Born Mildred Rinker, February 27, 1907, in Teoka, WA; died December 12, 1951, in Poughkeepsie, NY; father was an amateur violinist; mother was a pianist; married Ed Bailey (divorced); married Red Norvo, c. 1931 (divorced, c. 1943).

Mildred Bailey, the "Rockin' Chair Lady," began her singing profession demonstrating sheet music songs for individual customers in Seattle, Washington, when she was 17 years old. She would then go on to spend her entire career singing in the same intimate, person-to-person manner. Rather than shouting, scatting, or employing gimmicks, Bailey honored a wide variety of lyrics and melodies with her perfect diction and delicate voice, enchanting each listener who came under her spell. Some critics have questioned whether Bailey was truly a jazz singer or simply an exceptional pop singer. Nonetheless, her influence on generations of jazz vocalists who followed is unquestioned. Considered the first female microphone singer, Bailey taught the next generation how to use this new technology.

Born Mildred Rinker on February 27, 1907, Bailey grew up in a musical family. Her Irish father played the violin, and her mother was an accomplished pianist. Bailey's brother Alton would later team up with Bing Crosby and Harry Barris to form the famous Rhythm Boys singing group. When her mother died in 1917, Mildred moved to Seattle to live with an aunt. While she was struggling early in her career, Mildred was married to Ed Bailey, and though the union was short-lived, the name became permanent. As Mildred Bailey, she played piano for silent movies, sang in clubs of various kinds, and moved to Los Angeles, where her brother and Crosby joined her, penniless and jobless. She helped them form a vaudeville act that landed them a job in 1927 with Paul Whiteman, perhaps the hottest name in music.

When the Whiteman troupe visited Los Angeles in 1929, Crosby and Al Rinker urged Whiteman to visit Mildred's home for dinner--and an audition. Greatly impressed, Whiteman added Mildred Bailey to his traveling group, and she was soon singing on his popular radio program. In his Handbook of Jazz, Barry Ulanov asserted, "Mildred Bailey set the standards for band singing, first with Paul Whiteman and then with the orchestra that she and Red Norvo led; she was generously gifted with preciseness of intonation and tenderness of phrase; she could sing with lilt or a larruping good humor, as the song required; she had rhythmic and tonal instincts that could do justice to every one of the able lyrics and better tunes with which a few song writers were providing jazz singers."

Thus Bailey became the first jazz singer--indeed, the first "girl" singer--to perform regularly with a band. In succeeding years, and throughout the swing and big band era, virtually every band would have a female vocalist; many of those singers were influenced by or would try to pattern themselves after the original.

Emulating Bailey was not an easy task. She brought a unique blend of qualities to her singing, beginning with a gossamer soprano voice, which darkened slightly in its later years, and an ever-present, almost too~fast vibrato. Bailey sang simply, without pretense or adornment. Rarely substituting notes for the written melody, she relied on sure pitch and perfect diction throughout her career. The vocalist's sense of time--without which a jazz musician sinks--was elegant.

To her exquisite phrasing of even the most common lyric, she brought a feeling, an accent that imparted new light and meaning to the words. She would often sing slightly ahead of the beat, creating an urgency; at other times she employed a slight pause, a dragging of the beat, a stretching of a word, a shaded intonation, or a glissando to deliver the message. All of this seemed effortless and natural for Bailey.

Throughout her recording career, which stretched from October 5, 1929, with guitarist Eddie Lang, to an April 25, 1950, session accompanied by Vic Schoen's orchestra, Bailey sang the entire range of songs: popular novelty tunes, torch songs, blues, popular love songs, spirituals, and especially the great American classical music of the 1930s and 1940s. Believing that every song deserved her best effort, Bailey never sang down to a tune. In his In Quest of Music, Irving Kolodin remarked, "A special wing belongs to the Baileys of jazz, those of the quieter but no less insinuating persuasion, whose art is in the chamber music category."

While Bailey's exposure to national audiences began with the outsized Whiteman orchestra, and while much of her radio and recorded legacy is with full-sized orchestras, some of her most appealing work was done with smaller, more intimate, "chamber-sized" groups. Even while singing with Whiteman for about five years, Bailey made recordings with other groups, many composed of other Whiteman musicians. Among the noted jazz musicians with whom Bailey recorded were trumpeters Bunny Berigan, Roy Eldridge, and Ziggy Elam; saxophonists Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, and Johnny Hodges; the Dorsey Brothers; clarinetist Benny Goodman; drummer Gene Krupa; guitarists Eddie Lang and Dick McDonough; and pianists Mary Lou Williams and Teddy Wilson. Included on any list of the most brilliant Bailey recordings are those with her Alley Cats (Berigan, Hodges, Wilson and bassist Grachan Monchur), those with her Swing Band (Norvo, Berry, Wilson, McDonough, and others), and those made with variations on the Norvo orchestra.

