So much has been written about the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Metropolis of the 1920s, it seems rather pointless for me to bother summarizing it here. Listen to the music in the mix below and if you feel compelled to learn beyond the biographies provided below, then go to your local public library and seek the assistance of a librarian. That’s why you pay taxes! If good sources are not available at your location, your librarian can either order the books, or have them shipped from another library on loan. The people of Toronto have a fine resource in the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection, “featuring over 16,000 print and audiovisual materials for adults, children and teens about the Black and Caribbean historical and cultural experience — with special emphasis on Canadian material.”
The Toronto Reference Library also has all three boxsets in the Jazz Odyssey series from the Columbia Jazz Archives label:
The Dames of Harlem was compiled from Jazz Odyssey, Volume 3: The Sound of Harlem (mono, 1964). The biographies below come from various sources, but mainly the wonderful archival website, Red Hot Jazz — an online museum curated by Scott Alexander.
If you insist on staying online (What! You haven’t left for the library yet?), I recommend reading Harlem: The Early Years, by Garth Tate and A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem, by Eric Garber. Both of these provide excellent insights on the various struggles and determination of people to be free and creative, regardless of their skin colour, background, social status, or sexuality.
I have decided to focus on the women here, because I find the brutal honesty in their performances to be most compelling. Many of the lyrics involve subjects that remain quite taboo, and despite so much progress, these songs remain more direct than most recordings you would hear today.
Most of the names here are long forgotten (I still need bios for Gertrude Saunders and Dell St. John, so if you have info, please post it here in the comments). Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday continue as legends, both with their own sad and sordid stories, but what about lesbians Alberta Hunter, and Gladys Bentley? The latter lived openly and unashamedly out of the closet until the fear of the McCarthy era made her run for cover.
- Crazy Blues — Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds
- I’m Craving For That Kind of Love — Gertrude Saunders with Tim Brymn and His Black Devil Orchestra
- What Do You Care — Edith Wilson with Johnny Dunn’s Jazz Hounds
- Take It Easy — Monette Moore
- Standing In The Rain Blues — Bessie Smith
- Do What You Did Last Night — Ethel Waters
- Funny Feathers — Victoria Spivey
- Red Beans And Rice — Gladys Bentley
- My Particular Man — Alberta Hunter
- Oh, Mr. Mitchell — Clara Smith
- Texas Twist — Mattie Hite
- My Man O’War — Lena Wilson
- Keep Your Hand Off My Mojo — Coot Grant and Wesley Wilson
- You Can’t Be Mine — Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra
- When Lights Are Low — Benny Carter and His Orchestra (vocal by Dell St. John)
Mamie Smith (1883-1946)
Mamie Smith was the first to record blues songs in 1920 with her versions of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues”, and “It’ s Right Here for You” on Okeh Records. The record was a wild success, selling over a million copies in less than a year, and finally ending up selling over two million copies. After this it dawned on record companies that there was a lot of money to be made selling what was then called “race records” to various minority groups in big cities. The success of “Crazy Blues” prompted other record companies to also try to find other female blues singers that could match the sales of “Crazy Blues”. It was a very important record, because it opened the doors of the recording industry to African-Americans, whether they were Blues, Jazz or popular singers or musicians. Smith herself really wasn’t that much of a Blues singer.
She was more of a vaudeville performer, although she included Blues and Jazz numbers as part of her act. She got her start as a dancer at age ten in the vaudeville act the Four Dancing Mitchells and later toured with them as part of the Salem Tutt Whitney and Homer Tutt’s show, “The Smart Set”. Mamie moved to New York in 1913 with “The Smart Set” and decided that she wanted to stay and quit the show. She started performing as a singer in Harlem at venues such as Baron Wilkin’s Little Savoy Club, Leroy’s, Edmunds, Percy Brown’s and Banks’ Place. Her first recordings were made in early 1920. They were a couple of pop songs “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”. They sold well enough and her manager Perry Bradford convinced Okeh Records that there was a market for earthier Blues records aimed at the large number of African-Americans who had migrated to the big cities of the north. Bradford put together a band he called the Jazz Hounds for Smith that was led at first by cornetist Johnny Dunn and then by Bubber Miley. Smith put on quite a show that included trapeze acts, dancing, comedy, lavish costumes and jewelry as well as music. While on tour in 1921 she heard a young Coleman Hawkins playing saxophone in a theatre pit orchestra. Smith asked Hawkins to joined the band, but his family refused to allow him to, because he was just sixteen years old at the time. On her next swing through town in 1922 they onced again asked permission of the family and this time they acquiesced. Hawkins was soon given billing as “Saxophone Boy” and was a popular part of the act. Smith continued to record for Okeh until 1923. In the 1930s and early 1940s Mamie Smith continued to lead a successful career singing and recording as well as appearing in several films. Mamie set the standard for female blues singers that followed in her foot steps. Nearly every other Classic Blues singer of the 1920s borrowed something from her act or styled themselves to achieve her success.
