“You have an awful good voice,” Johnny St. Cyr told Mrs. Christian, “Why don’t you do something with that voice?”
Mrs. Christian said, “Why don’t you help me do something with it?” and Johnny replied, “Well, I will. I’ll see what I can do.”
And here’s what happened:
A few days ago, the fine reedman John Clark of the Wolverine Jazz Band sent me an information-present that I will share with you.
Eight years ago, I published a post about Lillie Delk Christian, who recorded sixteen sides with the finest musicians on the planet (Armstrong, Hines, Noone), and then seemed to vanish — here. I was asking questions, and my friend, scholar-drummer Hal Smith, provided answers; four days later I had more answers and photographs, thanks to the splendid writer-researcher Mark Miller and Dan Morgenstern, who actually met Lillie in the 1960s: read here.
But John has topped them all by pointing out an audio interview Mrs. Christian gave on April 25, 1961. You can listen to it just below, but if you haven’t got sixty-four minutes to spare, I can offer some highlights. Unfortunately, the interviewer stops the flow of Mrs. Christian’s story to deal with a particular hobby-horse. Pro tip: stay quiet or say “And then what happened?” rather than intruding. Alas. I believe the interviewer may be Samuel Charters; the later male voice is surely Mr. Christian, Charles, no relation to the guitarist.
The conversation takes place in the Christian house, their residence for twenty-seven years, presumably not with the same barking dog nearby. Mrs. Christian was born in Mobile, Alabama, and chooses not to tell her birth year; the Delk family moved to Chicago in 1915.
Her singing career started with the OKeh recordings. Her friend, Johnny St. Cyr, heard her when they were all living at 3938 Indiana Avenue, singing around the house — without training, but it “went over all right.” She seems to have had no public career between 1929 and 1934, and we do not find out whether she retreated from show business or that gigs dried up during the hard times of the Depression, but mentions that she toured in the summer of 1935 with Carroll Dickerson’s Orchestra and had an engagement in a club in Stockton, California.
But she cannot remember every detail the interviewer wants to know, although she recalls that she and her husband ran a “tea-house” restaurant around the corner, with the piano played by Ellington and other famous musicians.
Eventually, she sang at the Club De Lisa with reedman Dalbert Bright, drummer Jimmy Hoskins and guitarist Ike Perkins, perhaps trumpeter Guy Kelly, then Red Saunders led the band. Another gig was at the Cotton Club, the band possibly led by Thamon Hayes. A later stint at the Club De Lisa was with Eddie Cole (without brother Nat) and then Horace Henderson, at a club with a white orchestra in Springfield, Ohio — the Continental Club, where Lillie’s accompanist was pianist Marlow Nichols. (All spelling errors are my fault.)
It puzzles me that the interviewer didn’t ask Mrs. Christian, “Whose idea was it for Louis to scat on TOO BUSY?” “What was it like to record for OKeh?” At least we get a few words about Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, “in his highest bloom” in the Thirties.
“When my kind of singing came out, it was kind of unusual. And the people seemed to like it.”
Mrs. Christian sounds as if she would be willing to be recorded again, but only as part of her church choir. And for those who think of her voice as being brash and brightly-colored, it is delightful to hear her speaking voice: sweet, moderated, gently nuanced.
A glimpse, occasionally frustrating, into the world of someone legendary to us.
May your happiness increase!