|Birth name||Ida Prather|
February 25, 1896|
Toccoa, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||November 10, 1967
Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.
Ida Cox (February 26, 1896 – November 10, 1967) was an African American singer and vaudeville performer, best known for her blues performances and recordings. She was billed as "The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues".
Childhood and early career
Cox was born February 26, 1896 to sharecropper parents as Ida Prather in Toccoa, Habersham County, Georgia, Georgia, United States, the daughter of Lamax and Susie (Knight) Prather, and grew up in Cedartown, Polk County, Georgia. Her family lived and worked in the shadow of the Riverside Plantation, the private residence of the wealthy Prather family, from which her namesake came. She faced a future of desperate poverty and limited educational and employment opportunities.
Cox joined the local African Methodist Choir at a young age and thus developed a strong interest in gospel music and performance. At the young age of 14, she left her home to tour with the White and Clark's Black & Tan Minstrels. She began her career on stage by playing Topsy, a "pickaninny" role prevalent on the vaudeville stage at the time and often performed in blackface. Cox's early road show experience also included stints with other African American travelling minstrel shows in the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A) vaudeville circuit, including the Florida Orange Blossom Minstrels, the Silas Green Show, and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The Rabbit Foot Minstrels, organized by F. S. Wolcott and based after 1918 in Port Gibson, Mississippi, was important not only for the development of Cox’s performing career but was also instrumental in launching the careers of fellow blueswomen and Cox’s idols, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
The Rabbit Foot Minstrels, known colloquially as “The Foots”, provided a nurturing environment for Cox to develop her career and stage presence, but life on the vaudeville circuit was trying for performers and workers alike. In his book The Story of the Blues, Paul Oliver wrote: "The 'Foots' travelled in two cars and had a 80' x 110' tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvassmen, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show...The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns – gasoline mantle lamps – acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume..." When not singing, Cox earned money performing as a sharp-witted comedienne in vaudeville variety shows, gaining valuable stage experience and cultivating her characteristic charismatic stage presence.
In 1916, she married Adler Cox, who performed as a trumpeter with the Florida Blossoms Minstrels, a group with which Ida briefly toured. Their marriage was cut short by Adler Cox’s untimely death during World War I, though Ida kept her married name throughout the rest of her performing career. During the early 1920s, Cox remarried to Eugene Williams and the couple gave birth to a daughter, Helen. Few other details are known of this marriage, which ended in divorce. In 1927 Cox married Jesse “Tiny” Crump, a blues piano accompanist active in the Theater Owners’ Booking Association vaudeville circuits. Crump collaborated with Cox in the composition of many of her songs, including “Gypsy Glass Blues” and “Death Letter Blues,” provided piano and organ accompaniment on several of her recordings, and also served as manager of her blossoming career during this time.
By 1915, Cox had advanced from the pickaninny roles of her early minstrel years to singing the blues almost exclusively. In 1920, she left the vaudeville circuit briefly to appear as a headline act at the 81 Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia with blues piano great, Jelly Roll Morton. Her commanding stage presence and expressive delivery earned Cox star billing, and by the early 1920s, Cox was regarded as one of the finest solo acts offered by the shows that travelled the Theater Owners’ Booking Association circuit. In March 1922 a performance by Cox at the Beale Street Palace of Memphis, Tennessee, was aired on WMC Radio, leading to positive reviews as well as wider audience exposure to her music.
After the success of Mamie Smith's pioneering 1920 recording of "Crazy Blues", record labels realized there was a demand for recordings of race music. The classic female blues era had begun, and would extend through the 1920s. With her popularity in the South rapidly increasing, Cox caught the attention of talent scouts and secured a record contract with Paramount, a label that she shared with her idol Ma Rainey. Paramount touted Cox as the “Uncrowned Queen of Blues,” a title that she proved deserved though her prolific recording career. Between September 1923 and October 1929, Cox recorded a total of 78 titles for Paramount. For her numerous recording sessions, Paramount provided Cox with outstanding back-up musicians including female pianist Lovie Austin and her band the Blues Serenaders, featuring Jimmy O'Bryant (clarinet) and Tommy Ladnier (cornet). During this period, Cox also recorded a number of songs for other labels such as Broadway Records and Silvertone using pseudonyms such as Kate Lewis, Velma Bradley, Julia Powers, and Jane Smith.
In 1929, Ida Cox and husband Jesse Crump formed their own tent show revue, aptly named Raisin’ Cain (after the biblical story of Cain and Abel and resulting colloquialism). Cox performed as the title act and Crump acted as both accompanist and manager. Through the end of the 1920s and into the early 1930s, Raisin’ Cain toured black theaters across the Southeast and westward through Texas, with Cox and Crump managing to book shows in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma as well as a number of performances in Chicago. The Raisin’ Cain tent show proved so popular that in 1929 it became the first show associated with the Theater Owners’ Booking Association circuit to open at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Cox, sometimes billed as the "Sepia Mae West", headlined touring companies into the 1930s. This represented the pinnacle of Cox’s performing career.
