and in films. Edith had a recurring role as Kingfish's mother-in-law on the Amos-N-Andy radio show. In the 1950s, she toured as Aunt Jemima for Quaker Oats. She retired from performing in 1963 and became executive secretary for the Negro Actors Guild. She had a comeback in 1973 playing with Eubie Blake. Her last live show was the 1980 Newport Jazz Festival.

Ma Rainey 1886 - 1939 "Mother of the Blues" - Prove It On Me Blues

Ma Rainey was into a vaudeville show biz family. Although her first recording was in 1923 for Paramount, Ma Rainey had been performing for 20 years. She performed with the elite in the industry -- Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson among them. With her husband, Pa Rainey, she formed a song and dance team in Tolliver's Circus. She was known for her powerful vocals and her energetic disposition, which did not always translate to her 100-plus recordings. Ma Rainey retired to her home, Columbus, Georgia, in 1935. She had been a good money manager, which allowed her to build and operate two theaters there.

Mildred Bailey 1907 - 1951 - Downhearted Blues

Mildred Bailey was known as “the plump singer with the high-pitched voice.” She was influenced by Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, and was one of the first white singers to pick up on the African-American nuances and rhythms. She shared her love of jazz with her brother Al and their neighborhood buddy, Harry Lillis, who was known as Bing Crosby. Mildred played with Paul Whiteman for several years, the Dorsey Brothers, and Benny Goodman. In Whiteman's orchestra, she met and married xylophonist Red Norvo, and in the 1930s, they were known as "Mr. and Mrs. Swing." She recorded very little after 1945 because of diabetes and depression, and she died at the young age of 44.

Josephine Baker 1906 - 1975 - Aux Iles Hawaii

Born in St. Louis, at age 12, Josephine left home and got married, but, quelle surprise, it did not last long. She, too, went from street musician to the TOBA circuit. In 1922, she was a comedy chorus girl in "Shuffle Along." The writers Sissle and Blake took notice and wrote a special part for her in "Chocolate Dandies," and she became Eubie Blake’s girlfriend. French producers who saw her in New York City booked her for La Revue Negre. She became very popular in France as a comedic and erotic performer.

Maxine Sullivan 1911 - 1987 - If I Had a Ribbon Bow

Maxine Sullivan was born in Pennsylvania. She had little musical training, however, pianist Claude Thornhill made her his protégé. In New York, she met and married popular bassist John Kirby. Their first session was a blessing and a curse: It produced the hit record, Loch Lomond, but it typecast her as a folksy-styled artist in spite of her ability to perform jazz and swing very well. She could be cool, soft, subtle and intimate, and then swinging. In 1940, she hosted the radio show "Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm," the only national show featuring African-American performers. She was also on Broadway and in films. At age 75, she recorded with sax player Scott Hamilton, proving once again, it ain't over till it's over.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe 1915 - 1973 - My Man and I

Gospel singer, guitar player, songwriter, Sister Rosetta (aka The Original Soul Sister) presented a combination of spirituals with early Rock and Roll. She began performing at age 4 with her evangelist mother. Rosetta married Preacher Tharpe in 1938. Churchgoers were up in arms over her secular style, but her secular audiences loved it. Sister Rosetta experienced a downturn in popularity in the 1950s, followed by a resurgence in the 1960s.

Ida Cox 1886 - 1967 - Midnight Hour Blues

Ida (aka The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues) sang in church choirs in Georgia until running away as a teen. She worked her way from tent shows to vaudeville to being a headliner in the teens and the 1920s. In 1923, Paramount dubbed her "The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues." She performed across the country until 1938 when she was a regular at New York's Café Society. In the mid-1940s, she had a stroke on stage. Subsequently, she lived in Knoxville with her daughter. She last recorded in 1961, "Blues for Rampart Street."

Billie Pierce 1896 - 1977 - I'm in the Racket

Born in Florida, Billie was one of seven piano-playing sisters, whose parents were musicians. Billie tickled the ivories for Bessie Smith in Pensacola. She married trumpeter and vocalist, De De Pierce. The couple played venues ranging from honky-tonks to Preservation Jazz Hall. They helped inspire the New Orleans combo sound.

Ethel Waters 1896 - 1977 - Bring Your Greenbacks

Waters was a singer, actress, and dancer. After some vaudeville touring, she moved to New York in 1919 where she recorded with Cardinal Records. She then switched to the Black Swan label and recorded "Down Home Blues" and "Oh Daddy." By the late 1930s, she was a Broadway star. In 1949, she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role in "Pinky." In the 1950s, she got religion, turned to spirituals, finally touring with The Reverend Billy Graham until her death in 1977.

Georgia White 1903 - 1980 - The Blues Ain't Nothing But...

Not much is known of Georgia's early life, but the bawdy blues singer was in Chicago in the 1920s, although her first recording, "When You're Smiling" was not made until 1930. In the 1940s, she, like so many other women, formed an all-woman band, but they were never recorded. After a quiet decade, she returned to singing in clubs in the 1950s. Her last known performance was in Chicago in 1959.

Eva Taylor 1895 - 1977 - Organ Grinder

Eva (aka The Dixie Nightingale) was one of the first African-American singers to be heard on radio. She was a child actor with a revue that toured the world from 1900 to 1920. After moving to New York, she became popular in the clubs in Harlem. She married pianist/publisher/producer Clarence Williams. The couple were married until his death in 1965, and they produced dozens of songs, music revues, and radio programs. Their grandson, Clarence Williams III, is best known for his role as Lincoln Hayes on the 60s TV hit, The Mod Squad.

Monette Moore 1902 - 1962 - A Shine On Your Shoes/Louisiana Hayride

Monette was never a star, but she had a rich and varied life. She began as a teen playing piano accompaniment for silent films at a theater in Kansas City. She then toured with vaudeville shows before making her way to New York where she became active in musical theater. She moved to LA in the 1940s and in 1951-53 was on Amos-N-Andy. Her last work was in the early 1960s, when she appeared in Disney television programs.

Lil Johnson  - Evil Man Blues

Another bawdy blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, Lil first recorded in 1929. When she returned to recording in 1935, she was bawdier than ever, and kicked it up another notch after meeting pianist, "Black Bob Hudson." It's said she sang in a vigorous and sometimes abrasive way.

Lucille Bogan 1897 - 1948 - Sloppy Drunk Blues

Hardcore best describes Lucille's subject matter: Sexual themes like prostitution, adultery, lesbianism, and social ills like alcoholism, drug addiction, and abusive relationships. She was born in Mississippi, grew up in Alabama, but first recorded in Atlanta in 1923, "Pawn Shop Blues." It was the first time a black blues singer had recorded outside of New York or Chicago. She recorded next in Chicago in 1927. Her recording career ended about 1935, when she returned to Birmingham where she performed and managed "Bogan's Birmingham Busters," her son's jazz group.

 Thanks again to our special guest, Jean Calvert, who took me up on my Facebook offer for a guest host for women's history month and who researched all these artists and shared this bio info with our Blues Moon listeners... I'll look forward to seeing Jean in the upstate soon! And you can catch her at the Blues Jam there and at these other gigs:

Jean Calvert will perform in New York City at On May 30,for Birdland's open mic night; and will be featured on May 31 at the BITTER END in NYC's Greenwich Village for their monthly "Chick Singer Night."

Locally, check her out at the Spartanburg area Blues Jam on March 30; and at Larkin's on the River May 8th as http://www.vivalesdivas.com/.

Jean Calvert: www.myspace.com/jeancalvertandcompany

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