I have been listening to Mildred Bailey’s singing since the early Seventies, when I found the three-record Columbia set devoted to her recordings from 1929-47.  And she never fails to move me — with her tenderness, her technique, her wit.  But Mildred has very few champions these days.  Even the late Whitney Balliett, whose taste and judgment were unparalleled, wrote that Mildred succeeded neither as a pop singer or a jazz one.  And if you were to ask the most well-informed listener who the greatest women jazz singers are, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would head the list (if not two dozen others ranging from Diana Krall to Shirley Horn to Ella Logan to Marion Harris) . . . but Mildred is forgotten, or all but forgotten.


It can’t be because of her race.  We finally have come to accept that White folks can swing, can’t we?

Some of her invisibility has to do with her elusiveness.  Billie and Ella have established, defined “personalities,” which ironically might have little relationship to what they sang.  “Billie Holiday” as an iconic figure equals self-destructive heroin addict, short-lived victim, a tortured figure, someone for whom MY MAN or DON’T EXPLAIN was painful autobiography.  Subject of a bad melodramatic movie; a ghost-written “autobiography” and several biographies as well as documentary films.  And the most accessible visual image of Billie is from the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ — careworn, rueful, lovely.  There is the engaging rasp of her voice in te Thirties, the moody cry and croak of her later recordings.

“Ella Fitzgerald” is sunny exuberance, scat-singing, someone making a jazzy version of the American songbook accessible to anyone in the Fifties who owned a record player.  A cheerful endurance, whether alongside Chick Webb, Louis, Basie, or Ellington.  Everyman and woman’s identifiable Jazz Singer, easy to understand. 

Today marketers call this “branding,” boiling down the unique self into a few immediately recognizable qualities — as if people were products to be put in the shopping cart in a hurry.   

Then there is the issue of size. 

In Charles Peterson’s 1939 photographs of Billie that I have posted recently, we see a seriously chubby young woman.  Ella was always a large woman, but no one said anything about it.  Some astute listeners did not worry about a woman singer’s weight.  Think of Wagnerian sopranos.  Think of Kate Smith.  Did anyone care that Connee Boswell could not get off the piano bench?  And men are forgiven a great deal.   

But in pop music, listeners tend to be much more fickle, visually oriented, even shallow.  It is difficult to escape Mildred Bailey’s appearance.  She was fat, and not “fat” in a jolly way — not the way that some Twenties blues singers could use to their advantage: Helen Humes or Edith Wilson singing about their weight as a sexual asset (Miss Wilson’s lyric: “Why should men approach with caution / For this extry-special portion?”).  Aside from laughing at herself during the January 1944 Metropolitan Opera House jam session — while singing “Pick me up / On your knee” in SQUEEZE ME, she and the band are chuckling at the difficulty of such a task — Mildred did not joke about her size, nor did she make it part of “an act.” 

Many listeners want their popular icons to be erotically desirable.  Sex sells; sex appeals.  Eventually, as they age,  singers pass an invisible boundary and become Venerable.  Think of all the cover pictures of singers, male and female, posed as if on magazine covers — Lee Wiley reclining on a couch on one of the Fifties RCA Victors; Julie London smoldering, her long red-blonde hair flowing.  Misses Krall and Tierney Sutton, today.  (I receive many new CDs by young women who consider themselves singers.  They look like models.  They credit a hair stylist, a wardrobe consultant, a make-up artist.  I think, “Can you sing?”)

Consider Mildred’s contemporaries: pretty, svelte, apparently youthful forever: Peggy Lee, Edythe Wright, Helen Ward, even Doris Day.  But Mildred’s photographs make her look matronly, and she is making no effort to woo the viewer. 

Let us even give audiences of the Thirties and Forties the benefit of the doubt.  If you did not live in a big American city, how many opportunities would you have to see Mildred Bailey and to judge her on the basis of her size rather than her art?  Possibly you saw her on the cover of a piece of sheet music or stared at the label of one of her Vocalion 78s, heard her on the radio.  No film footage exists of her.   

There is the nature of Mildred’s art.  Many artists have one approach, whether they are singing EMPTY BED BLUES of SILENT NIGHT.  If she was singing DOWNHEARTED BLUES, she was lowdown and melancholy (while swinging); LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN and GIVE ME TIME brought out different kinds of tenderness.  On CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU and ARTHUR MURRAY TAUGHT ME DANCING IN A HURRY, she was hilarious.  IT’S SO PEACEFUL IN THE COUNTRY was calm and pastoral, THANKS FOR THE MEMORY rueful, knowing.  And IN LOVE IN VAIN is, althought masterfully understated, a heartbreaking performance.  Versatility is bad for branding; it confuses the consumer.   

