Bessie Smith’s Overtones: Everybody Should Enjoy Mildred Bailey Every So Often

I acquired Henry Pleasants’ wonderful book, “The Great American Popular Singers” at Manny’s Books in Pune, where it rested, long-ignored, on a small shelf with other publications about Western music. The books on Indian music were in another section of the store; the only customer who went routinely to both shelves was me. I bought the book and began reading it in the rickshaw to Deccan Gymkhana. By the time I got home I’d learned things I never knew about Bessie Smith, Al Jolson and Bing Crosby (all of whom I’d heard, and heard of), and about Mildred Bailey, an unfamiliar name. Pleasants rhapsodized about her musicality, whetting my appetite.

Opportunities in India to hear Mildred Bailey’s music were nonexistent….so it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I found a 10″ lp in the collection of my friend Gene Nichols, and taped it for my own enjoyment.

And enjoyment was definitely what resulted. Bailey’s pitch, her sense of swing, her deceptive melodic simplicity, the subtlety of her ornamentation and phrasing…she sounded like a trumpet, or an alto saxophone.

Leonard Feather: “Where earlier white singers with pretensions to a jazz identification had captured only the surface qualities of the Negro styles, Mildred contrived to invest her thin, high-pitched voice with a vibrato, an easy sense of jazz phrasing that might almost have been Bessie Smith’s overtones.”

(Feather — The Book of Jazz)

Or, as Leonard Feather says, like Bessie Smith’s overtones.

Thanks for the Memories

Mildred Bailey (February 27, 1907 – December 12, 1951) was a popular and influential American jazz singer during the 1930s, known as “Mrs. Swing”. Her number one hits were “Please Be Kind”, “Darn That Dream”, and “Says My Heart”.


Henry Pleasants:

“It was not so much that she sang in an instrumental manner as that she thought instrumentally. Her enunciation was a model of clarity. The sound was vocal and feminine. But the effect was often as if a lead instrument had somehow acquired the capacity of articulating words. What one heard was admirable and delightful….

Any first-class jazz musician of the time could have taken a Mildred Bailey chorus and reproduced it on his instrument note for note, deviation for deviation, slur for slur, rubato for rubato, without the slightest suggestion of incongruity. She worked with a tune as the instrumentalists did, improvising from and around it, but never losing touch with it. This ability, and this predilection, help to explain why, on these early records, she comes through so strikingly as a member of the band.”

The Great American Popular Singers, p. 150.

Georgia On My Mind

Sue Russell:

“Mildred Bailey (1907-1951) was one of the first female singers to make a name for herself with a major band and one of the first white singers to incorporate the innovations of black jazz and blues. She loved the music of Bessie Smith, and she was an early fan and advocate of Louis Armstrong. Bailey is known for her small, agile voice and her ability to swing with the best, including Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Coleman Hawkins, and perhaps most notably, the legendary xylophone player, Red Norvo, whom she married in 1933. Together, Bailey and Norvo captivated audiences as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” Bailey is a major artist and innovator whose influence extends to singers as diverse as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Rosemary Clooney.”


I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm

from “Solid!”:

“Despite all of her success, superstardom eluded Bailey. She blamed her plumpness, but others claimed it was her temper and sharp tongue as well as the bitterness she carried with her towards better-looking female vocalists whom she thought less talented. She claimed her obesity was glandular, but many of her friends felt it had more to do with her great love of eating.

“Bailey continued recording until the mid-1940s, when health problems forced her to retire. Plagued by a combination of diabetes, heart trouble and hardening of the arteries, she was near death and broke until she was rescued by composer Jimmy Van Heusen, who arranged to split her medical bills with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. She recovered well-enough to begin performing again, but her health problems eventually took their toll, and she died, penniless, on December 12, 1951, at age 44.”


Enjoy these examples of a wonderful, but sadly neglected artist. Mildred Bailey’s contribution to American music is significant…as is her contribution to my happiness. I hope you like her as much as I do.

The chapter on Mildred Bailey in Henry Pleasants’ book “The Great American Popular Singers” is a very good resource.

I just discovered Mildred Bailey a month ago, after downloading recordings of WWII Armed Forces V Discs via I was delighted to find that she was from the tiny town of Tekoa, Washington, USA near where I grew up. What a talent. I’m shocked that there doesnt seem to be any books about her. has probably a 100 free and downloadable public domain recordings taken from 78s. The stuff she did with The Delta Rhythm Boys is particularly delicious. Cheers!


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