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Mildred Bailey: The Rockin' Chair Lady - Her 52 Finest 1929-1947



Here is the finest double CD available of one the greatest of all jazz singers. Washingtonian Mildred Rinker (1907-1951) took her first married name to become, as “Mildred Bailey”, the first truly great white jazz singer. In every way she was a big star; she was built on a huge scale, and she outsold all other jazz ladies of the 30s apart from Billie Holiday. Mildred Bailey was known as “The Rockin’ Chair Lady” after her great success with Hoagy’s Carmichael’s classic, and that provides the title for Retrospective’s tribute. Here are quite simply the 52 finest recordings she made, spanning from her first-ever disc in 1929 (What Kind O’ Man Is You?), through her golden years of the 30s to her full 1947 version of one of her key songs All Of Me.

Mildred Bailey: The Rockin' Chair Lady - Her 52 Finest 1929-1947


This is a superb collection of material by Mildred Bailey, a tremendously tuneful and swinging singer, accompanied by some of the best orchestras and jazz musicians of the time. Although somewhat neglected these days, in the 1930s and into the '40s she was second only to Billie Holiday as the best-known and respected female jazz singer in America (i.e. in the world). Yet she died alone and broke, aged just 48 in 1951. Record producer and talent-spotter John Hammond called her "one of the three or four greatest singers in jazz! Her legendary temper and occasional spitefulness disguised what her friend Bing Crosby called "a heart as big as Yankee Stadium" Her foul-mouthed rages and (deserved) reputation for being 'difficult to work with undoubtedly contributed to her lack of commercial success. But just as important, in a time when female singers were expected to be conventionally 'attrac­tive' was the matter of her size: "She was fat" said the writer Bucklin Moon, going on to suggest, "she must have felt some­how that if only she were successful she might see someone else when she looked in the mirror. That she didn't like what she did see was apparent to anyone who knew her."

Like any compilation, decisions have had to be made as to what to include and what to leave out: as a Mildred Bailey fan with quite a large collection of her work, I'd say this selection is pret­ty good, especially as it includes many of her best out-and-out jazz recordings, accompanied by such Swing era legends as Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Bunny Berigan and Johnny Hodges (these were the sessions organised by John Hammond). If any single recording sums up Mildred's talent and sheer musi­cianship, it may well be Smoke Dreams, recorded in January, 1937 with the band Mildred co-led with her then husband Red Norvo. It's a strange, almost atonal arrangement by Eddie Sauter who later told a story that explains a lot "I wrote a pretty diffi­cult intro on Smoke Dreams, leading to the vocal. I guess I was mad at Mildred at the time over something, but wouldn't you know, she had a fantastic ear and she got it first run through." I cannot recommend this compilation highly enough. As always with the estimable 'Retrospective' label, the booklet includes full personnel details and highly informative notes by Digby Fairweather. Unless you already have an extensive collec­tion of Mildred's recordings, this is an essential acquisition! Jim Denham, Jazz Journal

It seems that Mildred Bailey, like so many fine singers of the past, is in danger of being forgotten these days, despite her outstanding recording career. This double CD from Retrospective is therefore very welcome and I hope will help to restore Ms Bailey to her deserved place in the pantheon of female jazz singers, up there with Ella, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.

Born in 1907, Mildred Bailey (nee Rinker) came from a mixed, partly Native American background and all her siblings entered the music business, most famously brother Al, who became with Crosby and Harry Barris, one of Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys. She recorded the song that gives this collection its title, and is the opening track, Hoagy Carmichael's ROCKIN' CHAIR in 1937 and it was a big success, but her recording career began as a singer with Eddie Lang & His Orchestra (WHAT KIND O' MAN IS YOU? (another Carmichael composition) in 1929. Two years later she was recording with Glen Gray's Casa Loma Orchestra and Matty Malneck (memorable versions of GEORGIA ON MY MIND and HOME) before joining Paul Whiteman, where she met the musician who was to be a big influence on her and a very successful musical collaborator, as well as her third husband, xylophonist Red Norvo. The mid thirties also saw her recording with Benny Goodman and with her own orchestra which included both Dorsey brothers and Bunny Berigan, as well as an outfit fronted by Norvo. The two tracks with the latter, SMOKE DREAMS and I'VE GOT MY LOVE TO KEEP ME WARM are enhanced by the arrangements of Eddie Sauter and her interpretations are sublime.

As a glance at the discographical details confirms, she was always surrounded by stellar musicians and to add to the list already mentioned, Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall, Ben Webster, Ziggy Elman and Teddy wilson are just a few of the others. The second discs covers the years 1937 -1947 and shows no diminution of quality, with her own individual readings of what were big hits for others like THANKS FOR THE MEMORY, DON'T BE THAT WAY and BEGIN THE BEGUINE losing nothing by comparison. There is a particular sequence on disc two from 1938 which is really outstanding comprising SO HELP ME IF I DON'T LOVE YOU, SMALL FRY, MY REVERIE and OLD FOLKS which all exemplify her artistry to the nth degree. Very sad that ill health restricted her career towards the end and that her early death in 1951 robbed us of the opportunity to hear how she would have developed as an album artist in the age of the LP. As it is, she leaves an outstanding legacy for us to enjoy and this set does her ample justice with the usual high production standards we can rely on from Retrospective. Intune International