As a band singer — the first woman to be hired in that role — with Paul Whiteman and her husband Red Norvo, she recorded a good many songs that were forgettable: THREE LITTLE FISHIES, for one.  Perhaps the girlish quality of Mildred’s upper register may have disconcerted some listeners, who would prefer their jazz singers to be plaintive and husky.  But arguing over the definitions of a jazz singer and a pop singer seems a silly business.  Do you like what you hear?  

Although we can feel both fascinated and sympathetic while considering Billie’s difficult life, Ella’s poor childhood, Mildred would have had a hard time making diabetes and obesity intriguing to us. 

I also suspect that those who ignore her Mildred do so not because her voice displeases them, but because she subliminally represents OLD.  I don’t mean OLD in the sense of the past, but in the sense of elderly, of senior citizen.  What bad luck made Mildred identify herself “The Rockin’ Chair Lady?”  Of course, her performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR was superb; she took it as her theme song.  But — when we want our stars to be aerobically bouncy — for Mildred to portray herself as immobilized, unable to get out of her chair, was not a good way to market herself.  (And artists were products even in the Thirties.)     

Alas, poor Mildred.  Were she to apply for a job and be turned down because of her appearance, she could sue, win, and collect a substantial settlement.  But dead artists can’t sue an ignorant public for discrimination. 

Listen to her sing

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention WHO ERASED MILDRED BAILEY? « JAZZ LIVES -- Topsy.com

  2. Great piece! Mildred Bailey is one of my all time favorite singers. Her sound is immediately identifiable and she has so much feeling & swing. I never, ever tire of her special delivery. I also like the way she looks – like a real person!

  3. John P. Cooper

    Interesting observations.

    Music aside (sadly b/c show biz lurks always)

    She hit earlier than other ‘Swing’ singers.
    Born 1907 – that made her 30 y/o in 1937 – ten or so more years older than the other women on the scene.

    Overweight for sure, but Kate Smith maybe have been bigger. The difference – ‘sunny disposish’ – Kate had it and most of the girl singers had it. Mildred did not. Photos of her smiling seem scarce. She usually looks very severe in her photos, dressed in black, hair unstylish, etc.

    Did it matter at the time? Perhaps only in the amount of PR she received. No cheesecake photos, no fawning boys, no girls trying to emulate her. No fun. Fun factor – zero. High spirits – near zero.

    Mildred was her music. She was the Charles Laughton of Jazz. Laughton hated the way he looked. Mildred didn’t seem to like the way she looked. But their artistry transcends their appearance.

    I am interested in more opinions.

  4. Considering Paul Whiteman has plenty of detractors, I suppose that might be a factor in the lack of recognition for Mildred. Just a thought…

  5. Ordinarily I would agree with you, Jamaica — we share the same thoughts! but so many musicians and singers were connected with Whiteman and their reputations seem untarnished. The young man from Davenport, Bing, Jack, Bunny are the first who come to mind. Happy New Year! Michael

  6. Very true, but Bix, Bing, Bunny, etc. had made their mark, most strongly, outside of Whiteman’s orchestra. They didn’t need Whiteman to become the icons they became.

  7. Excellent post, Michael, and long overdue. To me Mildred Bailey is the greatest jazz singer nobody talks about anymore. Sorry, Billie and Ella fans, but no singer in jazz history handled as wide a range of material as brilliantly as Mildred – from singing the blues with Mary Lou Williams to small-group and big-band swingers to word-heavy comic novelties to intimate ballads. (Her “You Started Something” with Ellis Larkins is heart-wrenching in its vulnerability.) For me her recordings with the Norvo band (and with the Norvo band under the name “Mildred Bailey & Her Orchestra”) outshine the “iconic” Ella Fitzgerald-Chick Webb recordings by a wide margin – not even close. Heresy? Try listening to the Bailey-Norvo “Born to Swing” or “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid” or the sublime “From the Land of the Sky Blue Water” and see if you don’t come to the same conclusion. She sang the “outdoor” songwriters (Robison, Carmichael) and the “indoor” songwriters (Berlin, Schertzinger, Weill, et al). She could make you laugh and make you cry. I dislike using the word “best.” I’ll just say that no one – not Billie, not Ella – did it better than Mildred.

