Mildred Bailey: The Rockin’ Chair Lady


Née Mildred Rinker in 1907, Mildred Bailey had her first big break when she joined Paul Whiteman in 1929, at the behest of Whiteman vocalists Al Rinker (her brother) and lifelong admirer Bing Crosby. A number of hit recordings peaked with Rockin’ Chair in 1932. (However she was then saddled with the unflattering sobriquet for an already very large young woman, The Rockin’ Chair Lady).

She left Whiteman soon after together with Red Norvo, whom she married in 1933. (They became known as “Mr and Mrs Swing”). Now a big name in the burgeoning swing scene, Mildred recorded and broadcast with many of the top instrumentalists of the day, with and without Norvo, throughout the 30s. From 1936 to 1939 she was featured vocalist with Norvo’s orchestra. When their marriage broke up she continued to work with star names, notably Benny Goodman. With popular hits such as Weekend Of A Private Secretary (1938) she regularly outsold other female vocalists, Billie Holiday apart.

All but five of these 52 tracks span 1931-1939. The fine track from 1929 with Eddie Lang was her first recording. With faultless diction. her small but tuneful and crystal-clear voice handled lyrics adroitly (as in the difficult Smoke Dreams) and swung expressively, blending a suggestion of girlish naiveté with underlying chippier, worldly assurance.

Her phrasing  mannerisms included an upward swoop to hover over a key note with a pronounced but delicate vibrato. On some early recordings, e.g., Blues In My Heart, this could sound a little tremulous and sentimentalised. Her natural musicianship is never in question, however, with outstanding later treatments of classic ballads such as Thanks For The Memory, Lover Come Back To Me, I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart and Don’t Take Your Love From Me ( written for her, and Mildred’s favourite song).

Her high commercial  status is confirmed by the stellar instrumental backing she enjoyed. There’s so much to enjoy here in brief but telling contributions from the likes of Hawkins (Old Pappy), Berigan, Hodges and Wilson (the excellent Alley Cats Quartet session  from 1935), Eldridge (Where Are You?) and many other jazz luminaries including Chu Berry, Mary Lou Williams, The Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman.

Despite all this success, her career stalled rather than soared in the 40s. With increasing health problems and now enormously overweight, she suffered mood swings which led to explosive displays of bad temper, making her difficult to work with, and doubtless a major factor in her declining fortunes. However she continued to work when she could. The final track here, from 1947, is a full remake of a number one hit with Whiteman back in 1932, the wryly appropriate All Of Me.

She died alone and penniless in 1951, aged just 44. Nowadays largely overlooked, she was, in John Hammond’s estimation, “one of the three or four greatest singers in jazz”. This very well-planned and well-produced compilation is a welcome and deserved testament to her achievements.

Playing time is generous, and full discographical details, with helpful notes are given.

CD1: (1) Rockin’ Chair; (2) What Kind O’ Man Is You?; (3) Blues In My Heart; (4) When It’s Sleepy Time Down South; ((5) Georgia On My Mind; Home; (6) Harlem Lullaby; Lazy Bones; (3) Heat Wave; (7) Junk Man; Ol’ Pappy; (8) Someday Sweetheart; (9) Willow Tree; Honeysuckle Rose: Squeeze Me; Downhearted Blues; (10) A Porter’s Love Song To A Chambermaid; (1) More Than You Know; (10) Smoke Dreams; I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm; (1) Trust In Me; Where Are You? Never In A Million Years; There’s A Lull In My Life; The Moon Got In My Eyes (79.09)
CD2: (1) It’s The Natural Thing To Do; Bob White, Wotcha Gonna Swing Tonight?; Thanks For The Memory; Lover Come Back To Me; (10) Weekend Of A Private Secretary; Please Be Kind; (1) Don’t Be That Way; (10) Says My Heart; I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart; (1) My Melancholy Baby; The Lonesome Road; So Help Me If I Don’t Love You; Small Fry; My Reverie; Old Folks; (11) Have You Forgotten So Soon?; (12) St Louis Blues; Begin The Beguine: ‘Taint What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It; (13) Gulf Coast Blues; Prisoner Of  Love; (14) Darn That Dream; Peace, Brother; (15) Don’t Take Your Love From Me; (16) Me And The Blues; At Sundown; (17) All Of Me (79.20).
(1) Mildred Bailey And Her Orchestra. Various dates, 1936-38. Varying personnel.
(2) Eddie Lang And His Orch. NY, 5 October 1929.
(3) Glen Gray And The Casa Loma Orch. NY, 1931 and 1933.
(4) Paul Whiteman And His Orch. Chicago, 4 October 1931.
(5) Matty Malneck And His Orch. Chicago, 24 and 28 November 1931.
(6) Mildred Bailey And Her Orch. NY, 8 April and 6 June 1933.
(7) Benny Goodman And His Orch. NY, 2 February 1934.
(8) Mildred Bailey And Her Swing Band NY, 20 September 1935.
(9) Mildred Bailey And Her Alley Cats, NY, 6 December 1935.
(10) Red Norvo And His Orch. Various dates, 1936-1938. Varying personnel.
(11) Red Norvo And His Orch. (Actually the John Kirby Band.) NY, 29 September 1938.
(12) Mildred Bailey And Her Orch. (John Kirby Band. Add Norvo [xyl]). NY, 18 January and 28 February 1939.
(13) Mildred Bailey And Her Oxford Greys. NY, 16 March 1939.
(14) Benny Goodman And His Orch. NY, 22 September 1939.
(15) Alex Wilder And His Orch. NY, 25 January 1940.
(16) Ellis Larkins And His Orch. NY, 18 October 1946.
(17) Julian Work And His Orch. NY, May 1947.
Collective personnel includes Bunny Berigan, Ziggy Elman, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, (t); Pee Wee Hunt, Tommy Dorsey, (tb); Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Hank D’Amico, Buster Bailey, (cl); Frankie Trumbauer, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Russell Procope (s); Arthur Schutt, Teddy Wilson, Billy Kyle, Mary Lou Williams, Fletcher Henderson, Ellis Larkins (p); Eddie Lang, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, Dave Barbour, Freddie Green (g); John Kirby, Bob Haggart (b); Gene Krupa, Cozy Cole, Zutty Singleton, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, George Wettling, Nick Fatool (d). Bailey sings on all tracks.
Retrospective RTS 4344