By the end of the decade, the Great Depression as well as the waning popularity of women blues singers proved difficult for Cox and her show, and Raisin’ Cain suffered from difficulty maintaining its performers, frequent layoffs as well as gaps in the show's touring schedule. Still, while other blueswomen all but disappeared from public performance, Cox managed to continue her performing career through the 1930s. In 1935, Cox and Crump reorganized Raisin’ Cain, which had by then been renamed as the Darktown Scandals, and continued to tour throughout the South and Midwest until 1939. In the early 1930s, notable American rock & roll and R&B drummer Earl Palmer entered show business as a tap dancer in Cox's Darktown Scandals Review.
Later career and comeback
The year 1939 proved a very industrious and successful year for Cox. That year, Cox was invited to participate in John Hammond's historic Carnegie Hall concert series, From Spirituals to Swing. In the concert, Cox gave a performance of "Four Day Creep", backed by James P. Johnson (piano), Lester Young (tenor saxophone), Buck Clayton (trumpet), and Dicky Wells (trombone), which proved to be a highlight of the concert series and gave her performing career a much needed boost after the Depression-era decline. That same year, Cox also resumed her recording career with a series of sessions for Vocalion Records and, in 1940, Okeh Records, with groups that at various times included guitarist Charlie Christian, trumpeters Hot Lips Page and Henry "Red" Allen, trombonist J. C. Higginbotham, and percussionist Lionel Hampton. She continued to perform until 1945, when a debilitating stroke she suffered during a show at a nightclub in Buffalo, New York, forced her into retirement. Cox retired to Knoxville, Tennessee where she assumed a low profile, became very active in her church, and lived with her daughter, Helen Goode.
Cox had effectively fallen off the map of the music world until 1959 when John Hammond took out an ad in Variety magazine in search of Cox. After successfully locating her, Hammond as well as record producer Chris Albertson urged the blues singer to make one final recording, an album for Riverside Records titled Blues For Rampart Street. In 1961, after a 15-year hiatus, Cox made a successful recording comeback. The album was backed by an all-star group composed of Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, pianist Sammy Price, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Jo Jones. The album featured her revisiting songs from her old repertoire, including "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues", which found a new audience, including such singers as Nancy Harrow and Barbara Dane, who recorded their own versions of the tune. A review in the New York Times said that Cox at the age of 65 had lost quality in both range and intonation, but retained her charismatic and expressive delivery of many of the classic tunes that had launched her into stardom. Cox referred to the album as her "final statement". After recording Blues for Rampart Street, she returned once again to live with her daughter in Knoxville, Tennessee. Cox suffered another stroke in 1965, and in 1967, she entered East Tennessee Baptist Hospital where she died of cancer on November 10, 1967, aged 71. She was buried in Longview Cemetery, Knoxville.
Reflective of her early career in the vaudeville circuits, Cox's style leaned more toward vaudeville than pure blues. Although possessing a less powerful and rugged voice than some of her better-known contemporaries such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Cox kept her audiences spellbound with the fiery spirit of her delivery. At the height of the classic female blues era, competition was stiff due to the great number of talented blueswomen performing, and thus Cox's talent constituted only part of her act. As her career developed, Cox assumed and embodied the title bestowed to her as the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues.” Onstage, she exuded a glamorous sophistication and confidence that captivated her fans. She embellished her stage presence with a stylish and regal wardrobe that often included a tiara, cape and a rhinestone wand.
The independent spirit that governed Cox's life and career was a characteristic shared by many early blues stars, including Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, and Victoria Spivey. Forced to exercise independence from an early age as a result of her teenage career in the minstrel circuits, Cox further proved herself as an independent and astute businesswoman through her ability to organize and maintain her own troupe, Raisin’ Cain, which lasted for a decade. In this way, Cox was responsible for breaking barriers, as virtually no black females owned and managed their own businesses in the 1920s and 1930s. Cox was one of the few female blues singers of the time to write her own songs.
Legacy and cultural significance
Through her raw and sharp lyricism, Cox was able to introduce the complex social realities of poor and working class African Americans in the early twentieth century. Her tunes address topics of female independence, sexual liberation, and the social and political struggles of black Americans from a decidedly female perspective that became her trademark. One of Cox's most famous and enduring tunes, "Wild Women Don't Have The Blues", is remembered as one of the earliest feminist anthems:
“I've got a disposition and a way of my own,
When my man starts to kicking I let him find a new home,
I get full of good liquor, walk the street all night
Go home and put my man out if he don’t act right
Wild women don't worry,
Wild women don't have the blues.
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1, Paramount, 1923. Re-released by Document Records, 1997.
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2, Paramount, 1924. Re-released by Document Records, 2000.
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 3, Paramount, 1925. Re-released by Document Records, 2000.
Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4, Paramount, 1927. Re-released by Document Records, 2000.
Blues for Rampart Street, Original Jazz Classics, 1961.
Ida Cox: The Essentials, Classic Blues, 2001.
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- Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
- Toccoa was in Habersham County, not yet Stephens County at the time
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- Scherman, Tony, foreword by Wynston Marsalis, Backbeat: The Earl Palmer Story, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. (1999)
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