Mildred Bailey

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Mildred Bailey
Bailey photographed by William P. Gottlieb in New York City, 1947
Bailey photographed by William P. Gottlieb in New York City, 1947
Background information
Birth nameMildred Eleanor Rinker
Born(1907-02-27)February 27, 1907 [1]
Tekoa, Washington, U.S.
DiedDecember 12, 1951(1951-12-12) (aged 44)
Poughkeepsie, New York, U.S.
GenresJazz, vocal jazz, blues

Mildred Bailey (born Mildred Rinker; February 27, 1907 – December 12, 1951) was a Native American jazz singer[2] during the 1930s, known as "The Queen of Swing", "The Rockin' Chair Lady" and "Mrs. Swing". She recorded the songs "For Sentimental Reasons", "It's So Peaceful in the Country", "Doin' The Uptown Lowdown", "Trust in Me", "Where Are You?", "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart", "Small Fry", "Please Be Kind", "Darn That Dream", "Rockin' Chair", "Blame It on My Last Affair", and "Says My Heart". She had three records that reached number one on the popular charts.[3]

She grew up on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in Idaho, where her mother was an enrolled member. The family moved to Spokane, Washington when she was 13. Her younger brothers also became musicians. Her brother, Al Rinker, started to perform as a singer with Bing Crosby in Spokane and became a member of The Rhythm Boys. As adults, Charles Rinker was a lyricist, and Miles Rinker was a clarinet and saxophone player who later became a booking agent.[4]

Early life[edit]

Bailey was born Mildred Rinker on a farm in rural Tekoa, Washington.[5] Her mother Josephine was a member of the Coeur d'Alene people[3] and a devout Roman Catholic.[4] Bailey's great-grandfather, Bazil Peone, was a head speaker and song leader of the Coeur d'Alene at the turn of the 20th century. His ability to create indigenized Catholic hymns helped guide the tribe during difficult times of active colonization by Jesuit missionaries.[6]

Bailey and her siblings grew up near De Smet, Idaho, on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation. Her father played fiddle and called square dances. Her mother played piano every evening and taught her to play and sing. Her younger brothers included Miles, Al, a vocalist and composer, and Charles, a lyricist.[7] The family often hosted Saturday night gatherings, creating small music and dance hall in the home for local ranchers with both Josephine and Mildred at the piano. Mildred also accompanied her mother to traditional native ceremony where she heard and practiced the traditional songs and lyrics that would later influence her unique singing voice.[6]

Josephine died from tuberculosis at the age of 36, threatening Mildred's ability to remain connected to her native family and traditions in a way that she was able to while her mother was alive. Soon after Josephine's death, Mildred's father remarried, bringing a daughter and creating a tumultuous and unhappy house where Mildred and her siblings were systematically pushed out of by her new stepmother.[6] Given an ultimatum to choose his own children or his new wife, Mildred's father sided with his wife and Mildred moved out of the home and in with her aunt and uncle in Seattle. She and her aunt were involved in a serious car accident a short time later which killed her aunt and left Mildred with serious physical and emotional scars.[6]

Music career[edit]

At age 17, Rinker moved to Seattle and worked as a sheet music demonstrator at Woolworth's. She married and divorced Ted Bailey, keeping his last name because she thought it sounded more American than Rinker,[4] which was of Swiss (German) origin.[3]

She toured with a West Coast revue and finished in California where she obtained work at radio station KMTR and at a speakeasy in Bakersfield called The Swede's.[8] With the help of her second husband Benny Stafford, Bailey became an established blues and jazz singer on the west coast of the United States. According to Gary Giddins in his book Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903–1940, she found work for her brother Al Rinker and Bing Crosby, who had started performing in Spokane, Washington. They had traveled from Spokane to join her in Los Angeles. Giddins says Crosby heard about Louis Armstrong from Bailey, who urged him to hear Armstrong if Crosby was to be a serious jazz singer. She also played Crosby records from her collection by Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith.[4]

