MILDRED BAILEY: THE ROCKIN’ CHAIR LADY / CARMICHAEL: Rockin’ Chair. What Kind O’ Man is You? Georgia on My Mind. Lazy Bones. Small Fry. CARTER-MILLS: Blues in My Heart. RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. CLARKSON-VAN STEEDEN: Home (When Shadows Fall). MILHANE-ROBISON: Harlem Lullaby. BERLIN: Heat Wave. I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. MEYER-LOESSER: Junk Man. LIVINGSTON-SYMES-NEIBURG: Ol’ Pappy. SPIKES-SPIKES-BENJAMIN: Someday Sweetheart. WALLER-RAZAF: Willow Tree. Honeysuckle Rose. WALLER-WILLIAMS; Squeeze Me. AUSTIN-HUNTER: Downhearted Blues. JOHNSON-RAZAF: A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid. YOUMANS-ELISCU-ROSE: More Than You Know. BROWN-FREED: Smoke Dreams. AGER-SCHWARTZ-WEVER: Trust in Me. McHUGH-ADAMSON: Where Are You? REVEL-GORDON: Never in a Million Years. There’s a Lull in My Life. JOHNSTON-BURKE: The Moon Got in My Eyes. HANIGHEN-MERCER: Bob White. Weekend of a Private Secretary. RAINGER-ROBIN: Thanks for the Memory. ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN-SCHWAB: Lover, Come Back to Me. CAHN-CHAPLIN: Please Be Kind. SAMPSON-GOODMAN-PARISH: Don’t Be That Way. LANE-LOESSER: Says My Heart. ELLINGTON-MILLS-NEMO: I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. BURNETT-NORTON: My Melancholy Baby. SHILKRET-AUSTIN: The Lonesome Road. VAN HEUSEN-DeLANGE: So Help Me if I Don’t Love You. Darn That Dream. Peace, Brother! DEBUSSY-CLINTON: My Reverie. ROBISON-HILL: Old Folks. AILVER-HEYMAN-COSLOW: Have You Forgotten So Soon? HANDY: St, Louis Blues. PORTER: Begin the Beguine. OLIVER-YOUNG: ‘Tain’t What You Do, It’s the Way That Cha Do it. C. WILLIAMS: Gulf Coast Blues. COLUMBO-GASKILL-ROBIN: Prisoner of Love. NEMO: Don’t Take Your Love From Me. WARREN-KOEHLER: Me and the Blues. DONALDSON: At Sundown. SIMONS-MARKS: All of Me / Mildred Bailey, voc; various accompaniments including Eddie Lang, Glen Gray & the Casa Loma Orchestra, Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra, Matty Malneck, Benny Goodman & his Orchestra, Mildred Bailey & her Swing Band/Alley Cats/Oxford Greys, Red Norvo & his Orchestra, John Kirby Sextet, Alec Wilder, Ellis Larkins & his Orchestra, Julian Work & his Orchestra / Retrospective RTS-4344
This set, though only two CDs, is so jam-packed with interesting and often obscure material that even I only have 18 of the 52 tracks presented here, and I’m a huge Mildred Bailey fan and collector. I purposely did not list all the individual musicians in each and every group she sings with because, if I did, the header would stretch out twice as long as what you see above, but among the many great and famous jazz musicians she sings with are Hank d’Amico, Herbie Haymer, Andy Secrest, Charlie Margulis, Bill Rank, Bunny Berigan, the Dorsey brothers, Mannie Klein, Dick McDonough, Coleman Hawkins (hiding in a February 1934 session credited to “Benny Goodman & his Orchestra”), Chris Griffin, Chu Berry, Ziggy Elman, Ben Webster (renamed “Francis Love”), Teddy Wilson, Cozy Cole, Roy Eldridge, Zutty Singleton, Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall, Herschel Evans, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Jerry Jerome, George Wettling, Charlie Shavers, Russell Procope, Billy Kyle and Mary Lou Williams.
The brief but mostly accurate and informative liner notes cover some of the problems that beset Bailey through her up-and-down professional career. The worst of these were her appearance, not only fat but short and dumpy like a walking bowling ball and not pretty at all, and her vile, vicious temperament. Her unusual complexion came from the fact that she was half American Indian, a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, and had grown up on their Reservation in Idaho. She hid her temper most of the time from her fans, but music industry insiders were only too aware that Mildred was a handful and often wanted nothing to do with her. Indeed, it was her temperament that marked her as vastly different from the popular singer she envied the most, Kate Smith, who was also obese, but who had a wonderful personality as well as a prettier face—and she sang patriotic songs and love ballads, material that Bailey wouldn’t have done in a million years.
