Living in the Past – Thanks Mildred!

In December, I wrote a post called I’m a Human Jukebox. That post was about how few songs I know and how I’m building my repertoire of jazz songs I can sing. It’s still true…

And as I’ve been building my repertoire, I’ve spent time doing some research to figure out which songs I might enjoy singing.

After reading parts of Jazz Singing: America’s Greatest Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond by Will Friedwald, I started to become more familiar with early jazz singers. The Friedwald book is an incredible resource and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the history of Jazz vocalists.

By listening to more of Bessie Smith (1894-1937), whose indelible influence has lasted throughout the decades since she was most popular in the 1920’s and 30’s, I have added the St. Louis Blues to my repertoire. It’s a fantastic early jazz tune by W.C. Handy made popular, I believe, by Bessie Smith’s rendition of it.

And after listening to so many other songs by Bessie, I began to take a much more serious interest in the 1920’s and 1930’s jazz singers and popular songs of that time period.


One singer who is vastly under-appreciated today is Mildred Bailey. Bailey was hugely popular in the 1930’s and had numerous top hits.

She recorded dozens of songs, and played with such greats as Paul Whiteman, Bennie Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers and Red Norvo, the latter of which she took as her third husband. Unfortunately, Mildred had diabetes, and died very young at the age of 44. I can only imagine how many more songs she would have done if she had lived longer, but nonetheless she had a spectacular career.

In 1937, Mildred recorded The Moon Got In My Eyes.

(Here is a link to her singing the song on YouTube:

Even though this song is not one of her absolute top hits (Rocking Chair seems to be one of her all time top hits) I find this song so charming. In working with one of my (many) jazz teachers, I was able to get a chart of the chords and learn it well enough to perform this song. It’s now in my repertoire.

One of the nicest reactions I’ve had to my singing in public has been to this song. Especially old timers, people who know a lot of jazz songs, are surprised when I sing this because they usually don’t know it.

I love the idea that, through my research, I can give new life to jazz songs that are laying dormant because no one else is singing them. And the 1920’s and 1930’s are a total GOLD MINE of material.

For example, if you think Ray Charles is the person who first sang Georgia on My Mind, then you are wrong. Here is a link to a clip of Mildred Bailey, singing the song in 1931. (Yes, 1931!)

I guess I’m kind of a music geek, when it comes to doing research on early jazz songs. The lyrics of so many of these tunes are funny and charming. Some of the tunes are straight forward, and relatively easy to learn too. (Not all of them though!) I’m grateful that I seem to share some part of Mildred Bailey’s vocal range, so for certain songs that she sang, I can craft my own version of the song but learn it directly from her original recording.

Yes, I like living in the past, musically speaking. I’m adding many songs to my repertoire from this early jazz time period, and in turn, introducing my audiences to these songs too. I hope they like hearing them as much as I like singing them… because I really love singing these songs.

Thanks Mildred!


2 Responses

  1. I too love the old jazz greats. Among my collection is a 4 CD compilation called “The Mercury Songbook – 100 jazz vocal classics”. They don’t go back to the 20’s and 30’s but it’s a wonderful collection. Sing – on!

    • I just saw (and approved) your comment now, Menomama3. Sorry for the delay. Thanks for your comment about The Mercury Songbook. I’ve never heard of it, so it’s always great to hear about another jazz vocal resource. THANKS!!

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