The music careers of a couple of the twentieth century’s most significant singing stars -- Bing “The King of the Crooners” Crosby and Mildred “That Princess of Rhythm” Bailey -- are so intertwined that their stories are perhaps best told as one. Those two innovative Jazz Age vocalists both went on to conquer the music world in big ways, but their shared beginnings on the fringes of the Spokane, Washington, Prohibition Era speakeasy jazz scene were quite humble.
The Dizzy Seven
Born in Tacoma, Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby (1903-1977) moved to Spokane in 1906 where -- even though he was the fourth of seven children in a poverty-level family -- his mother would recognize his love of music and somehow eventually scrape together enough funds to pay for some private vocal instruction. In 1917 -- after seeing his own singing idol, Al Jolson, perform at Spokane’s Auditorium Theater -- Crosby realized that he wanted to be a professional musician.
From playing drums for the high school’s jazz band, Crosby went on to Gonzaga University where he fell in with a local dance combo called the Dizzy Seven. That combo played high-school dances and illicit bathtub-gin-fueled parties for a few months before Crosby was lured away by the Musicaladers, another local band with a pianist/bandleader, Al Rinker, whose older sister, Mildred Rinker, happened to be a sales-clerk at Bailey’s Music Shop. And it was there that the guys were exposed to all the hot records by such jazz favorites as the original Dixieland Band, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, the Memphis Five, and even Vic Meyer’s dance band from Seattle.
Another source for learning new tunes, as Crosby once noted, was directly from touring groups:
“When a band came through Spokane we hung around them while they rehearsed, and we sneaked into their playing engagements and soaked up every note that they played. Spike Johnson’s orchestra from Portland helped us a lot, both with new material and new songs, and showed us a better ways to handle our instruments. I think I saw every vaudeville act involving a piano and singer that played Spokane.”
For the next couple years the Musicaladers performed at the Manito Park Social Club, the Casino Theater, the Pekin Café, Lareida’s Dance Pavilion, and then at Spokane’s Clemmer Theater where a new manager soon dropped the band in favor of just a “novelty” duo: Rinker on piano and Crosby singing, dancing, and jiving.
That “Vo-do-de-o Stuff”
Meanwhile, Rinker’s sister -- who’d adopted the stage name of “Mildred Bailey” -- had become a minor sensation in Los Angeles where she “was singing the blues nightly in the city’s most popular speakeasy, the Silver Grill.” Like Crosby, she too had shown an early aptitude for music, playing the family piano throughout her childhood. But then, after their mother passed away, she was sent to live with an aunt in Seattle. There as a teenager she earned an income playing in silent-movie houses and demonstrating sheet music for customers at Woolworth’s Department Store. Upon returning to Spokane (and while working at Baileys) she got her first gig playing at the town’s hippest speakeasy, Charlie Dale’s, and soon headed off to pursue a quest for fame and fortune in Hollywood.
Inspired by Bailey’s easy success, Crosby and Rinker left Spokane on October 15, 1925, in an old 1916 Model-T Ford and with high hopes of following her path to success. But their path to Hollywood included a brief visit to the coast. According to Crosby: “Our first stop was Seattle. We wanted to hear Jackie Souders’ band at the Butler Hotel. We’d heard him on the radio and we’d met him when he played in Spokane.” Upon arrival in Seattle the boys were introduced to both Souder and, apparently, another top band-leader Vic Meyers (who was often based at the town’s swankiest speakeasy, the Rose Room of the Butler Hotel). Various conflicting accounts suggest that both witnessed the duo’s audition.
Crosby himself once recalled that it Souders who “gave us an audition and then put us on at the Butler over a week end when the place was filled with University of Washington kids. The songs and arrangements we did were mostly fast-rhythm songs and I sang a couple of solos. ... We got a good reception, and we could have stayed there a while, working a night or two a week, but we had heading south on our minds.”
Interestingly, both Souders' and Meyers' recollections of that day differed from that seemingly rosy account by the young singer whose mumbly vocal approach would later be hailed as the “crooner” style. A reporter with The Seattle Times later interviewed the band-leaders and wrote that Meyers witnessed the fateful audition when the unknown “jug-eared young baritone auditioned for a soloist’s job. He had a nice bouncy style and Meyers was impressed. But John Savage, hotel proprietor, took Meyers aside and said: "Can the kid sing a ballad?" Meyers asked "the kid" to sing a ballad. It came out with the same bouncy boo-boo-boo sound. Savage shook his head in a "no-dice" motion.” Souders concurred saying “We all thought they were pretty good, but the hotel owner, the late John E. Savage, said he didn’t like all that "vo-do-de-o stuff" and wouldn’t hire them.”
