My journey of discovery into the great jazz artists of the past continues, it seems, on biannual pace. Among the forgotten names I have been fortunate enough to trip across over past decade or so are Dorothy Donegan, Rod Levitt and Lee O’Daniel’s Hillbilly Boys, but this discovery took me by complete surprise because I hadn’t even known that she existed.
And I’ll bet many readers of this blog don’t know that she existed, too.
In fact, before I go into who she was, I’ll give you her photograph, and I bet you STILL won’t know who she was:
A few hints. She was a major jazz singer of the period 1934-1941, a contemporary of such more famous names as Billie Holiday, Connie Boswell, Ella Fitzgerald and Mildred Bailey, and during that period she was actually more popular than Holiday, whose unusual, somewhat acidic voice didn’t much appeal to the general public. During her time in Berkeley, California, 1935-36, she met and greatly impressed Al Jolson, who featured her on his Shell Chateau radio show. After moving to New York later that year, she appeared on such popular radio programs as the Rudy Vallee show, the RCA Magic Key series, the Studebaker Champions Show, and Ben Bernie’s Show. Her beautiful, swinging voice led to a series of twice-weekly, 15 minute sustaining programs of songs for the NBC Blue Network. In early 1937, she did a weekly series of songs for the NBC Red Network. Clearly, she was at the top of her profession.
Give up? Her name was Midge Williams (real first name: Virginia, like her mother).
The fact that she has been forgotten was due to one bad career decision and bad health, which took her out of the limelight and put her into the shadows. She was only 32 years old when she died. And yet, her surviving recordings clearly show her to have been a major jazz singer.
The career that ended so abruptly and mysteriously was the product of her having been born into a musical family and hard work. From Wikipedia:
Williams came from a talented family. Her grandfather Joshua had been a music teacher, her mother Virginia Louise was a dance teacher, and her uncle Henry played the violin. She also had a half-brother named Lester Williams who worked as a jazz musician. Williams and three of her brothers formed a singing and dancing act called the Williams Quartette. The group performed regularly in churches and theaters in and around the San Francisco–Oakland area.
During performances of the Williams Quartette in the early 1930s, Roger Seguire saw the act and signed on to be the group’s manager. Seguire was a pianist with experience in Asia, and he booked the group for a tour of China and Japan. In 1933, the Williams Quartette went to Shanghai to perform at the Canidrome. In 1934, in Japan, Williams made the first recording of her career, singing jazz songs in both English and Japanese.
And there was something more in her background…a dangerous environmental hazard in her home town that possibly led to her later health problems. Though born in Oregon, her family moved to the agricultural town of Allensworth, California, where they had arsenic in the groundwater supply, and when promised new water sources were not provided, the economic hopes of the community began to falter. Many residents had to leave, but although her mother moved to Oakland in 1925, Midge and her brothers, John, Lewis, Charles, and Robert, remained in Allensworth. In 1929, the children joined her newly remarried mother and her uncle, Henry Singleton, in Berkeley, California.
But from 1933 onward, Midge’s career flourished. In addition to the venues mentioned above, she also sang at the Apollo and Savoy Ballrooms in Harlem and, in 1937, began a series of recordings for Brunswick-Vocalion with small groups of highly regarded jazz musicians. She had already recorded in 1936 with such big names as Bunny Berigan, Miff Mole and Teddy Wilson, but the lineup for most of the “Midge Williams and her Jazz Jesters” recordings were also very good. A great many of them were made with Brunswick-Vocalion’s hot new black jazz band, the John Kirby Sextet, both in its earlier incarnation with Frank Newton on trumpet and Pete Brown on alto sax as well as its “classic” lineup with Charlie Shavers and Russell Procope replaced them.
Listening to Williams sing is a revelation. Like Mildred Bailey, she had a very sweet, high, light soprano with pure intonation and a swinging style, but unlike Bailey she could also scat very well. What’s even more interesting is that her jazz and blues phrasing was taken straight from Louis Armstrong—one of the few female singers to copy Louis in that way. Among her surprisingly large number of recordings (they fill two whole CDs in toto) are the following gems, which I consider her best:
1) I Was Born to Swing (Lil Hardin Armstrong)
2) Dinah (Lewis-Young-Akst)
3) Alabama Barbecue (Benny Davis-J. Fred Coots)
4) Copper-Colored Gal (Cab Calloway)
5) What’che Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing? (Livingston-Neiburg)
6) Organ Grinder’s Swing (Hudson-Mills-Parish)
7) Rhythm Lullaby (Andy Razaf)
8) How Could You? (Dubin-Warren)
9) It All Begins and Ends With You (Froeba-Palmer)
10) The Lady is a Tramp (Rodgers-Hart)
11) My Newest Excitement (Schoebel-Mills)
12) I’m Getting Sentimental Over You (Bassman-Washington)
13) Fortune Tellin’ Man (Coots-Davis)
14) Walkin’ the Dog (Shelton Brooks)
15) The One Rose That’s Left in my Heart (McIntyre-Lyon-Rodgers)
16) In Any Language (Revel-Warren)
17) Where the Lazy River Goes By (Adamson-McHugh)
18) In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree (Van Alstyne-Williams)
19) Mama’s Gone, Goodbye (Piron-Bocage)
20) Rosie the Redskin (Al Stillman)
21) Love is Like Whiskey (unknown)
22) Oh! Miss Hannah (Deppen-Hollingsworth)
23) I’m in a Happy Frame of Mind (Rube Bloom)
24) Cow Cow Boogie (Benny Carter-Gene DePaul)
All of these can be found on the Classic Jazz Online website with the exception of the last, which I will discuss in a moment. In a nutshell, however, by mid-1938 Midge had good reason to think that she was at or near the top of the jazz world, but in the fall of that year she made a poor career decision. She accepted an offer to be the girl singer with Louis Armstrong and his big band. Surely, she must have thought that this would be the pinnacle of her career: after all, Armstrong was not only considered one of the greatest of all living jazz musicians, but his popularity was sky-high. Unfortunately, it took her out of circulation as a recording artist because she never made a single record with the band in the three years she was with them!
I think this had to be the decision of Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser. Although he managed other artists, Armstrong was clearly his big cash cow, and he probably didn’t want Louis to share record space with a female jazz singer who was clearly his equal. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been a minor annoyance, but as it turned out, Williams almost immediately checker herself into a hospital after leaving Armstrong and was never heard from again…except for one appearance on the short-lived (one season) half-hour comedy show hosted by Jack Webb. In April of 1946, she appeared on the Webb show singing Benny Carter’s song about a stoned-high cowboy, Cow Cow Boogie, which Webb introduced on the show as “the blues”!!! (You can stream this recording on YouTube.)
And just as quickly as Midge Williams returned from oblivion, she went back to it. Nothing more was heard of her until it was reported, on July 9, 1952, that she had died of tuberculosis. TB was the scourge of jazz musicians in the late 1930s and early ‘40s: Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton, O’Neil Spencer and Benny Steckler had all died from the disease. But that was before penicillin was discovered, and TB patients were treated with sulfur drugs. Penicillin was indeed around after World War II, thus it is puzzling that Williams couldn’t have been treated with the drug.
Thus was the sad coda to the life and career of this extremely talented singer. True, the very concept of jazz singing changed considerably with the emergence of such high-flying scat artists as Anita O’Day, Betty Carter and later Ella after the War, but this doesn’t detract from her high level of accomplishment. You really need to hear Midge Williams’ lovely voice and effervescent style; you’ll be amazed and delighted.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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