Mildred Bailey is one of my favorite singers from the 1930s and early 1940s. She had a high, thin soprano voice that was particularly suited to singing swing music and the blues.
Bailey, born Mildred Rinker in Tekoa Washington on February 27, 1907, was part of a musical family. Her mother, a full blooded Native American, played the piano, and her father played the fiddle and called square dances. Her brother Al Rinker became a vocalist and composer, and her brother Charles became a lyricist. Mildred’s mother taught her to play the piano and to sing.
During the early part of the twentieth century, before phonographs and radios became commonplace, people bought sheet music of the latest songs, and played the songs on their pianos for entertainment. It was common to have someone perform the music in public so that shoppers would hear and hopefully purchase the sheet music version of what they heard. At age 17 Mildred got her start in the entertainment world by demonstrating that music in a Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in Seattle. She soon became a popular singer on the west coast, and is credited with helping her brother, Al, and his partner Bing Crosby (a native of Tacoma, Washington) to find work. Crosby, in turn, introduced Mildred to bandleader Paul Whiteman. She sang with Whiteman’s band from 1929 to 1933, and became a popular part of his radio show.
During the early 1930s she recorded with Paul Whiteman, Eddie Lang, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, and Coleman Hawkins. But her greatest successes were numbers she recorded with her third husband Red Norvo – one of the earliest and greatest jazz vibraphonists. In fact, she and Red were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.”
One of my favorite recordings by Bailey and Norvo is “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid” recorded in 1936.
Her theme song became a 1929 Hoagy Carmichael number called “Rockin’ Chair.” The story behind the song is that during a visit that Carmichael paid to the stout Mildred Bailey she attempted to rise from a rocking chair only to find that the chair came up with her. She is said to have remarked, “That old rockin’ chair’s got me.” Carmichael, who was intrigued by Bailey’s comment, turned her observation into a hit song.
Bailey and Norvo eventually divorced, and she performed and recorded on her own into the mid-1940s. But finally due to ill health – she was a diabetic with heart problems – she was forced to retire to a farm in upstate New York. After retiring she received financial help from composer Jimmy Van Heusen, Frank Sinatra, and her longtime friend Bing Crosby. On December 12, 1951 the penniless Mildred Bailey died from heart failure in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was only 44 years old.
As a testament to her greatness, many of her recordings are still available. I recommend a 4 CD set titled “Mrs. Swing.” You can also find many of her recordings on the internet.