Edith Wilson (1896-1981)
Edith Wilson was one of the stars of early African-American musical theatre. After working in vaudeville with her pianist brother Danny Wilson, Edith rose to prominence in 1921 when she replaced Mamie Smith in Perry Bradford’s musical revue “Put And Take”. Bradford arranged for her to begin recording with Columbia in 1921. She then moved on to the “Plantation Revue” which was renamed “From Dover Street To Dixie” when the show moved to London, England in 1923. Returning to New York she appeared with Florence Mills in the musical revue Dixie To Broadway. She continued to do theatre and cabaret work in the New York area until 1926 when joined the Sam Wooding Orchestra and toured with the show “Chocolate Kiddies”. Wilson traveled the world with this show visiting England, Germany, Sweden, Spain, France, Switzerland, Istanbul, Turkey, Romania, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, Russia and Argentina off and on until 1929. Throughout the 1930s she continued to be very busy appearing in dozens of musical revues and appearing with leading groups of the day such as the orchestras of Fess Williams, Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, Noble Sissle, Lucky Millinder and others. During World War she frequently toured with various USO shows entertaining the troops and had small roles in a couple of films. Wilson had a regular role on the Amos N’ Andy radio show in the early 1940s playing Kingfish’s mother-in-law and she continued to do theatre work. She sang on the radio and toured promotionally as Aunt Jemima for the Quaker Oats company up until the 1950s. She continued to be very activate in show business up until 1963 when she retired to work for the Negro Actors Guild. In the 1970s she began working in music again and recorded with Eubie Blake in 1972. Wilson died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1980. Edith was the sister in law of Blues singer Lena Wilson.
Monette Moore (1902-1962)
Monette Moore was never a star but she led a rich and varied life in show business. She began her career accompanying silent films in Kansas City and then toured the vaudeville circuit as a pianist and singer. In the early 1920s she made her way to New York and became active in musical theater. Her recording career began in 1923. Many of her early records were released under the pseudonym of Susie Smith. In 1925, Monette was in the cast of the musical revue “Lucky Sambo”. She sang with Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra at Small’s Paradise Club (229 1/2 7th Avenue at 135th Street) and Connie’s Inn (2221 Seventh Avenue at 131st Street) in New York and made some wonderful recordings with the band in 1925. In 1927 and 1928 she was singing with Walter Page’s Blue Devils in the mid-West. She returned to New York in 1929 and was very active in musical theater and cabaret work until the late 1930s. In the early 1940s, she moved to Los Angeles and performed in clubs, recorded with Teddy Bunn and the Harmony Girls and had small parts in a couple of films. From 1951 to 1953 she appeared on the Amos ‘n Andy television program and recorded with George Lewis. In 1960, she began performing with the Young Men of Dixieland at Disneyland and appeared in the Disney television programs “The Wonderful World of Color” and “Disneyland After Dark”.
Bessie Smith (1895-1937)
Bessie Smith was a rough, crude, violent woman. She was also the greatest of the classic Blues singers of the 1920s. Bessie started out as a street musician in Chattanooga. In 1912 Bessie joined a traveling show as a dancer and singer. The show featured Pa and Ma Rainey, and Smith developed a friendship with Ma. Ma Rainey was Bessie’s mentor and she stayed with her show until 1915. Bessie then joined the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit and gradually built up her own following in the south and along the eastern seaboard. By the early 1920s she was one of the most popular Blues singers in vaudeville. In 1923 she made her recording debut on Columbia, accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams.
They recorded “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues.” The record sold more than 750,000 copies that same year, rivaling the success of Blues singer Mamie Smith (no relation). Throughout the 1920s Smith recorded with many of the great Jazz musicians of that era, including Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of “St. Louis Blues” with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s.