Hooray For Hollywood
Either way -- hired or fired -- the duo gassed up their jalopy and continued southbound. Legend holds that they also played for a week at a Tacoma theater and “in several speakeasies at Portland and San Francisco en route” -- finally making it nearly to Hollywood before their engine blew up and Mildred had to drive out towards Bakersfield, California, to rescue them. Wanting to introduce them to the bright lights and big city action of Hollywood, Bailey first took her brother and his musical partner to the Silver Grill where they watched her perform, and then she worked to get them an audition with the Fanchon and Marco theatrical company who booked a circuit of nearly 40 West Coast theaters. Hired, the duo worked that circuit a few times and then were signed to appear in the Morrisey Music Hall Revue, a show created and financed by a highly successful former-Seattle-based song-writer, Arthur Freed.
It was on October 18, 1926 -- just a year after leaving Spokane -- that the guys recorded their debut disc (“I’ve Got The Girl”) with Don Clarke and his Biltmore Hotel Orchestra for a big-time label, Columbia Records. Soon after, they were discovered by a New York band-leader, Paul “The King of Jazz” Whiteman -- and with Harry Barris joining the act as a second pianist, the trio became Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys. The following year Whiteman and the boys cut a record (“Wistful and Blue” / “Pretty Lips”) that became a smash hit, which led to Crosby cutting a solo disc, 1927’s “Muddy Water.”
In 1929, Rinker was able to return all the favors by helping out his sister when she threw a house party. He invited his boss, and when Whiteman heard Bailey sing a song he hired her on the spot. And with that hiring, Whiteman became the first national-level orchestra leader to feature a female vocalist -- a historic moment that soon caused “other dance bands in the copycat fashion of show business” to add “female singers too.” That same year -- and now billed as “That Princess of Rhythm” -- Bailey cut her debut recording, “What Kind O’ Man Is You,” for Columbia.
The King of Jazz
It was in 1930 -- and just after concluding a string of concerts at Seattle’s Civic Auditorium, the Olympic Hotel’s Spanish Ballroom, and in Portland at Cole McElroy’s Spanish Ballroom and the KOIN radio studios in the New Heathman Hotel -- that Whiteman cut the Rhythm Boys loose. He’d begun to feel disenchanted with his new stars -- especially Crosby, who he thought goofed-off too much. Whiteman criticized the duo for always chasing girls and wanting to play golf. That the guys had recently started hanging out in Harlem with black stars like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington -- and reports that Crosby had taken up reefer smoking with Louis Armstrong -- probably didn’t help matters.
Then, right in the middle of filming The King of Jazz movie, Crosby got sentenced to 30 days in jail on a drunk-driving charge, missed his shot at making a solo appearance in the film, and angered his boss. When Whiteman headed back to New York, the Rhythm Boys were left behind.
Throughout his subsequent career, however, Crosby, would make out just fine. Before his death in 1977 Crosby recorded more than 1,700 songs, appeared on 4,000 radio shows, in 100 movies, and on 300 television shows. Crosby was lauded variously as: the “most popular radio star of all time,” the “biggest box-office draw of the 1940s,” the “most popular and influential media star of the first half of the 20th century,” the “most successful musical artist of all-time,” and the “world’s most recognized voice.” Beyond all that: “Crosby's success as a celebrity singer in the early 1930s paved the way for the pop vocals movement which swept aside the instrument-heavy big band scene of the WWII era,” and Crosby was “one of the most popular and influential American singers and actors of the 20th century, rivaled only by Elvis Presley and The Beatles.”
The Missing Links
Meanwhile, in 1932 Bailey debuted “Ol’ Rockin’ Chair’s Got Me” on a Chicago-based live broadcast of Whiteman’s weekly Old Gold radio show, and the tune sparked a public response that was immediate and overwhelming. A studio recording of the tune became such a huge hit that Bailey was ever after known as the “Rockin’ Chair Lady.” The record also made significant jazz history as “the first recording by a 'girl singer' with a big band, an innovation that would set the pattern for the swing era.” Bailey also gained attention by recording tunes with the same top players who backed Billie Holiday’s classic sessions -- and plenty of people took notice of her trail-blazing ways when she began fronting an all-black combo, Mildred Bailey and Her Oxford Browns. Bailey also married jazzman, Red Norvo, they became known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing,” and his combo backed her on a series of fine hits prior to Bailey’s death in 1951.
Since then, Bailey has been acknowledged by music historians variously as: “one of the most dynamic musicians of the swing era,” “a fine singer ... with perfect intonation and pitch. Her interpretation of lyrics on ballads was spellbinding, and she was superb at up-tempo tunes, where her knowledge of harmonics was utilized to sing variations on the melodic theme that were years ahead of her time,” a stylistic innovator who had “directly influenced the vocal style of legendary singers such as Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and Billie Holiday,” “the first non-black female singer to be accepted in jazz and the first female big-band vocalist,” and with “the possible exception of Billie Holiday (who could even be considered Bailey's own discovery), Bailey was the most consistent and prolific female jazz singer of the ‘30s. ... No understanding of pop and jazz singing can be considered complete without factoring in Mildred Bailey. She is one of the essential missing links of American music.”
And the saga of Crosby and the Rinker siblings is one of the great musical “missing links” in Pacific Northwest jazz history.