January 25, 1895
Washington, D.C., United States
|Died||November 1, 1927
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Other names||Florence Mills|
|Spouse(s)||Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson (m. 1921-1927; her death)|
Florence Mills (born Florence Winfrey; January 25, 1895 – November 1, 1927), known as the "Queen of Happiness", was an African-American cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian known for her effervescent stage presence, delicate voice, and winsome, wide-eyed beauty.
Life and career
A daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Nellie (Simon) and John Winfrey, she was born Florence Winfrey in 1895 in Washington, D.C.. She began performing as a child, when at the age of six she sang duets with her two older sisters. They eventually formed a vaudeville act, calling themselves "The Mills Sisters". The act did well, appearing in theaters up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Florence's sisters eventually quit performing, but Florence stayed with it, determined to pursue a career in show business. In time, she joined Ada Smith, Cora Green, and Carolyn Williams in a group called the "Panama Four," with which she had some success.
Mills became well known in New York as a result of her role in the successful Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921) at Daly's 63rd Street Theatre (barely on Broadway), one of the events credited with beginning the Harlem Renaissance, as well as acclaimed reviews in London, Paris, Ostend, Liverpool, and other European venues. Mills told the press that despite her years in vaudeville, she credited Shuffle Along with launching her career.
In 1924 she headlined at the Palace Theatre, the most prestigious booking in all of vaudeville, and became an international superstar with the hit show Lew Leslie's Blackbirds (1926). Among her fans when she toured Europe was the Prince of Wales, who told the press that he had seen Blackbirds eleven times.
Many in the black press admired her popularity and saw her as a role model: not only was she a great entertainer but she was also able to serve as "an ambassador of good will from the blacks to the whites... a living example of the potentialities of the Negro of ability when given a chance to make good".
Mills was featured in national magazines, Vogue and Vanity Fair, and photographed by Bassano's studios and Edward Steichen. She made a signature song from her biggest hit, "I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird"; another of her hit songs was "I'm Cravin' for that Kind of Love". From 1921 until her death in 1927, she was married to Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson (1888–1990), whom she met in 1917 as the dancing conductor of a black jazz band known as the Tennessee Ten.
Death and legacy
Exhausted from more than 250 performances of the hit show Blackbirds in London in 1926, she became ill with tuberculosis. Her condition further weakened her, and she died of infection following an operation at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City, New York on November 1, 1927. She was 32 years old. Most sources, including black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier as well as mainstream publications including The New York Times and Boston Globe, reported that she had died of complications from appendicitis.
Her death shocked the music world. The New York Times reported that more than 10,000 people visited the funeral home to pay their respects; thousands attended her funeral, including James Weldon Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and numerous stars of stage, vaudeville and dance. Honorary pall bearers including vocalists Ethel Waters and Lottie Gee, both of whom had performed with Mills in the past. Dignitaries and political figures of both races sent their condolences. She is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.
Her widower, Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson, a native of Prescott, Arkansas, was Florence's devoted husband from 1921 until her death in 1927. A dancer and comedian in his own right, he learned his trade in the tough world of circuses and traveling medicine shows in the early years of the century. He subjugated his own career to be her manager, promoter, minder and companion. After her death, he continued performing, traveling around the world, including China and Australia, until the late 1930s. In later years he married Dr. Gertrude Curtis, noted as New York's first black woman dentist (1911) and the widow of lyricist Cecil Mack (né R.C. McPherson). Thompson outlived both of his wives, dying at age 101 in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1990.
Mills is credited with having been a staunch and outspoken supporter of equal rights for African Americans, with her signature song "I'm a Little Blackbird" being a plea for racial equality, and during her life Mills shattered many racial barriers.
After her death, Duke Ellington memorialized Mills in his song "Black Beauty". Fats Waller also memorialized Mills in a song. "Bye Bye Florence" was recorded in Camden, New Jersey, on 14 November 1927, featuring Bert Howell on vocals with organ by Waller, and "Florence" was recorded with Juanita Stinette Chappell on vocals and Waller on organ. Other songs recorded the same day include "You Live on in Memory" and "Gone But Not Forgotten — Florence Mills", neither of which were composed by Waller.
A children's book, Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage, written by Alan Schroeder, was published by Lee and Low in 2012.
- Florence Mills House in New York City now maintained as a landmark by the National Park Service
- Flo-Bert Awards, named in honor of Florence Mills and Bert Williams.
- Newman, Richard (1994). "Mills, Florence (1896–1927)". Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 798–799. ISBN 0-253-32774-1.
- "Early Days Desperate, Says Flo", Pittsburgh Courier, February 28, 1925, p. 14.
- Rob Roy, "Florence Mills Phenominal [sic] Reign," Chicago Defender, April 9, 1955, p. 7.
- "Florence Mills," Pittsburgh Courier, November 12, 1927, p. A8.
- For example "Final Curtain," Chicago Defender, November 5, 1927, p. 1; "Florence Mills Dies of Appendicitis", New York Times, November 2, 1927.
- "10,000 Pay Tribute to Florence Mills", New York Times, November 3, 1927, p. 27.
- "Scores Collapse At Mills Funeral", New York Times, November 7, 1927, p. 25.
- Florence Mills at Find a Grave
- Profile, florencemills.com; accessed May 22, 2015.
- Florence Wetzel, review of Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen, March 31, 2006, AllAboutJazz
- Bill Egan, Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen (Scarecrow Press, 2006). ISBN 0-8108-5007-9