Yet there were two other factors that kept her from gaining widespread popularity. One was that she performed often, not only on records but also on the radio, with black artists. While it was perfectly OK for certain white male bandleaders to have black musicians in their orchestras, it was an entirely different thing for a white woman of the 1930s and early ‘40s to do so. Even into the late 1950s, when Nat King Cole had white female singers like Judy Garland and June Christy on his TV show, embraced them, held their hand and sang with them, he raised hackles with the mostly white viewers which led to the show being canceled. The other unspoken reason was, during the period 1940-42, Mildred made quite a few recordings with complex, semi-classical arrangements by Alec Wilder and Mitch Miller, both of whom adored her. Only one of those records, Don’t Take Your Love From Me, is presented in this collection, but they alienated her with jazz fans who were her largest fan base. Jazz impresario John Hammond, who declared her “one of the three or four greatest singers in jazz,” openly criticized these recordings, which brought down one of Mildred’s towering rages on his head. Add those two factors to her volatile personality and odd looks, and you have a recipe for commercial failure.
Even Paul Whiteman, who indeed hired her for his famous orchestra in 1929, was put off by her looks. Lured by Al Rinker, one of Whiteman’s “Rhythm Boys,” to drop in and enjoy an informal musical soiree with food and drink, Al told Paul that he just had to hear his sister Mildred sing because she was so terrific, “much better than me.” One look at her and Whiteman said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The impromptu audition occurred while Whiteman was in the kitchen, pouring himself another drink and helping himself to some of Mildred’s fried chicken. Al pulled his sister over, sat down at the piano and began playing while she sang. Whiteman reportedly almost choked on the chicken, spit out a piece and said, “Who the hell is that?” He went back into the living room and was dumbfounded to learn that it was the small, dumpy, rotund woman he had not wanted to hear. He immediately hired her, but didn’t let her record with the band for two years. Her only record before that was a single side from 1929 with a pickup group led by guitarist Eddie Lang, What Kind O’ Man is You? (CD 1, track 2).
As a nod to her popular title as “the Rockin’ Chair lady,” the first disc starts off with the 1937 Vocalion recording of this song with “her” orchestra (actually husband Red Norvo’s band). This, believe it or not, is a version I hadn’t heard before. Her original hit record of the tune was made six years earlier with Whiteman, but the arrangement on that one is rather sappy while this one swings. (The other version I’ve heard is a live radio broadcast performance from the 1940s.) Her phrasing here is bluesier than on either of those other two recordings, and in the line “send me sweet chariot” she pulls back on the beat while in the line “judgment day is here she pushes it forward. In the second chorus, she bends notes, adds flatted thirds and other interesting touches that mark her as an improvising singer and not just a big band “songbird.”
The 1929 recording of What Kind O’ Man Are You? opens with an excellent solo by Andy Secrest, one of the best Bix Beiderbecke imitators of that time, and later has a nice alto sax half-chorus by Charles Strickfadden. What’s interesting about this track is that her voice has more of a noticeable vibrato in it that was minimized by 1934. Both Bailey and Billie Holiday had fairly narrow vocal ranges, a little over an an octave, so they often had to transpose uncomfortable passages to fit their tessitura. The difference was that Holiday often transposed down while Bailey, a high soprano, normally transposed upward. She could touch a high C, but since her voice was very light and sweet it doesn’t always register that way in listening to her. The 1931 Blues in My Heart with the Casa Loma Orchestra is a “torch” song, also showing Mildred singing with a bit more vibrato, which she elevates by emulating Louis Armstrong in her phrasing. The Whiteman recording of When It’s Sleepy Time Down South is one of his less sappy arrangements for her though it does feature a pretty awful vocal group called The Romancers in addition to Mildred. One thing I noted about this collection is that the producers have included a lot of ballads, which most of the time I shy away from, but this is a British production and the Brits love them some ballads. Georgia on My Mind and Home (When Shadows Fall) are sung with such a sappy style, including a great deal of portamento that Bailey normally shied away from, that I was almost embarrassed for her. These are not good recordings. I also could have lived without such racist “darky” songs as Harlem Lullaby. Mildred didn’t have a racist bone in her body, and neither did the Boswell Sisters, yet both were forced to record a few songs like this because they were popular at the time and sold records. A good Jimmy Dorsey clarinet chorus saves the record, but it’s not enough to warrant inclusion.
