It was a typical New York evening… that January of 1944. The Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway in Manhattan had played host to many talented artists and vocalists. Enrico Caruso, Lawrence Tibbett and Conductor Arturo Toscanini had all graced its stage. But on that cold 18th of January in 1944, the Metropolitan Opera House rocked to a sound it had never heard before. The list of performers that mounted the stage that night reads like a virtual who’s-who of American Swing and Jazz music. Art Tatum. Jack Teagarden. Louis Armstrong. Teddy Wilson. And as the audience of nearly 4,000 clapped their hands and beat their feet to the sound of the beat, the most raucous applause that night was for a rotund singer known for her light soprano voice, smooth articulation and reputation for having succeed as one of the first non black performers to become a skilled jazz vocalist. Mildred Bailey.
Bailey, a fixture in many of America’s hottest jazz clubs, is perhaps less remembered today than many of her contemporaries. At the time of the Met Concert, she was considered by fans and music critics alike as the second-best female jazz singer in the world, just behind Billie Holiday.
Born in 1907, Mildred (née Rinker) Bailey and her younger brother Al grew up on an Indian reservation at Coeur d’Alene, Iowa, the children of a white father and an Indian mother. She first learned music from her mother, a pianist. Her father played violin. Just prior to World War I, the family moved to Spokane Washington. Later, Mildred worked as a pianist in movie theatres and often sang and played piano in speakeasies in the Spokane area in the 1920’s. As a singer Bailey was especially influenced by Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. In her late teens she was married briefly to a man named Ted Bailey- the name she kept and worked under professionally. But the marriage didn’t last and soon she married a second time to a Benny Stafford, with whom she relocated to Los Angeles to peruse her singing career.
Bailey’s early success in Hollywood at various nightclubs and speakeasies inspired her younger brother Al to relocate to Los Angeles. Al was accompanied on the trip by another promising young vocalist and part-time jazz drummer, Bing Crosby. Al Rinker and Crosby were discovered by Paul Whiteman in 1926. Rinker in turn introduced his sister to Whiteman, and she joined the orchestra as the first featured female vocalist in a big band in 1929. After that, Bailey’s career took off. During her four-plus years with Whiteman, she recorded such hits as “Georgia on My Mind” and “Rockin’ Chair”, amongst others.
In 1933 she married Whiteman’s xylophonist, Red Norvo. Norvo started his own band later that year, and eventually Norvo would hire his wife as band vocalist (who by this time had left Paul Whiteman’s orchestra to launch her solo career). Together with Red, she recorded with many of the top jazz musicians of the era, and was featured on a number of local and national radio programs, performing at many popular ballrooms and nightclubs around the country. In 1936, Norvo hired his wife Mildred full-time to become the band’s featured soloist. Soon after, fans and music critics dubbed the couple “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” Songs that became closely identified with Bailey and Norvo include “Someday Sweetheart,” “More Than You Know,” “The Lamp Is Low” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.”
From 1936 to 1939, the Norvo group recorded for Brunswick Records with wife Mildred as vocalist, and Bailey held a separate solo contract with Vocalion Records, where she often recorded with husband Red’s band. Some of Mildred’s recordings also featured members of Count Basie’s band. In the later 1930’s, Bailey was heard regularly on Benny Goodman’s network radio program and she also appeared on a number of Goodman’s recordings for Columbia Records in 1939 and 1940, including the hit “Darn That Dream” in 1940. She had her own CBS radio network series in 1944.
Throughout most of her adult life, Bailey suffered from diabetes due largely to being quite over weight. Heath issues took her off the stage and away from the recording studios due to lengthy hospitalizations in 1938, 1943 and again 1949. After the war she frequently worked as a solo act, singing in New York clubs, such as the Café Society and the Blue Angel. She went into retirement for a time in 1949. Often facing financial difficulties, Mildred was loaned money on a number occasions by Bing Crosby. Her last major engagement was with band leader Joe Marsala in Chicago in 1950.
Bailey died of heart failure on December 12, 1951 at St. Francis Hospital, Poughkeepsie, New York. She was just 48 years old.
In 1989, Bailey was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, and in 1994 a stamp was issued by the US Postal Service in Bailey’s honor.
Three quarters of a century later, the august walls of the Metropolitan Opera House have yet to experience anything like the performance that Mildred Bailey brought to the stage that January night in 1944.