Mildred Bailey (born Mildred Rinker; February 27, 1903 – December 12, 1951) was a Native American jazz singer during the 1930s, known as “The Queen of Swing”, “The Rockin’ Chair Lady” and “Mrs. Swing”. Some of her best-known hits are “It’s So Peaceful in the Country”, “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 singles that made number one on the popular charts.
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, with her brother Al Rinker starting to perform as a singer with Bing Crosby in Spokane and eventually becoming famous as a member of The Rhythm Boys. Charles Rinker became a lyricist, and Miles Rinker was a clarinet and saxophone player who later became a booking agent.
Bailey was born Mildred Rinker on a farm in rural Tekoa, Washington. Her mother Josephine was a member of the Coeur d’Alene people and a devout Roman Catholic.
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.
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, which was of Swiss (German) origin.
She toured with a West Coast revue and finished up in California where she obtained work with a radio station (KMTR) and also a job in a Speakeasy in Bakersfield called “the Swede’s”. 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 secured work in 1925 for her brother Al Rinker and his partner Bing Crosby, who had started performing in Spokane, Washington. They had traveled from Spokane to join her in Los Angeles. Giddins says that Crosby first 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.
Crosby helped Bailey in turn by introducing her to Paul Whiteman in Los Angeles. She sang with Whiteman’s band from 1929 to 1933. Whiteman had a popular radio program for Old Gold Cigarettes, and when Bailey debuted on it with her version of “Moanin’ Low” on August 6, 1929, 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”. Her recording of “All of Me” with Whiteman the same year was a huge hit in 1932.
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. She was Whiteman’s popular 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. and there were further recordings for the label in 1933 accompanied by the Dorsey Brothers. Bailey was part of an all-star session with Benny Goodman’s studio band in 1934, featuring Coleman Hawkins, Dick McDonough, and Gene Krupa. After leaving Whiteman, Bailey sang on the radio shows of George Jessel and of Willard Robison.
In 1933 Bailey married her third husband Red Norvo, a vibraphonist, improviser, and band leader who had also been with Whiteman. A dynamic couple, they were married until 1942, and were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing”. They lived and worked much of the time in New York City. They remained friends after their divorce. Thereafter, she worked as a solo act, singing in New York clubs, such as the Café Society and the Blue Angel. In 1944 she had her own radio show on CBS which aired from September 1944 until February 1945. Her last major engagement was with Joe Marsala in Chicago in 1950.
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 continued to record together off and on until 1945. Bailey was featured on Benny Goodman’s Camel Caravan radio program and also sang on a number of Goodman’s Columbia recordings in 1939 and 1940, most notably “Darn That Dream” which was a big hit in 1940.
A large woman, she 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 on a number occasions by Bing Crosby.
Bailey died of heart failure on December 12, 1951 in St. Francis Hospital, Poughkeepsie, New York, at age 48. Her ashes were scattered.
Awards and honors
- 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.”
- In 1994, a 29-cent stamp was issued by the US Postal Service in Bailey’s honor; 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. The 1907 birth year on the stamp is incorrect.
- 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.
Number one hits
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.
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 singles chart.