Crosby helped Bailey in turn by introducing her to Paul Whiteman in Los Angeles.[4] She sang with Whiteman's band from 1929 to 1933. Whiteman had a radio program for Old Gold Cigarettes, and when Bailey debuted on it with her version of "Moanin' Low" on August 6, 1929,[9] favorable public reaction was immediate. However, Bailey's first recording with Whiteman did not take place until October 6, 1931, when she recorded a song called "My Goodbye to You".[10] Her recording of "All of Me" with Whiteman the same year was a hit in 1932.[11]

Her first two records had been as an uncredited vocalist for a 1929 session by the Eddie Lang Orchestra ("What Kind o' Man Is You?", a Hoagy Carmichael song that was issued only in the UK), and a recording on May 8, 1930, of "I Like to Do Things for You" for Frankie Trumbauer.[12] She was Whiteman's female vocalist through 1932 (recording in a smooth, crooning style) but left the band later that same year over salary disagreements. She recorded four sides for Brunswick in 1931 with the Casa Loma Orchestra.[13] and there were further recordings for the label in 1933 with the Dorsey Brothers as supporting musicians. Bailey was part of an all-star session with Benny Goodman's studio band in 1934 featuring Coleman Hawkins, Dick McDonough, and Gene Krupa.[14] After leaving Whiteman, Bailey sang on the radio shows of George Jessel and Willard Robison.[15]

In 1933, Bailey married Red Norvo, a xylophonist, improviser, and band leader who had also worked with Paul Whiteman. A dynamic couple, they remained married until 1942 and were known as "Mr. and Mrs. Swing".[3] They worked much of the time in New York City. They remained friends after their divorce.[8] She worked as a solo act, singing in clubs in New York, such as the Café Society and the Blue Angel. From September 1944, Bailey's radio show began on CBS and continued until February 1945.[16] Her last major engagement was with Joe Marsala in Chicago in 1950.[15]

From 1936 to 1939, Norvo recorded for Brunswick (with Bailey as primary vocalist), and Bailey recorded for Vocalion, often with Norvo's band. Some of her other recordings featured members of Count Basie's band. The two performers continued to record together intermittently until 1945. Bailey was featured on Benny Goodman's Camel Caravan radio program and sang on a number of Goodman's Columbia recordings in 1939 and 1940, including her version of "Darn That Dream" which was a hit in 1940.[17]

Bailey suffered from diabetes. Due to her health, she was hospitalized in 1938, 1943, and 1949. She went into retirement for a time in 1949 on a farm she owned in Poughkeepsie, New York. Often in financial difficulties, she was bailed out several times by Bing Crosby.[13]

Bailey died of heart failure on December 12, 1951[18] in St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York at the age of 44.[3]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • In 1989, Bailey was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.
  • The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz describes Bailey as "the first white singer to absorb and master the jazz-flavored phrasing...of her black contemporaries."[3]
  • In 1994, a 29-cent stamp was issued by the US Postal Service in Bailey's honor;[19] it was designed by Howard Koslow, based on the photograph by jazz photographer William Gottlieb (at the head of this article) of Bailey performing at Carnegie Hall.[3]
  • In 2012, the Coeur d'Alene Nation introduced a resolution honoring Bailey to the Idaho state legislature. They were seeking acknowledgement of the singer's Coeur d'Alene ancestry as well as to promote her induction to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame in New York City.[3]

Number one hits[edit]

In 1938, Bailey had two number one hits with Red Norvo and His Orchestra. "Please Be Kind" reached number one on the Hit Parade chart on May 7. She also sang lead vocals with Norvo on "Says My Heart", which reached number one during the week of June 18, 1938.[20]

Bailey sang lead vocals on "Darn That Dream", recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, which reached number one for one week in March 1940 on the U.S. pop chart.[21]