One of the musicians Bailey met through Paul Whiteman was Red Norvo, the great xylophonist and vibraharpist. Bailey and Norvo were married for 12 years beginning in 1931, but their musical marriage proved far smoother than their personal relationship, which was marked by monumental and often well-publicized fights and arguments. Between 1936 and 1939 Norvo and Bailey performed and recorded regularly together as "Mr. and Mrs. Swing" with Red's band of various sizes. This group, spiced by the subtle, swinging arrangements of Eddie Sauter, produced what is considered to be some of the most sophisticated jazz of any era.

Bailey and Norvo's home was a regular gathering place for the elite of New York's jazz and show world. During one party the famous Benny Goodman trio was born. Goodman and pianist Teddy Wilson, aided by a guest who was an amateur drummer, spontaneously began playing together. Within months, on July 13, 1935, the first Goodman trio recording surfaced with Gene Krupa on drums. This group, with the later addition of Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, became the nucleus of what was probably the first integrated band to appear in public.

Bailey first recorded the famous song "Rockin' Chair" in 1932 with a Whiteman splinter group led by Matt Malneck and recut it several times thereafter. The song was written for her by Hoagy Carmichael, and Bailey became permanently associated with it as the "Rockin' Chair Lady." Bailey, with her light, airy voice, was a study in contrasts. Extremely sensitive, Bailey could sometimes explode into temper displays, but her generosity was equally renowned. Friends and audiences enjoyed her ready wit and outgoing, sometimes boisterous manner. Though she never achieved the commercial success she coveted, Bailey was hailed by fellow musicians and singers.

Bailey sought perfection in her performances and expected the same from her accompanists. Toronto trumpeter Paul Grosney, sitting in with a Norvo group in New York in the mid-1940s, received one order from the leader: "Don't step on her lyrics!" Bailey was confident of her ability, but retained a modesty that bordered on self-doubt. She had listened early and often to the great jazz and blues singers who preceded her, especially Bessie Smith. Their styles were vastly different, however: Bessie's was raucous and mesmerizing, while Bailey's was understated and captivating. Smith's only appearance on New York City's 52nd Street, at the Famous Door in February of 1936, caused a sensation and was attended by Bailey. After the "Empress of the Blues" sang, Bailey refused to follow her.

Commenting on Bailey's style, critic Nat Hentoff wrote in the Progressive, "Mildred Bailey may have been the first white female singer to understand what black singers and horns were about and to apply that knowledge to her own work without trying to mimic black ways of music.... That is, she used her natural, white, rather small voice.... But what she did with time, with the inner dynamics of phrasing, and with her clear, dep feeling for the stories she sang made her work unfailingly absorbing."

Surprisingly, Bailey's style and basic sound changed little from her earliest to her latest recordings, except for the added self-confidence and sophistication that came with experience. Her radio program of 1944 to 1945 was followed by several years of irregular appearances--often labeled "comebacks"--in clubs and recording studios. When she died in 1951, Bailey left a legacy of recordings for contemporary and succeeding singers. Among those who heard and understood Bailey's message were Irene Daye, Helen Humes, Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Peggy Lee, and Kay Starr.

In 1962 John Hammond and Frank Driggs produced a memorial set of Bailey's Columbia recordings spanning from 1929 to 1946; complete with an informative booklet, the collection was re-released in 1981. This and other albums attest to Bailey's vocal strengths and help explain why jazz historian and critic Stanley Dance, writing in his World of Swing, called Bailey "one of the greatest jazz singers, a legend in her own time, and a witty woman of taste, temperament, and keen appetites." Bailey's important place in jazz history was recognized in 1994 when, along with other jazz and blues greats, she was featured on her own U.S. Postal Service stamp.

by Robert Dupuis

Mildred Bailey's Career

Began career singing sheet music songs in a Seattle music store, 1924; played piano for silent movies; sang in Los Angeles clubs, 1925-28; joined Paul Whiteman Orchestra and began recording career, 1929; recorded first LPs under her own name, 1931; sang in Red Norvo's band, 1936-39; star of The Mildred Bailey Radio Show, 1944-45; performed intermittently as health permitted until 1951.

Mildred Bailey's Awards

Silver Award, 1944, and Gold awards, 1945-46, Esquire.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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