Bessie Smith was one of the biggest African-American stars of the 1920s and was popular with both Whites and African-Americans, but by 1931 the Classic Blues style of Bessie Smith was out of style and the Depression, radio, and sound movies had all damaged the record companies’ ability to sell records so Columbia dropped Smith from its roster.
In 1933 she recorded for the last time under the direction of John Hammond for Okeh. The session was released under the name of Bessie Smith accompanied by Buck and his Band. Despite having no record company Smith was still very popular in the South and continued to draw large crowds, although the money was not nearly as good as it had been in the 1920s. Bessie had started to style herself as a Swing musician and was on the verge of a comeback when her life was tragically cut short by an automobile accident in 1937. While driving with her lover Richard Morgan (Lionel Hampton’s uncle) in Mississippi their car rear-ended a slow moving truck and rolled over crushing Smith’s left arm and ribs.
Smith bled to death by the time she reached the hospital. John Hammond caused quite a stir by writing an article in Downbeat magazine suggesting that Smith had bled to death because she had been taken to a White hospital and had been turned away. This proved not to be true, but the rumor persists to this day.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977)
Ethel Waters was one of the most popular African-American singers and actresses of the 1920s. She moved to New York in 1919 after touring in vaudeville shows as a singer and a dancer. She made her recording debut in 1921 on Cardinal records with “The New York Glide” and “At the New Jump Steady Ball”, but switched over to African-American owned Black Swan label, and recorded “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy” the first Blues numbers for that company. She frequently sang with Fletcher Henderson during the early 1920s, but by the mid-1920s Waters had became more of a pop singer. She performed in a number of musical revues throughout the rest of the decade and appeared a couple of films, including “Check and Double Check” with Amos ‘n’ Andy and Duke Ellington. By the end of the 1930s she was a big star on Broadway. In 1949, she was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress in the film “Pinky”, and the next year she won the New York Drama Critics Award for best actress. Waters got religion in the late Fifties and performed and toured with evangelist Billy Graham until her death in 1977.
Victoria Spivey (1908-1976)
Victoria Spivey got her start in music at age twelve when she began playing piano in a movie theatre in Houston, Texas. From there she expanded her musical career to playing in saloons and whorehouses. She was was a big fan of the Blues singer Ida Cox and modeled her own career after Cox’s. In 1926 at the the age of twenty she travelled to St. Louis where Okeh records was on a field trip looking for new acts to record. She recorded her own songs Black Snake Blues and Dirty Woman Blues which became a best selling record. Over the the next two years she was quite a hot item and recorded records almost once a month, often with the accompaniment of great Jazz musicians like Lonnie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Clarence Williams, Luis Russell and many others, including her sister Addie “Sweet Pease” Spivey. In 1929 she played a small role in King Vidor’s early film musical “Hallelujah”. As the Blues craze and the record industry in general hit the skids in the early 1930s, Spivey somehow managed to keep recording and performing unlike almost all of the other Classic Blues singers. She expanded into playing in vaudeville musical revues, including the acclaimed Hellzapoppin’ Revue in New York City and recorded and toured with Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra. Spivey was constantly working, playing countless one-night stands throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but by the l950s, Spivey had left show business, but continued singing in the church choir in her home in Brooklyn. Victoria returned to show business in 1962 when she formed her own record company, Spivey Records. Her first record on the label featured Bob Dylan as an accompanist. So, Spivey’s career began again in the early 1960s; she began performing in folk and blues festivals and in nightclubs in and around New York City and continued to record for the rest of her life.
Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)
Gladys Bentley was born on August 12, 1907. She was the eldest of 4 children born to a Trinidad born mother, Mary Mote (Bentley) and an American born father, George L. Bentley. Gladys left home at 16 years old. Like many African Americans of her generation she ended up in New York City’s Harlem, the capital of “The New Negro “. For Gladys, her lesbianism made her need to strike out on her own all the more urgent.
As she would recall many years later in an Ebony Magazine Article, “It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought so….From the time I can remember anything, even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me…Soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys clothes than in dresses”.
Bentley left Pennsylvania at 16 to be part of the Harlem Renaissance and come out as a bulldagger. She began singing at rent parties and buffet flats and moved on to speakeasies and nightclubs. later she would headline the popular speakeasy the Clam House as well as the Ubangi Club.
