A total of 214 tracks over 10 discs of Mildred who? Although her name is less familiar to today’s audiences than Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald or Anita O’Day, Mildred Bailey (1903-51) was perhaps the most influential female singer at a critical moment in history: when jazz emerged as America’ s popular music in the swing era.
Bailey would be the first to tour with a major jazz ensemble, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and virtually defined the role of “girl singer.” Her translucent alto provided a model for countless others. Talents as diverse as Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra acknowledged her importance, as did Bing Crosby, who was perhaps most deeply in her debt. The young crooner, who began as Bailey’s brother Al Rinker’s cohort in groups like the Rhythm Boys, owed something of his early success in the business to Bailey’s helping hand. But, more importantly, Crosby also absorbed her style. No one can be certain as to the extent of Bailey’s influence on him-his first recordings date from 1926 while hers only begin in 1929 (as pointed out by Will Friedwald’s thorough liner notes)-but they shared an intimate approach to lyrics coupled with an easy sense of swing. In Crosby’s hands, those traits would revolutionize popular singing.
While the history surrounding certain musicians sometimes provides better reading than listening, Bailey produced a compelling body of recorded work.
Some of the songs show their age-the “sympathetic” descriptions of Negro life in “Little Joe” and others are eye-opening-but many are timeless in the tradition of jazz standards (see “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “Don’t Be That Way” and “Lover Come Back to Me”). There is also tremendous variety: Bailey staunchly preaches “Shouting in That Amen Corner,” milks “Thanks for the Memory” for its witty sarcasm and sweetly croons “The Moon Got in My Eyes,” a long-forgotten gem.
This collection-one that would be an asset to any singer-has been long overdue.