Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Black Diva History Month, Part 1 (1894-1929)

No disrespect to Black History Month proper, but I've decided to use February as a time to look at some of my favorite divas of color. Unlike most gay men, my favorite black female singers for the most part have not had a hit on the charts in probably the past two, or even three decades. Most have never recorded an MTV video and a good percentage of them are no longer among the living. Most are from the US, though few are from other places–either by birth or by choice. Whether they sang jazz, the blues, soul, R & B, funk or good old standards from the American songbook, what these amazing, strong women have in common is that they helped shaped music history and a few of them are still out there, still working hard to secure their place in the tapestry of American experience. I don't consider this a complete list, but rather a tribute to the fine women whose work I have enjoyed over the years.Bessie Smith (1894 -1937) was an blues singer famous for recording WC Handy’s St. Louis Blues and performing it in the 1929 film of the same name. Dying from injuries sustained in a car accident, Smith’s grave went unmarked until 1970 when Janis Joplin paid for a tombstone. Ironically, Joplin would die later that same year.Alberta Hunter (1895 - 1984) was an blues singer, songwriter, and registered nurse! Her career had started back in the early 1920s, and she became a recording artist, retiring in the 1950s. Alberta then entered the medical profession, where she stayed for over 20 years, only to resume her singing career in her later years!Ethel Waters (1896-1977) was an blues and jazz singer. She was also nominated for an Academy Award for her acting in the film 1949 film PINKY. Her most famous recording was the spiritual His Eye is on the Sparrow, though her version of Irving Berlin’s Heat Wave is a personal favorite of mine.
Maxine Sullivan (1911 —1987) was an blues, jazz singer and muscian. In the mid 1950s (similar to Alberta Hunter) became a trained nurse. In 1968, she made a comeback, singing at music festivals and even playing brass instruments. A swinging version of he Scottish folk song Loch Lomond was her signature song.Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan Gough 1915 –1959) was a legendary American jazz singer and songwriter. Lady Day’s tragic story was famously told in the 1972 film LADY SINGS THE BLUES. Her recording of “Strange Fruit” about lynching is one of the most powerful songs ever recorded. In a 1958 interview, she complained that many people did not inderstand the song’s message: “They’ll ask me to ‘sing that sexy song about the people swinging.’”Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) One of the few ladies on my list that I had the pleasure of seeing perform live. Ella earned the title “First Lady of Song.” Winning countless awards and honors, her well-deserved mainstream success made her a sought-after guest on numerous TV shows. There will never be another Ella.Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (born June 30, 1917) is an American singer and actress. She has recorded and performed extensively on stage, in film and on TV. She is most famous for performing Stormy Weather. As of this writing, Ms. Horne is still alive - living in New York City and enjoying her retirement.Pearl Mae Bailey (1918-1990) was an much-loved singer and actress. She appeared in vaudeville, on Broadway and in films. In 1968, she won a Tony Award for the title role in the all-black production of HELLO, DOLLY! She then appeared with Carol Channing in a memorable 1969 TV special. Pearl was a regular fixture on TV talk shows in the 1970s.Carmen Mercedes McRae (1920 – 1994) was an American jazz singer, composer, pianist, and actress. Her recording of Imagination is one of my favorite songs of all time. I recall seeing her performing live and she profusely thanked her Japanese fans for supporting her over the years, when American audiences turned away from jazz.Dinah Washington (1924 – 1963) was dubbed the original ”Queen of the Blues”. Her recording of What a Diff'rence a Day Makes is an all-time classic and Drinking Again is a personal favorite of mine. Sadly, she died at age 39, from an overdose of diet pills mixed with alcohol.Sarah Lois Vaughan (nicknamed "Sassy" and "The Divine One") (1924 –1990) was a legendary American jazz singer. I was lucky enough to see Sarah live at The Blue Note in NYC in the 1980s, as she celebrated five decades of outstanding performance. Sitting less than a foot away from her, as she crooned all the classics- I was overwhelmed by her presence, it felt like being among royalty.Big Maybelle (Mable Louis Smith, 1924-1972) was one of the top Rhythm & Blues singers of the 1950s. She was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, for her hit single Candy.Willie Mae ("Big Mama") Thornton (1926 -1984) was an American rhythm and blues singer and songwriter. She was the first to record the hit song Hound Dog in 1952. Eartha Mae Kitt (1927 – 2008) was an actress, singer, and cabaret star. She was perhaps best known for her 1953 Christmas song Santa Baby and her role of Catwoman in the third season of the BATMAN television series.Ruth Brown (1928-2006) "Miss Rhythm" Brown was the top-selling Atlantic Records recording artist and was dubbed “the girl with the teardrop in her voice”. Ruth was featured in the original John Waters’ film HAIRSPRAY (1986) as Motormouth Maybelle. She also won a Tony Award for her performance in BLACK AND BLUE. I had the honor of seeing Miss Brown perform live several times, including in the off-Broadway show STAGERLEE.Etta Jones (1928-2001) was highly underrated jazz singer whose relative obscurity earned her a reputation as a "jazz musician's jazz singer". She was often confused with Etta James.Koko Taylor (Cora Walton, 1928-) is an blues musician, also known as the "Queen of the Blues." Her trademark rough and powerful vocals have made her a living legend.
Betty Carter (Lillie Mae Jones, 1929 -1998) was a jazz singer who was known for her unsual improvisational technique . Her first solo LP, Out There with Betty Carter, features the classic You’re Getting To Be Habit With Me and her album of duets with Ray Charles in 1961, include the popular tune Holiday tune Baby, It's Cold Outside.

More to come...


Jeff said...

Lady In Satin is the shit. I finally got a vinyl copy about a year ago & it is OHSOSWEET.

Writer said...

No Josephine Baker?

Oooooo, I love me some Etta Jones. You ask for Etta Jones around here and most people think you've got Etta James mistaken. :)

doug said...

I have LADY IN SATIN on vinyl too. It's truly a work of art.

Josephine Baker! - I knew I would forget about a few.
I guess since I don't own any JB on vinyl or cd, she just kinda fell off my radar. I can always post an update with her, Ma Rainey and the doubtless others I've forgotten on the first go-around.

Thanks for reading, guys!

Anonymous said...

Dorothy Dandridge also.

doug said...

Dorothy, Josephine and Ma Rainey have been added to Part 1. They are legends.