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.
COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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