Lazy Bones could be interpreted as the same sort of song, but no specific reference is made to the race of “lazy bones” and I’ve known several white Southerners, even in the late 1960s, whose disposition was exactly the same as the protagonist of these lyrics. Also, Bailey sings this with more swing and less goop. The second track with the Casa Loma band, Heat Wave, is far jazzier than the first in both arrangement and performance. This marks the real beginning of Bailey’s mature swing style. The February 1934 Goodman session is really just a nonet featuring two trumpets (Mannie Klein and Charlie Margulis), one trombone (Sonny Lee), Goodman, Hawkins, pianist Arthur Schutt, guitarist Dick McDonough, bassist Artie Bernstein and drummer Gene Krupa. Junk Man is one of those “get even” songs where the woman threatens to kill her two-timing man, and Bailey sings it in a straightforward manner, while Ol’ Pappy is a medium-tempo swinger that opens with an excellent Goodman clarinet chorus and includes a nice bridge by Hawk. The lyrics are pretty stupid but Bailey swings the tune nicely. Again, it’s a Southern song with no racial stereotypes. Hawk also gets a half-chorus solo and a good one (at this time he was still starring with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra); McDonough plays the middle, and the band rides it out. Someday, Sweetheart is a wonderful record on which she is accompanied only by trumpeter Chris Griffin, tenor saxist Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, McDonough, Bernstein and drummer Eddie Dougherty. Finally, we’re getting someplace!
Next up is the famous “Mildred Bailey & her Alley Cats” session of December 1935, the cats being Bunny Berigan, Johnny Hodges, Teddy Wilson and bassist Grachan Moncur. The songs are Willow Tree, Honeysuckle Rose, Squeeze Me and Downhearted Blues, each performance a gem. Then at long last we reach Mildred’s stint with hubby Red Norvo’s band, starting with her classic recording of James P. Johnson’s surprise hit of 1936, A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid. She just sings one chorus, but it’s so wonderful you can’t help smiling, and Eddie Sauter’s beautifully understated arrangement includes a middle section in the opening chorus where the bass and guitar rise and fall in synchronization with the trumpets’ top line. Immediately following this track is a “Mildred Bailey & her Orchestra” recording where the band consists of Ziggy Elman, Ben Webster, Wilson, Dave Barbour, John Kirby and Cozy Cole. The tune is More Than You Know and her delivery is equally subtle as that of Helen Forrest’s famous recording with Benny Goodman but far jazzier in phrasing. Sauter reportedly wrote the harmonically complex and daunting introduction to Smoke Dreams because he was ticked off at Mildred, but she was such a good musician that she got it right on the first run-through. Needless to say, this record was a musicians’ favorite but went nowhere commercially while its companion, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, hit #11 on the pop charts.
The next two “Mildred Bailey & her Orchestra” sessions have vastly different lineups, the first being a pickup band with Roy Eldridge, Scoops Carey, Herbie Haymer and Zutty Singleton, the second being Norvo’s full orchestra. Despite the fact that Trust in Me and Where Are You? are ballads, Bailey sings them in a much more straightforward style than she would have three years earlier, with fine jazz phrasing and no portamento. Haymer takes a nice solo in the first title; the second, featuring a wonderful Eldridge chorus, was a #5 hit. Both Never in a Million Years and There’s a Lull in My Life are pretty awful songs by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon, lifted above the scrap-heap only by Bailey’s delivery and nice xylophone solos by Norvo. Though not a great song, The Moon Got in My Eyes almost sounds like a masterpiece by comparison. On this one Bailey is accompanied by five members of the Count Basie band (Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans and the rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones) as well as clarinetist Edmond Hall, who is scarcely heard at all.
CD 2 starts with the flip side from the same session, It’s the Natural Thing to Do, a far better song by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, and here Hall gets a half-chorus solo, followed by Herschel Evans in the second half. A much better record. Hubby Norvo’s band returns for Bob White under Mildred’s name, and on this one lyricist Johnny Mercer does the whistling. This is followed by what I feel is her best ballad recording, Bob Hope’s theme song Thanks for the Memory. She perfectly captures the irony of the lyrics while phrasing in a jazzy style. Chu Berry takes the tenor solo, nicely underpinned by the rhythm section of Wilson, Allan Reuss, bassist Pete Peterson and drummer Dave Tough. Lover Come Back to Me is transformed from operetta ballad to jazz tune by upping the tempo a little and having trumpeter Jimmy Blake play a nice obbligato behind Mildred’s first chorus. In the middle section, she sings some nice variations on the original melody. Hank d’Amico also has a nice bit on clarinet, followed by Berry.