  • Sweet Beginnings (The Old Masters, 1994)
  • Band Vocalist (The Old Masters, 1994)
  • The Rockin' Chair Lady (GRP, 1994)
  • The Blue Angel Years (Baldwin Street Music, 1999)
  • Me and the Blues (Savoy, 2000)
  • The Legendary V-Disc Sessions (Vintage Jazz, 1990)
  • The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey (Mosaic, 2000)

Hit singles[edit]

(Vocalion releases only)

Year Single US Cat. No.
1936 "For Sentimental Reasons" 18 3367
"More Than You Know" 15 3378
1937 "Trust in Me" (A-side) 4 3449
"My Last Affair" (B-side) 10 3449
"Where Are You?" 5 3456
"Never in a Million Years" 8 3508
"Rockin' Chair" 13 3553
"It's the Natural Thing to Do" 14 3626
"Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)" 14 3712
"Right or Wrong" 19 3758
1938 "Thanks for the Memory" 11 3931
"Don't Be That Way" 9 4016
"I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" 8 4083
"Small Fry" 9 4224
"So Help Me" 2 4253
"My Reverie" 10 4408
1939 "Blame It on My Last Affair" 13 4632
"Moon Love" 14 4939


Other notable recordings[edit]


  1. ^ "Mildred Bailey". Encyclopædia Britannica. February 23, 2019. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
  2. ^ Robinson, Jessica (March 15, 2012). "Tribe Seeks To Correct Jazz History On Native Singer's Heritage". NPR. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Miller, John. (Associated Press) "Idaho tribe: 'Mrs. Swing' was Indian." Archived November 15, 2017, at the Wayback Machine, The Wenatchee World; retrieved March 27, 2012.
  4. ^ a b c d e Giddins, Gary (2001). Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams (1 ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-88188-0.
  5. ^ Bush, John. "Mildred Bailey". AllMusic. Retrieved November 23, 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d Berglund, Jeff (2016). Indigenous pop : Native American music from jazz to hip hop. University of Arizona Press. ISBN 978-0816533732. OCLC 936200020.
  7. ^ "Death Takes Mildred Bailey, Blues Singer" Archived July 6, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, Seattle Daily Times, December 13, 1951.
  8. ^ a b Hemming, Roy (1991). Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop. New York: Newmarket Press. p. 42. ISBN 1-55704-072-9.
  9. ^ Pairpoint, Lionel. "And Here's Bing..." BING magazine. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  10. ^ "The Online Discographical Project". Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  11. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890–1954. Wisconsin: Record Research. p. 452. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  12. ^ "The Online Discographical Project". Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  13. ^ a b Friedwald, Will (1996). Jazz Singing. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 69. ISBN 0-306-80712-2.
  14. ^ Rust, Brian (1984). Jazz Records 1897–1942 (5th ed.). London: Storyville Publications. p. 593. ISBN 0902391046.
  15. ^ a b Rayno, Don (2003). Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music – Vol 1, 1890–1930. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. p. 343. ISBN 0-8108-4579-2.
  16. ^ "". Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  17. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890–1954. Wisconsin: Record Research. p. 180. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  18. ^ "Mildred Bailey, Singer of Blues; Noted Entertainer Succumbs to Heart Ailment Won Fame With 'Old Rockin' Chair' Big Name" in Field Discovered in 1929 (Published 1951)". The New York Times. December 13, 1951. Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  19. ^ "Mildred Bailey", Women on Stamps, Publication 512, United States Postal Service, 2003
  20. ^ a b c "YOUR HIT PARADE (USA) WEEKLY SINGLE CHARTS FROM 1938". Hits Of All Decades. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
  21. ^ a b "Songs from the Year 1939". TSort. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
  22. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890–1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. pp. 41–42. ISBN 0-89820-083-0.
  23. ^ "Pop Chronicles 1940s Program #3". 1972.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900–1950 by Roger D. Kinkle (Arlington House Publishers, 1974)