    Thanks, Michael, and well done!

  8. when mentioning other singers of note I believe Sarah Vaughn should be automatically included………

  9. The “rockin-chair lady”was a kind of BILLIE HOLIDAY without “bad press”.The Esquire concert
    was a good example of her magnetism and her v disc recordings circa 1941.Good year 2010.

  10. The wonderful jazz singer/pianist Daryl Sherman is a great champion of Mildred’s, as has Barbara Lea been over the years. I forwarded your blog to Daryl in the hopes she might share some of her thoughts with us here. We love Mildred Bailey, but you’re right that she is never heralded in the way that Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Billie, etc. are.

  11. Have your CA spies been recording our breakfast conversations? We were just talking about the sublime Ms. Bailey last weekend and speculating as to why so few folks have heard of her. Thanks for such a nice writeup about her, and maybe you’ll gain her some new fans.

    On a related note – Maxine Sullivan. When I recently mentioned her I got a blank stare from someone who should have known better – a trad/swing jazz festival organizer (and singer). Oh well, their loss – all I know is the more I listen, the more I find to listen to.

  12. I swear that no microphones have been hidden in the cereal box or the toaster. But let me know what you and Marc are discussing: I can always use a good suggestion! And happy 2010 to you both.

  13. I noticed you said pictures of her were scarce with a smile I have one of her and her husband Red Norvo and 12 other men outside of Steel Pier. In the Marine Ballroom. Any interest to you or anyone you know?

  14. Yes! We could carry on this conversation in another way — my email is swingyoucats@gmail.com. Cheers, Michael Steinman

  15. As much as I enjoy “The rocking chair lady”, and know that she could swing her ass off, Connee Boswell is the most overlooked jazz vocalist. a multi-instrumentalist, arranger, Connee and her sisters, in a time females were not given the same respect as there male counterparts elevated the art of jazz singing and arranging more then anyone before, or since. one mans opinion. just Ask Ella, Connee was her biggest influence!

  16. Mike Campbell

    I think another reason could be that Mildred’s recordings came before the Hi-Fi era. Fussy young audiophiles (as opposed to non-fussy discophiles) are often turned off. I recently read the comments on a YouTube post for a 78 RPM recording in which the poster said the crackling and pops of the source material “creeped her out.” This caused a mini-discussion among commenters about how “old” things, such as crackling sounds on a record or static on a television or radio, might evoke tense horror-movie responses from young listeners; I guess they are expecting a phantom to jump out during static silences…Go figure.

  17. That’s nearly appalling. Creepy, too. Billie made it to the edge of stereo . . . pity all those poor artists who lived and died in mono!

  18. Thanks for writing about Mildred Bailey. I just discovered her a couple months ago V discs downloadable at Archive.org. I was delighted to see she was from a small town near where I grew up, but more delighted by her recordings, particularly the V discs with The Delta Rhythm Boys. Cheers!

  19. Louis Mulder, the Netherlands

    Thank you for your writing about Mildred!
    It took a very long time to get most of her music and now at last you provided the much appreciated information about her person and career.

  20. Ruy Mauricio de Lima e Silva Neto

    She is absolutely wonderful, one of the very first American singers I’ve heard when I was around 7 or 8 years old. A 10-inch record by Columbia with fantastic renditions of “I’ll be around”, “Don’t take your love from me”,”Thanks for the memory”, all with very queer, weird arrangements envolving woodwinds and a very “frightening” and grave trombone (to my childish ears) in “Lonesome Road”.A record (and a very delicate voice) that really marked my very early childhood. Lately I learned that she was Al Rinker’s sister of Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys fame, along with Bing Crosby.

  21. Tom Holbrook

    It was my great good fortune to discover Mildred Bailey quite a while back, and I’ve relished her singing ever since, and have gloried in the goodies that the CD format has been able to bring to modern ears. I think I now have all her better offerings issued on CD (though I keep eyes and ears open). Mildred is one of the very (very) small number of great jazz/pop singers of all time, and if you haven’t listened long and carefully to her work you owe it to yourself to do so. She’s just a marvel, and perhaps of all the classic female jazz singers is the one always, and most consistenly excellent, over all her years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s