She wowed audiences with her powerful voice and obscene parodies of blues standards and show tunes and was famous for her glamorous girlfriends. Very open about her sexuality, Bentley also performed at lesbian bars and once told a gossip columnist she had married a white woman while in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In the 1920s a large part of the elegant town houses and apartment buildings in both Harlem and downtown in Greenwich Village had been converted into cheap rooming flats. In both neighborhoods, artists and intellectuals flocked to this cheap housing in beautiful surroundings.
In both neighborhoods, amongst all this creative talent, there was a large Homosexual population. In Harlem this great creative outpouring was also a celebration of optimism about the future of Black America. This era would later be known as The “Harlem Renaissance”. The list of gay men, lesbians or bisexuals amongst the “Harlem Renaissance” is more or less a guide to many of the most talented people of the era.
Langston Hughs, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Moms Mabely just to name a few. Audiences of the prohibition era were always craving something new. There was a “Vogue of the Negro” , accompanied by a curiosity for “Pansy Acts” and “Hot Mama” lebian or bisexual singers.
Advertisement for Mona’s Club 440 in 1942, with the explicit use of the word “gay” featured prominently. The word “gay” during the 1940s also denoted “happy,” and to the casual reader even the reference to “butch,” meaning masculine in gay argot, might have escaped attention.
However, the discerning, sophisticated, 1942 reader would quickly understand that Mona’s Club 440 catered to an almost exclusively woman audience during World War II.
Gladys Bentley carved out a place for herself amidst this curiosity, playing at rent parties and the legendary speakeasies of “Jungle Alley” at 133 between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. She would transform popular tunes of the day with raunchy naughty playful lyrics. Dressed in signature tux and top hat , she openly and riotously flirted with women in the audience. Her popularity and salary was ever increasing , as she was frequently mentioned in many of the entertainment columns of the day.
Characters based on her appeared in novels (Carl Van Vechtens’ “Parties”, Clement Woods “Deep River”, Blair Niles “Strange Brother”).
Starting in 1928 ( at age 21) she began a recording career that spanned 2 decades. 8 recordings for the OKeh recording company were followed by a side with the Washboard Serenader’s on the Victor label. Although on her recordings she did not dare have lesbian lyrics , she certainly played up this image in the clubs and in public.
Lois Sobel, a popular columnist of the era, recalled Bentleys announcement of her marriage ceremony with her white female lover in New Jersey. Bentley briefly parlayed her fortunes into a Park Avenue apartment, servants, beautiful car etc. etc. In the 1930s the repeal of Prohibition quickly eroded the prominence of Harlem bistros. Furthermore, the Great Depression seems to have ended much of the “anything goes” spirit of tolerance that had pervaded in the 1920s’. Despite this, initially Bentley was able to hold on by cultivating her homosexual following. In the early 1930’s she was the featured entertainer at Harlem’s’ Ubangi Club, supported by a chorus of men in drag. But by 1937 the glory days of Jungle Alley were very much a thing of the past. Bentley (now aged 30) moved to Los Angeles to live with her mother in a small California bungalow. She was able to maintain some success , particularly during World War 2 when many homosexual bars proliferated on the west coast (capitalizing on the influx of gay men and lesbians from the military) Once again, Bentley carved out a niche for herself in this subculture and environment. Many lesbian women came to see her shows at “Joquins’ El Rancho” in Los Angeles and “Monas” in San Francisco, although on occasion she did have legal trouble for performing in her signature male attire.
In 1945 she recorded 5 discs for the Excelsior label (still not daring to use lesbian lyrics in recordings) including “Thrill Me Till I get My Fill,” “Find Out What He Likes”, and “Notoriety Papa”. However in the 1950s the limited tolerance that had been eroding since the Great Depression, finally collapsed disastrously. The McCarthy “witch hunts” were particularly vicious towards homosexuals.
In light of recent revelations about J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohen and possibly McCarthy himself this movement was all the more hypocritical.
Although gay and lesbian organizations like The Daughters Of Bilitis and The Mattachine Society were formed at this time, the lives of many homosexuals were ruined. Bentley, who for so long had been one of THE most open as regards her homosexuality, was of course a sitting duck for persecution. Out of desperate fear for her own survival (particularly with an aging mother to support) Gladys Bentley started wearing dresses, and sanitizing her act. In 1950, Bentley wrote a desperate, largely fabricated article for Ebony entitled “I am Woman Again” in which she claimed to have cured her lesbianism via female hormone treatments and was finally at peace after a “hell as terrible as dope addiction”.
