Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Bailey, Mildred (Mildred Rinker)

Mildred Bailey was known as “Mrs. Swing” to her fans in the thirties and forties, and rightly so. She and fellow Washingtonian Bing Crosby were among the first white singers to incorporate the innovations of black jazz and blues. With a small voice and a wicked wit, Bailey’s influence extends well beyond her years into subsequent generations of singers, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney.

Born Mildred Rinker in Tekoa, Washington on February 27, 1907, “Millie” was the oldest of four children. Her mother was part Coeur d’Alene Indian, and the family maintained a farm on a reservation until they moved to Spokane when she was five years old.

Her childhood seems to have been happy and quite musical. Her father played the fiddle, and her mother played all kinds of music on the piano, from ragtime to opera, and taught Mildred to play. Her brother Alton sang, and went on to perform professionally on the vaudeville circuit as Al Rinker. He teamed up with another Washingtonian from Tacoma, Bing Crosby, as The Rhythm Boys. According to biographer Gary Giddins, Crosby first heard Louis Armstrong on records from Mildred’s collection.

Mildred’s innocently happy girlhood ended when her mother died. Her father took on a series of housekeepers and eventually married one of them, a mean-spirited woman who made Mildred miserable. Soon after her seventeenth birthday, she packed her bag and moved on to the nearest big city – Seattle - where she got a job demonstrating sheet music at Woolworth’s. She did not return to see her father until after her stepmother died, when she accepted an engagement at a speakeasy in Spokane.

                     Mildred Bailey, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Mildred had an early and brief marriage to a salesman named Ted Bailey, whose name she kept because she thought it sounded more American than Rinker. Bailey’s second husband, Benny Stafford, was a bootlegger. While married to Stafford, Bailey gained a name for herself as a singer in speakeasies and clubs in Canada and on the West Coast.

By 1925, she was based in Los Angeles and headlining at a Hollywood nightclub, where she met up with her brother and Crosby, and helped them get their first bookings in town. By 1929, the Rhythm Boys had joined one of the era’s most popular acts, the Paul Whiteman orchestra, and Al and Bing concocted a plan to get her an audition for the bandleader.

Whiteman loved beer, and Millie was not only a fine singer, but also a great cook, and –more importantly during the Prohibition – she brewed beer at home. The pair persuaded her to throw a party for Whiteman and his band, where she got a chance to sing. “Paul didn't know it at the time,” Crosby later reminisced, “but he was a goner when he walked into the house."

Crosby remained a devoted admirer of Mildred. “Mildred Bailey gave me my start,” he reminisced. “She was mucha mujer, a genuine artist, with a heart as big as the Yankee Stadium, and a gal who really loved to laugh it up.”

Mildred debuted with the Whiteman band in 1929 on their popular radio show with her version of “Moanin’ Low,” and became the first “girl singer” to tour with a dance band, earning more than any of the instrumentalists. She recorded with guitarist Eddie Lang in 1929 and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer in 1930, but scored a breakout hit when she recorded Hoagy Carmichael’s bluesy ballad, “Rockin’ Chair,” with Whiteman’s band in 1932. The tune became her signature song.

One anecdote about Bailey’s early years with the Whiteman orchestra is revealing about both her character and the times. When a rival singer began to spread a rumor that she was black, the rumor was picked up by a columnist with the Hearst newspaper syndicate. In the early thirties, both bands and audiences were starkly segregated, and the controversy could have been a threat to Bailey’s growing career.

Although known as a soft touch, Bailey could be a formidable enemy. She asked Whiteman to intervene on her behalf with Hearst, and got the columnist fired. But when she later ran into the columnist on the street, down on his luck and dressed in a threadbare suit, she felt sorry for him and intervened once again to help him get his old job back.

Bailey herself was known for enlightened views on race relations, performing and recording with African-American musicians in her own bands. She also performed at a benefit concert in Harlem for the “Scottsboro boys,” nine African-American men who were falsely accused and convicted for raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.

