Mildred Bailey Biography

Mildred Rinker, 27 February 1907, nr. Tekoa, Washington, USA, d. 12 December 1951, Poughkeepsie, New York, USA. By the early 20s Bailey was singing and playing piano in silent-picture theatres as well as working as a song demonstrator and performing in revues and on the radio. When only 18 years old, she was headlining a Hollywood nightclub, singing popular songs, blues and some of the more raunchy vaudeville numbers. She regularly worked with jazz musicians, with whom she displayed a remarkable affinity, and made her first records with guitarist Eddie Lang in 1929. That same year she was hired by Paul Whiteman, in whose band she encountered some of the best white jazz musicians of the day (her brother, Al Rinker, with Bing Crosby and Harry Barris, was a member of Whiteman’s vocal trio, the Rhythm Boys). Already a well-known radio personality, she was now offered innumerable engagements and in time had her own regular show. In 1932, she had a massive hit with Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Rockin’ Chair’ and thereafter was known as the ‘Rockin’ Chair Lady’.

Married for a time to xylophonist Red Norvo, Bailey continued to work with jazzmen, while retaining a substantial measure of popularity with a wider audience thanks to her radio work. She sang with a fragile, sweet-toned voice that belied her exceedingly ample proportions, handling even the banalities of some 30s lyrics with uncloying tenderness. The first white female fully to deserve the term ‘jazz singer’, Bailey always swung effortlessly and was admired and respected (and, in her stormier moments, rather feared) by the many jazz musicians with whom she worked, among them Bunny Berigan, Buck Clayton, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges and Teddy Wilson. Never in particularly good health, she was only 44 years old and destitute when she died of heart-related problems in 1951.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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