Jazz Birthday of the Month
Illustration by Gary Price
Mildred Eleanor Rinker was born February 16, 1900 (according to researcher Albert Haim), in Tekoa, Washington. Her mother, Josephine, was a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe; her father was of Swiss-German lineage. Both parents were musically inclined and the influence extended to her brothers Al (a pianist and vocalist) and Charles (a lyricist). The Rinkers relocated to Spokane in 1912; in 1917 Mildred moved to Seattle after the death of her mother. There she found work as a song demonstrator at Woolworth’s.
At 17 she married Ted Bailey; the marriage soon ended in divorce but she kept his last name, which in 1918 sounded more American (and less Teutonic) than Rinker. With her second husband, Benny Stafford, she settled in Los Angeles while still in her teens and became well known as a jazz and blues singer on the West Coast. Inspired by her success, her brother Al Rinker and his friend Bing Crosby moved to Los Angeles, and Bailey found them work in show business. Al and Bing were hired by Paul Whiteman in 1926; they were soon two-thirds of The Rhythm Boys. In 1929 they introduced Whiteman to Bailey (who dubbed him “Pops”). After an impromptu audition she joined as the Whiteman orchestra’s first featured female vocalist.
She made her first record in 1929 in a session led by Eddie Lang and featuring other Whiteman personnel; during the early ’30s, she recorded with Paul Whiteman, but also Jimmie Noone, the Casa Loma Orchestra, and the Dorsey Brothers. Her style and phrasing, influenced by Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Louis Armstrong, were pure jazz; yet her high, clear, and powerful voice bespoke an individual and remarkable talent. She was called “The Rockin’ Chair Lady” owing to her definitive rendition of that song.
Bailey married jazz xylophonist Red Norvo in 1933; she recorded with him extensively from 1935 on. During the late ’30s Red and Mildred were “Mr. and Mrs. Swing,” with hit records of “Please Be Kind,” “Says My Heart,” and many others. She continued to record through the 1940s, with Norvo, Benny Goodman, Alec Wilder, Mary Lou Williams, and the Delta Rhythm Boys..
Her final session, from 1950, reveals a singer still vital and melodious; however, years of diabetes had undermined her health. Mildred Bailey died of heart failure on December 12, 1951. —Andy Senior
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