Twelve more tracks with Norvo’s band follow this, seven of them credited to her name. She did such a nice job on Weekend of a Private Secretary that it hit #10 on the pop charts. Please Be Kind is an okay ballad but still a ballad. Her version of Don’t Be That Way, one of her few records in which she scats, may have been the very first to include Mitchell Parish’s lyrics and hit #9. Says My Heart, a surprisingly good song by Burton Lane and Frank Loesser, was her first #1 hit while I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart hit #8. Both are good performances. The next two, surprisingly, are old songs, My Melancholy Baby and The Lonesome Road, which she enlivens with her wonderful phrasing though Bill Miller’s arrangements are pretty dull. So Help Me is a very pedestrian song by Jimmy van Heusen, as is Willard Robison’s dreadful Old Folks, but Bailey has fun with Small Fry and does a nice job with Larry Clinton arrangement of Debussy’s My Reverie, which hit #9 and #10 respectively.
In a surprising reversal of the usual, the next four tracks, though credited as Red Norvo’s and Mildred Bailey’s Orchestras, are actually played by the already-famous John Kirby Sextet of Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey, Russell Procope, Billy Kyle, Kirby and O’Neill Spencer, with Norvo joining them on xylophone. Ironically, the worst of these songs, Have You Forgotten So Soon?, is the one that hit the charts as #5. Sauter’s arrangement of Begin the Beguine is particularly fine. ‘Tain’t What You Do might have been written for her though it was really a Sy Oliver arrangement for Jimmie Lunceford.
Gulf Coast Blues is a certifiable classic, sung with Mary Lou Williams on piano and Floyd Smith on electric guitar. Much rarer is the other piece recorded the same day, Russ Columbo’s Prisoner of Love. I didn’t think Mildred would be able to salvage this tune, but surprisingly she did…as in the case of Where Are You?, it’s the best recording I’ve heard of it. By the time she made Darn That Dream, she was no longer a guest artist on a Goodman record but his interim female singer between Martha Tilton, who had recently departed, and Helen Forrest, who had not yet arrived. Like so many others, Benny loved Mildred’s voice and phrasing but found her a sour and taciturn personality, otherwise she might have stayed for a while, particularly since this song (again arranged by Sauter, who was now Goodman’s arranger) hit #1 on the charts. Peace, Brother! Is just a swing-era novelty, but Sauter and Bailey manage to make it a fun listen. Unusually, the first soloist up on the latter is not Goodman but alto saxist Toots Mondello.
Next we get the lone representation of Bailey’s jazz-classical period on this set, Alec Wilder’s superb arrangement of Don’t Take Your Love From Me. It’s amazing how different a song like this could sound when scored by someone with imagination in both instrumentation and harmonic movement. Bailey adored his arrangements though they alienated her with the “hot jazz” crowd. Teddy Wilson takes the piano solo in the middle. Not surprisingly, though the instrumentation is just a jazz sextet, the Ellis Larkins versions of Me and the Blues and At Sundown have a similar feel to the Wilder track—this was the kind of setting she preferred for her voice post-1940 (she even persuaded her old nemesis, Eddie Sauter, to write a superb arrangement of The Man I Love for a Crown 78 session she did with her now ex-hubby Norvo). Bob Haggart, formerly of the Bob Crosby band, is the bassist while Jimmy Crawford, formerly of the Lunceford big band, is the drummer. The booklet only credits a quartet to At Sundown, but one can clearly hear an unnamed clarinetist and trombonist on this track. We end our survey of Mildred Bailey with a not-really-first rate pop arrangement of All of Me from 1947. Sappy strings play footballs (whole notes) and woodwinds underscore the voice. Her phrasing is still good but the setting is pure pop dreck.
The reproduction of these archive recordings is nearly immaculate. So many British CD producers like including 78-rpm surface noise in their releases that it’s a pleasure to hear it minimized so well on this release. My sole complaint is that the high end is slightly muffled, which affects not only Bailey’s voice but the brightness of the trumpet, clarinet and alto sax solos throughout. I recommend boosting treble quite a bit when playing this set. Otherwise, with the exception of the songs noted above as being quite awful, highly recommended.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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