The sordid secrets of the pop stars of the 1920s and 1930s hold a fascination that far outstrips any scandal Kanye could conjure. From Ruth Etting, whose mobster boyfriend shot her pianist and lover, to Libby Holman, whose extravagantly wealthy husband conveniently disappeared on a boating trip in 1932, tabloid queens, dulcet voices, and songs both classic and forgotten dominated the radio waves and records of the 1920s and 1930s.
Sarah Bernhardt paved the way for women to behave badly at the turn of the century, but it wasn’t until the rise of mass entertainment in the 1920s that women found their way as public celebrities. Many of the women on this mix were constantly scrutinized in public and private, their lives intersecting with famous names, drinking and partying through their most vital decades. Still others are greats whose limited recording output or race meant their powerful voices are frequently forgotten. For me, listening to most of these songs makes me ask, like Lee Wiley on the Fats Waller recording of the Gershwin hit, “How long has this been going on?”
The mix begins with an early example of public trolling: the short message that Max Fleischer sent to Helen Kane after she unsuccessfully sued him for infringement in 1932. It bears the question: was Helen Kane the true “boop boop be doo girl” or was it “Baby Esther,” a black singer popular at the Cotton Club? Baby Esther’s voice may be lost to time, but Kane’s “I Wanna Be Loved by You” remains a perennial classic. The next few tracks travel through the radio pop of the 1920s and 1930s: hitmakers like “America’s Sweetheart of Song” Ruth Etting, “The Personality Girl” Annette Hanshaw, the jazz singer Lee Wiley, and the tragic and beautiful Lee Morse dueled for top plays for almost two decades.
Next up are a few oddities, first from Greta Keller, whose husband was mysteriously murdered in 1943, possibly following an affair with Howard Hughes. Marlene Dietrich copied Keller’s unique style, and while she never achieved wide popular appeal, she remains the First Lady of Viennese Chanson. Zarah Leander may have been Hitler’s favorite singer, but that didn’t stop her from recording a confused version of “Bei Mir Bist du Schön,” possibly most recorded Yiddish song of all time. Rounding out these jazzy ladies are Minnie and Claire Bagelman, otherwise known as the Barry Sisters. They began their recording career in the late 1930s, and this rare Yiddish version of “Makin’ Whoopee” is a charmer.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most rare, most pioneering, and often most forgotten women on this mix are the black blues singers of the 1920s. While Clarence Williams’s “Cake Walkin’ Babies from Home” may be a standard, its brilliant singer Eva Taylor is often overlooked by jazz lovers. Mamie Smith isn’t related to the more famous Bessie Smith, but her version of “Crazy Blues” was the first blues hit in 1920. These racy, often risqué tunes include the powerhouse Sippie Wallace, the rare and vital Texas blues singer Mary Dixon, and Lucille Bogan’s apocryphal alternate (and filthy) take of “Shave ‘em Dry.”
Making this mix proved to me, more than anything, the fleetingness of the hit machine. While all these women were profoundly talented and most found acclaim in their time, many of these records aren’t usually listed among the greats. Some of them died young, like the influential Clara Smith, best friend of Bessie and lover of Josephine Baker. Others faded into obscurity like Annette Hanshaw, who retired from show business in 1935, and still others like Sippie Wallace, who was nominated for a Grammy Award at 85, continued to record past their golden age.
Still, Mildred Bailey charted hits eighteen times, Lee Wiley launched the concept of the songbook, and the alcoholic Lee Morse was one of the most famous women of her time. They were all uncompromising and strong women with lives marked by tragedy, diverse sexual politics, and scandalous love lives. I’ll quote Bea Foote in her jazzy and flirty “Try and Get it” to try and explain why they’re not household names: “I’ve got something that can’t be had/But try and get it.”
These women didn’t hide their talent, but these songs are pearls that need to be discovered, which is a difficult metaphor for a 21st Century feminist, and one that’s still too common for women. These recordings are surprising, funny, and often shockingly ahead of their time. When Bette Midler recorded Holman’s hit “Am I Blue?” in the 1970s, she sang it almost note for note, but Holman’s voice has a deep drama that lives on in the original.
Annette Hanshaw ended all her songs with a peppy “That’s all!” before Porky Pig was a twinkle in Mel Blanc’s eye, so that’s where I ended this mix. Say goodnight, Gracie. (Goodnight, Gracie!)