She claimed to have married a newspaper columnist named J. T. Gibson (a man who soon after publicly denied that the two had ever wed). In 1952 she does seem to have married a man named Charles Roberts. He was a cook and 16 years younger than Bentley, who lied on the marriage certificate, stating her age as 36 rather than 45. The two eventually divorced. Bentley did manage to still perform, usually at the Rose Room in Hollywood.
She recorded a single on the Flame label and appeared twice on Groucho Marx’s’ television show. At this stage, Bentley became an active and (truly) devoted member of “The Temple of Love in Christ, Inc.”. She was about to become an ordained minister in the church when she died of a flu epidemic in 1960 at the age of 52. These desperate attempts to survive do not diminish her previous accomplishments.
Alberta Hunter (1895-1984)
At age twelve Alberta Hunter ran away from her hometown of Memphis to go to Chicago to become a Blues singer. She had a somewhat hard time at first but gradually, achieved her goal and became one of the most popular African-American entertainers of the 1920s. She got her professional start in 1911 at a Southside club called Dago Frank’s, a tough bordello frequented by pimps and criminals. She stayed there until 1913, when the place was closed after a murder in the club. She then moved on to a small night club and managed to save enough money to bring her mother north to Chicago and support her for the rest of her life. Alberta was married briefly, but never consummated the union, using the excuse that she didn’t want to have sex in the same house where her mother lived, but the real story was that Hunter was a lesbian.
Her husband moved back to the South and she never saw him again. Alberta met Lottie Taylor soon afterwards. She was the niece of the famous African-American entertainer Bert Williams. The two became lovers and stayed together for many years. Alberta moved on to a club called Elite Cafe #1 (3030 South State Street) where New Orleans Ragtime pianist Tony Jackson tickled the keys. Unlike Alberta, Tony Jackson was openly gay, which must have taken a lot of guts back in those days. Alberta helped to popularize some of Jackson’s songs, including his most famous song, “Pretty Baby” which was written for his boyfriend. In 1915 Hunter got a gig at the Panama Cafe, which was a fancy place that catered to Whites. At this point Alberta was becoming a star in Chicago, but the Panama was also closed after a murder and Alberta went next door to The De Luxe Cafe (3503 South State Street), and then across the street to the Dreamland Cafe (3520 South State Street) where King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band played. During her stay there she became friends with Oliver’s pianist Lil Hardin who was also from Memphis. After this Hunter became a full fledged star and was billed as the “Sweetheart of Dreamland”. After her show at the Dreamland she would take a train to another club and sing some more. One night her piano player was shot and killed while they were on stage. Clearly, gangsterism was out of control in Chicago. In 1921 Alberta moved to New York and launched her recording career with the Black Swan label with Fletcher Henderson’s Novelty Orchestra, but she switched to Paramount in 1922 where Fletcher Henderson continued to accompany her on the piano. Hunter wrote a lot of her own material and her song “Down Hearted Blues”, became Bessie Smith’s first record in 1923. That same year she became the first African-American singer to be backed up by a White band, when the Original Memphis Five supported her on “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” and “If You Want To Keep Your Daddy Home”, and “Bleeding Hearted Blues”. In 1924 she sang on the famous Clarence Williams produced Red Onion Jazz Babies sessions that brought Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet together for the first time on record. While in New York, Hunter got involved in several African-American musical revues. She replaced Bessie Smith in the “How Come?” revue of 1923, and this established her as a star in New York City. Alberta Hunter recorded under several pseudonyms during the 1920s in an attempt to keep record companies she had signed exclusive contracts with from finding out about this extra source of income. On the Biltmore label she was Alberta Prime; on the Gennett she was Josephine Beatty (the name of her dead half sister); and on the Okeh, Victor and Columbia labels she used her own name. It is said that Alberta’s talents were never captured that well on records, and that she was much better live. She also used the name of May Alix, but there was also a real May Alix that recorded with Jimmie Noone’s Apex Orchestra and Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. Before leaving for Europe in 1927 she recorded some sessions with Fats Waller on organ. Later that year she performed in England and on the Continent as part of “Showboat” with Paul Robeson, and various other traveling musical revues. She was a hit in Paris, and continued to perform in Europe throughout the 1930s as well as the Middle East and Russia. During World War II, Alberta was part of the USO and entertained the troops throughout Asia, the South Pacific Islands and Europe. After the war she returned to America to care for her ailing mother, but continued singing until she quit music in 1956 after her mother died. At the age of 59 she enrolled in a practical nursing course and for the next twenty years she worked in a New York City hospital. In the early 1960s she recorded a few albums and then surprisingly took to the stage again in 1977 at age 82 and continued to perform up until the time of her death in 1984.