In Whiteman’s band, Bailey also met Red Norvo, who played the xylophone and marimba, and the two wed in 1933. While the pair at first performed separately, the better-known Bailey stepped in to save Norvo’s floundering combo, which resulted in some of the best work of their careers. Bailey recorded as vocalist with Norvo’s group for Brunswick from 1936 to 1939. Norvo’s group, as well as members of Count Basie’s band, backed her for Vocalion in the same period, on some of the era’s most adventurous arrangements, often penned by Eddie Sauter.

Together, the couple became known as Mr. and Mrs. Swing. They lived for a while in the midtown Manhattan apartment of violinist Joe Venuti and his wife Sally. Crosby and his wife Dixie lived at the nearby Essex House, and the three couples socialized together. The two were also close friends of Columbia Records producer John Hammond, and were with him when he first heard a teenaged Billie Holiday singing at a Harlem speakeasy in 1933.

Photos of Red and Mildred in those years decked out for a night on the town show him as slim and gawky, with a goofy grin and a polka-dotted bowtie, and Millie draped in white fox over a stylish sequined dress and a dark hat at a jaunty angle on the side of her head.

Together they made great, glittering music and apparently had fun doing it, as one can hear in songs like “The Weekend of a Private Secretary,” about a clerk who takes a holiday in Havana, with Red on xylophone and maracas. The couple divorced in the late thirties, but continued to record together through the 1940s.

Bailey’s debt to black jazz pioneers like Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith can easily be heard on the series of sides she recorded for Brunswick in 1933 with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, which include the gospel-tinged “Shoutin’ in That Amen Corner.” She also recorded at this time with Coleman Hawkins in a band led by Benny Goodman.

Bailey’s widespread recognition never translated into great commercial success, and when Decca failed to renew her contract in 1942, no other major label showed an interest in taking her on. Bailey could be bitter, and at times blamed her weight – close to 200 pounds – when younger, more svelte singers eclipsed her career.

Finally, in the late 1940s, a new and aspiring company, Majestic, added her to their roster, and she made several successful recordings with them over the next three years. On Majestic, she was teamed with the legendary accompanist Ellis Larkins, with whom she recorded some of her greatest, most poignant tracks, including ballads like “These Foolish Things” and “Born to Be Blue.”

After 1947, Bailey retired to a farm in upstate New York and performed off and on, but increasingly suffered from diabetes and other maladies, and was generally low on funds. Old friends from her musical heyday, including composer Jimmy Van Heusen, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, chipped in to help pay her hospital bills. She died in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1951 at the age of 44.

Bailey herself was a major influence for jazz and pop singers in generations to come. Some hear her influence in Billie Holiday, and one can certainly hear a lot of Mildred in Ella Fitzgerald - both had great diction, although Ella had less spunk. You can also turn your Mildred-tuned ears towards Rosemary Clooney, who shared Bailey’s direct, honest way with a lyric, and Blossom Dearie - another small-voiced singer with a wicked wit.

Select Discography

Chronological Collections

Mildred Bailey "1929-1932" (Classics/France, 1999)

Mildred Bailey "1932-1936" (Classics/France, 2000)

Mildred Bailey "1937-1938" (Classics/France, 2000)

Mildred Bailey "1938" (Classics/France, 2001)

Mildred Bailey "1939" (Classics/France, 2002)

Mildred Bailey "1939-1940" (Classics/France, 2002)

Mildred Bailey "1940-1942" (Classics/France, 2003)

Mildred Bailey "1943-1945" (Classics/France, 2003)

Mildred Bailey "1945-1947" (Classics/France, 2004)

Volume One: Sweet Beginnings (The Old Masters, 2001)

Volume Two: Band Vocalist (The Old Masters, 2001)

The Blue Angel Years: 1945-1947 (Baldwin Street, 1999)

Individual Compilations

Me And The Blues (Atlantic/Savoy, 2000). Recorded in the late 1940s.

Rockin’ Chair Lady (MCA, 1994; mostly from recordings on Decca)

The Incomparable Mildred Bailey (Sony Legacy, 2003). Features some of Bailey's best recordings on Columbia.

Contributor: Sue Russell