Gertrude Saunders

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Gertrude Saunders
Born(1903-08-25)August 25, 1903
Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.
DiedApril 1991 (aged 87)
Beverly, Massachusetts, U.S.
GenresVaudeville, jazz, blues
Occupation(s)Singer, actor
Years activec.1918—1940s

Gertrude C. Saunders (August 25, 1903 – April 1991)[1] was an American singer, actress and comedian, active from the 1910s to the 1940s.


She was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and studied at Benedict College, Columbia before leaving in her teens to join a vaudeville troupe based in Chicago, organized by Billy King.[2] She was a featured singer and comedian, and performed a number of hit songs including "Wait 'Til the Cows Come Home" (1918), "Hot Dog" (1919), and "Rose of Washington Square" (1920), as well as starring in King's 1919 stage production of Over the Top, which "dramatized the state of African Americans at the time of the Paris Peace Conference".[3]

In April 1921, she became the star of the first production, in New York, of Shuffle Along, by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, who wrote the songs "Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home" and "I’m Craving for That Kind of Love" for her.[2] She was a part of "the first Broadway musical entirely written, directed, and performed by African Americans".[4] She received good reviews — according to one critic, "Jazz with more pep than ever seen here before was featured by Gertrude Saunders...".[5] She also made several recordings for Okeh Records, with Tim Brymn's Black Devil Orchestra.[6]

She was spotted by vaudeville promoters Hurtig and Seamon, who offered to increase her salary if she would star in a burlesque show. She accepted the offer and was replaced in Shuffle Along by Florence Mills. Saunders' career faltered as a result of the move, though she continued to star in revues through the 1920s, notably several produced by Irvin C. Miller.[3] In 1929, she featured in a revue promoted by Bessie Smith's husband, Jack Gee. Smith suspected that Saunders and Gee were having an affair, and twice beat up Saunders, as a result of which Smith was charged with assault; her marriage to Gee ended soon afterwards.[7] In 1931, Saunders suffered a breakdown and returned to Asheville to recuperate.[2]

She returned to perform in revues during the 1930s, and was claimed in some reports as having, some years earlier, originated the "boop-oop-a-doop" lyrics in scat singing,[8] later associated with Helen Kane. Saunders featured in several movies, including an uncredited role as a servant in The Toy Wife (1938). In 1939, she co-produced her own show, Midnight Steppers,[3] and she performed in the 1943 Broadway show Run, Little Chillun.[9] She also appeared in several films aimed at African American audiences, such as Big Timers (1945) and Sepia Cinderella (1947).[2][7]

Saunders is portrayed in the 2015 HBO TV movie, Bessie. She is portrayed as Gertrude, who has an affair with Bessie Smith's husband, Jack Gee.[10]

Saunders died in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1991.[1]


  1. ^ a b Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues - A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara: Praeger Publishers. p. 519. ISBN 978-0313344237.
  2. ^ a b c d Lean'tin L. Bracks, Jessie Carney Smith (2014). Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 9780810885431, p.191
  3. ^ a b c Bernard L. Peterson (2001). Profile of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313295348, p.222.
  4. ^ Robinson, Mark (2014). The World of Musicals: An Encyclopedia of Stage, Screen, and Song. Gale Virtual Reference Library: Gale Virtual Reference Library. p. 630. ISBN 1440800960.
  5. ^ Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, "A Great Musical Migration: How the Blues Headed North",, July 19, 2017. Retrieved 10 March 2018
  6. ^ Tim Brymn and his Black Devil Orchestra, Retrieved 11 March 2018
  7. ^ a b Gertrude Saunders, Retrieved 11 March 2018
  8. ^ "Gertrude Saunders Gets A Break", The Pittsburgh Courier, August 19, 1939, p.20
  9. ^ Dan Dietz, "Run Little Chillun", The Complete Book of 1940s Broadway Musicals, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, pp.177-178
  10. ^ "Bessie".