Clara Smith (1894-1935)
Little is known about Clara Smith’s early life other that that she was from Spartanburg, South Carolina. She worked in vaudeville in the late Teens and early 1920s and eventually became a popular performer on the TOBA circuit. In 1923 she moved to Harlem where she worked in cabarets and theaters and began recording exclusively for Columbia. Many critics consider her late 1920’s Blues recordings to be second only to Bessie Smith’s records in quality. She was billed as the Queen of the Moaners and the World’s Greatest Moaner and on her early records she was frequently accompanied by Fletcher Henderson on piano and on her later records featured bands that included first rate Jazz musicians like, James P. Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman. She recorded three duets “Far Away Blues” and “I’m Going Back To My Used To Be” and “My Man Blues” with Bessie Smith. Bessie and Clara were not related, but they were close personal friends until Bessie got drunk one evening in 1925 and beat up Clara. An interesting bit of trivia was that Clara gave Josephine Baker her first taste of show business in 1920 when she gave the thirteen year old Baker a job as her dresser in her touring company. They also briefly became lovers. Clara Smith continued to record until 1932 and performed live until she died of a heart attack in Detroit in 1935.
Mattie Hite (c.1890 — c.1935)
Mattie Hite was an African American blues singer in the classic female blues style. Her birthplace is unknown, but New York City has been suggested. Around 1915 she moved to Chicago, where she sang at the Panama Club, often with such performers as Alberta Hunter and Florence Mills. In 1919 she returned to New York City, where she worked in cabarets. Hite recorded in 1921 for Victor Records but the result was unissued; she recorded again in 1923 with Fletcher Henderson for the PathÃ© label, in 1923-4 for the Bell label, and in 1930 with Cliff Jackson for the Columbia label. From 1928—1932 she appeared in various revues at the Lafayette Theater in New York City. She is thought to have died in New York City in about 1935.
Blues writer Derrick Stewart-Baxter wrote in 1970 that “according to Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, [Mattie Hite] was a long, tall woman, who flavored her act with some extremely risquÃ© songs”. James P. Johnson considered Hite “one of the greatest cabaret singers of all time”. She was known especially for her version of “St. James’ Infirmary”.
Mattie Hite’s complete recordings were reissued in CD format by Document Records on Female Blues Singers, Volume 9: H2 (1923—1930) Complete Recorded Works & Supplements (DODC-5513).
Lena Wilson (1898-1939)
Lena Wilson got her start in show business on the TOBA vaudeville circuit sometime around 1918. She had a musical act with her brother Danny Wilson, who later married Blues singer Edith Wilson. Their act became a trio after the marriage. In 1921 Lena settled in New York, became a popular figure in the Black theatre scene in the city and appeared in dozens of musical revues up until around 1931. Her recording career began in 1922 and continued until 1924. She didn’t record again until 1930. After her recording career ended she continued to perform in clubs in the New York area until the mid-1930s. She was married to jazz violinist Shrimp Jones. Lena Wilson is reported to have died of pneumonia in 1939.
Wesley Wilson (1 October 1893 — 10 October 1958)
Wesley Wilson was an American blues and jazz singer and songwriter. His own stage craft, plus the double act with his wife and musical partner, Coot Grant, was popular with African American audiences in the 1910s, 1920s and early 1930s.
His stage names included Kid Wilson, Jenkins, Socks, and either Sox Wilson or Socks Wilson. His musical excursions included participation in the oddly named duo of Pigmeat Pete and Catjuice Charlie. Wilson recorded songs such as “Blue Monday on Sugar Hill” and “Rasslin’ Till The Wagon Comes”.
He was born in Jacksonville, Florida, United States. Wilson played both piano and organ, whilst Coot Grant strummed guitar as well as sing and dance.
