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Bailey, Mildred (Eleanor Rinker)

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Bailey, Mildred (Eleanor Rinker), pop-jazz singer; b. Tekoa, Wash., Feb. 9, 1903; d. Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Dec. 12, 1951. Eleanor Rinker was the daughter of Charles and Josephine Rinker; she received her first musical instruction from her mother. The family moved to Spokane in 1912. When she was 14 her mother died of tuberculosis and she was placed in a boarding school. She later lived in Seattle. In 1920 she worked in a music store as a demonstration singer, and began to perform in clubs. During this period she married and divorced the man who gave her the name Bailey. She left Washington to tour West Coast theaters in a vaudeville revue, then settled in Los Angeles, where she performed on radio and in clubs. There she married Benny Stafford; they later divorced.

Mildred Bailey’s brother, Al Rinker, was part of a duo with Bing Crosby in Spokane, and when the two came to Los Angeles, she put them up and helped them get work in vaudeville. They were then hired by Whiteman and later helped her get a job with him. Whiteman used her on his radio program but at first did not record her with his band. Her first recording, “What Kind o’ Man Is You?” on Oct. 5, 1929, was made with a satellite group drawn from Whiteman’s orchestra under the leadership of guitarist Eddie Lang. After she made several recordings with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orch. in September 1931, including “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (music and lyrics by Leon René, Otis René, and Clarence Muse), Whiteman finally decided to have her sing with him on records. The Whiteman recording of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” with Bailey on vocals became a hit in November 1931. “All of Me” (music and lyrics by Seymour Simons and Gerald Marks) did even better, becoming a best-seller in February 1932.

Meanwhile, Bailey was also recording under her own name, and her rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” (music by Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics by Stuart Gorrell) had become a minor hit in January 1932. Although the Mills Brothers had the most successful recording of “Rockin’ Chair” (music and lyrics by Hoagy Carmichael) in the spring of 1932, the song became so closely associated with Bailey that she was billed as the “Rockin’ Chair Lady.” Whiteman had a double-sided hit in September on which both songs were sung by Bailey: “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” (music and lyrics by Harry Woods) and “I’ll Never Be the Same” (music by Matty Melneck and Frank Signorelli, lyrics by Gus Kahn).

Bailey left Whiteman in 1933, and married xylophonist Red Norvo. Her next hit, in August, was “Lazy Bones” (music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael), on which she was backed by the Dorsey Brothers Orch. In November she was the vocalist on Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orch.‘s hit recording of “Heat Wave” (music and lyrics by Irving Berlin). Benny Goodman and His Orch. used her as the singer on “Ol’ Pappy” (music by Jerry Livingston, lyrics by Marty Symes and Al J. Neiburg), which became a hit in February 1934.

In addition to performing solo, Bailey also sang with Ben Bernie’s band and appeared on radio shows in 1934–35. She retired, but her husband persuaded her to become the vocalist in the big band he organized in the fall of 1936. She recorded both with Norvo and on her own, and her next solo hit, “Trust in Me” (music by Milton Ager and Jean Schwartz, lyrics by Ned Wever) spent six weeks in the hit parade starting in February 1937. Another solo, “Where Are You?” (music by Jimmy McHugh, lyrics by Harold Adamson), was in the hit parade for eight weeks starting in April.

Bailey and Norvo topped the hit parade in May 1938 with “Please Be Kind” (music by Saul Chaplin, lyrics by Sammy Cahn) and again in June with “Says My Heart” (music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Frank Loesser)—two of the biggest hits of the year. Her solo recording of “So Help Me” (music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Eddie DeLange) was in the hit parade for 12 weeks starting in September, and “Have You Forgotten So Soon?” (music by Abner Silver, lyrics by Sam Coslow and Edward Heyman) with Norvo, made the list for four weeks starting in December.

Norvo disbanded in 1939; later, he and Bailey divorced. Bailey became a featured singer on Benny Goodman’s Camel Caravan radio show and made several records with him, including “Darn That Dream” (music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Eddie DeLange), which topped the hit parade in March 1940.

Bailey continued to perform in clubs and record during the 1940s, though her career was slowed by health problems—especially diabetes, due to her obesity. She had her own radio series during the 1944–45 season but was less active in the late 1940s and died at age 48 in 1951.

Bailey was among the earliest white singers to be influenced by black-based blues and jazz music and to gain acceptance as a jazz singer; drawing on the examples of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, she in turn influenced Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. When hired by Paul Whiteman in 1929, she became the first woman to be a featured vocalist in an important dance orchestra. Under her own name, and as a band singer, she scored a number of hits, notably “All of Me,” “Please Be Kind,” “Says My Heart,” and “Darn That Dream.”

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