The duo’s billing also varied between Grant and Wilson, Kid and Coot, and Hunter and Jenkins, as they went on to appear and later record with Fletcher Henderson, Mezz Mezzrow, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong. Their variety was such that they performed separately and together in vaudeville, musical comedies, revues and traveling shows. This ability to adapt also saw them appear in the 1933 film, The Emperor Jones, alongside Paul Robeson.
In addition to this, the twosome wrote in excess of 400 songs over their working lifetime. That list included “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)” (1933) and “Take Me for a Buggy Ride”, which were both made famous by Bessie Smith’s recording of the songs, plus “Find Me at the Greasy Spoon (If You Miss Me Here)” (1925) and “Prince of Wails” for Fletcher Henderson. Their own renditions included the diverse, “Come on Coot, Do That Thing” (1925), “Dem Socks Dat My Pappy Wore,” and “Throat Cutting Blues” (although the latter remains unreleased).”
Although Grant and Wilson’s act, once seen as a serious rival to Butterbeans and Susie, began to lose favor with the public by the middle of the 1930s, they recorded further songs in 1938. Their only child, Bobby Wilson, was born in 1941. By 1946, and after Mezz Mezzrow had founded his King Jazz record label, he engaged them as songwriters. In that year, the association led to their final recording session backed by a quintet incorporating Bechet and Mezzrow.
Wilson retired in ill health shortly thereafter, but Grant continued performing into the 1950s. In January 1953, one commentator noted that the couple had moved from New York to Los Angeles, but were in considerable financial hardship.
Wilson died from a stroke, aged 65, in October 1958 in Cape May Court House, New Jersey.
In 1998, his entire recorded work, both with and without Grant, was made available in three chronological volumes by Document Records.
Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Harris, 7 April 1915 — 17 July 1959)
Billie Holiday was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Her soulful, unique singing voice and her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own music made her a superstar of her time. Today, Holiday is remembered for her masterpieces, creativity and vivacity, as many of Holiday’s songs are as well known today as they were decades ago. Holiday’s poignant voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.
Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) grew up in jazz talent-rich Baltimore in the 1920s. As a young teenager, Holiday served the beginning part of her so-called “apprenticeship” by singing along with records by Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong in after-hours jazz clubs. When Holiday’s mother, Sadie Fagan, moved to New York in search of a better job, Billie eventually went with her. She made her true singing debut in obscure Harlem nightclubs and borrowed her professional name – Billie Holiday – from screen star Billie Dove. Although she never underwent any technical training and never even so much as learned how to read music, Holiday quickly became an active participant in what was then one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country. She would move from one club to another, working for tips. She would sometimes sing with the accompaniment of a house piano player while other times she would work as part of a group of performers.
At the age of 18 and after gaining more experience than most adult musicians can claim, Holiday was spotted by John Hammond and cut her first record as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman, who was then just on the verge of public prominence. In 1935 Holiday’s career got a big push when she recorded four sides that went on to become hits, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You.” This landed her a recording contract of her own, and then, until 1942, she recorded a number of master tracks that would ultimately become an important building block of early American jazz music.
Holiday began working with Lester Young in 1936, who pegged her with her now-famous nickname of “Lady Day.” When Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and then Artie Shaw in 1938, she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressive accomplishment of her time.
In the 1930s, when Holiday was working with Columbia Records, she was first introduced to the poem “Strange Fruit,” an emotional piece about the lynching of a black man. Though Columbia would not allow her to record the piece due to subject matter, Holiday went on to record the song with an alternate label, Commodore, and the song eventually became one of Holiday’s classics. It was “Strange Fruit” that eventually prompted Lady Day to continue more of her signature, moving ballads.
Holiday recorded about 100 new recordings on another label, Verve, from 1952 to 1959. Her voice became more rugged and vulnerable on these tracks than earlier in her career. During this period, she toured Europe, and made her final studio recordings for the MGM label in March of 1959.
Despite her lack of technical training, Holiday’s unique diction, inimitable phrasing and acute dramatic intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day. White gardenias, worn in her hair, became her trademark. “Singing songs like the ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘Porgy’ is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I’ve lived songs like that.”
Billie Holiday, a musical legend still popular today, died an untimely death at the age of 44. Her emotive voice, innovative techniques and touching songs will forever be remembered and enjoyed.