Northwest Music History: Jazz

Mildred Bailey

She was a superstar in the 1930’s and 40’s.  She introduced Bing Crosby to the music of Louis Armstrong  and Bessie Smith.  She worked with the most famous big bands of the era.  Tony Bennett said

“From 16 to 20 years old  the only thing I listened to was Mildred Bailey. I just said  I want to sing like her”  She provided the template for the “girl singers” from Ella Fitzgerald to Anita O’Day.  She introduced Billie Holiday to the famous producer John Hammond.  She started from the speakeasies of Spokane and Seattle and made her way to Los Angeles and then to The Savoy Ballroom and Stork Club in New York City. Yet Mildred Bailey and her contributions to jazz and pop music have all but been disregarded.  She is the most famous jazz singer of the 1930s and ‘40s that you’ve never heard of.

Over the years there’s been attempts to replace her to the stature she once had, but she still remains a cult figure who is absolutely loved by her fans.  Every one of her recordings have been available for years-most of them have been in continual release since 1951 when she died.  Her entire Columbia Records catalogue has been lavishly presented as boxed sets in both LP and CD formats for decades.   So it must be asked-in the words of jazz critic Michael Steinman; “Who Erased Mildred Bailey?”  It certainly wasn’t singers like Tony Bennett,mentioned above.  It wasn’t Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra who helped her out at the end of her life.  It wasn’t a change in taste; The Big Band sound and jazz/pop singers were in their heyday when she quit the music industry.   It wasn’t for a lack of exposure on the new media of television…she even had her own television program at one time.

The fact is that there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to why Mildred Bailey has been erased from our collective musical consciousness, and the answer remains elusive to this day.

Mildred Bailey was born Mildred Rinker on February 27, 1903 in Tekoa Washington, a small farming community about an hour southeast of Spokane Washington. Mildred’s mother, Josephine had been deeded land there and created a farm on the land she owned.  Josephine was one quarter Native American.  Her ancestors were what became known as the Coeur d’Alene tribe. Owners of valuable property by tribal members was unusual at the time: so while the Coeur d’Alene people were generally living in poverty, Mildred’s family were more economically secure. Until the age of 13 her family lived in De Smet Idaho.  Though miles apart,both communities (De Smet where she lived and Takoa where she was born) butted up on the Washington/Idaho border (each one on different sides).  It’s thought her father Charles Rinker was of Irish/Swiss descent but because of her mother’s tribal affiliation Mildred’s early upbringing was spent on the Idaho side of the border the family lived on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation which at the time was (and still is) within the confines of the state of Idaho.  According to her tribe’s custom, inclusion into the tribe is based on either maternal or paternal lines. Mildred’s  lineage as a Native American came directly through her mother who was a full member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe.

 The tribe’s modern name, Coeur d’Alene was arbitrarily bestowed upon them by the first French traders that operated in the area.  The literal translation of Coeur d’Alene to English is “heart of an awl” or more colloquially, “pointed hearts”.  The name was given to them because they were tough negotiators with European traders.  It’s unclear if the designation “pointed hearts” was due to a respect for the natives or as a derisive term based on their generally seeking the upper hand in matters of commerce.  As traders came to be more common in the area, Catholic missionaries moved in and converted most of the people of the nation are Roman Catholic and many place names on the area are French.  Most tribal members today are Catholic, but in recent decades younger members are returning to their traditional spiritual roots.

The Coeur d’Alene name has stuck as the preferred name the US government and Idaho state uses to designate the tribe, but they themselves have always called themselves “Schitsu’umsh” or “Skitswish” meaning “The Discovered People” or “Those Who Are Found Here”.  Traditionally the Coeur d’Alene homeland included most of Idaho’s panhandle, a portion of Eastern Washington and Western Montana.  The historical north/south borders spanned between the lower end of Lake Pend Oreille at the northern extreme and The Palouse Hills to the south, and the Clearwater River to Spokane Falls.  The homeland originally consisted of more than 3.5 million acres of forests, mountains, lakes, rolling plains, marshes and rivers.  The entire Coeur d’Alene (or Schitsu’umsh) territory has now been reduced to a 345,000 acre reservation, all of it within the state of Idaho, abutting the Washington State border.

At the time of Mildred Rinker’s birth in 1907, the Schitsu’umsh people lived in poverty, surrounded by mining operations in and around the reservation that stripped the land of minerals, leaving  much of the land and water was left damaged and polluted.  The environmental conditions were so bad and so prevalent that in recent years the tribal council has brought several (successful) civil actions against the US government and private mining corporations-ASARCO being the worst offender. In 2014 then-Idaho House Representative Paulette Jordan claimed the industries “left several thousand acres of land and tributaries connected to the Coeur d’Alene Basin, contaminated with heavy metals”.

According to the tribe’s website;.

“These mining operations have contributed an estimated 100 million tons of mine waste to the river system.Over a 100 year period the mining industry in Idaho’s Silver Valley dumped 72 million tons of mine waste into the Coeur d’ Alene watershed. The State of Idaho, meanwhile, looked the other way. As mining and smelting operations grew, they produced billions of dollars in silver, lead and zinc. In the process, natural life in the Coeur d’ Alene River was wiped out. In 1929, as the river flowed milky-white with mine waste, a Coeur d’Alene newspaper reporter described a river trip to the Silver Valley a “Up the River of Muck and into the Valley of Death.”Today, the Silver Valley is the nation’s second largest Superfund site. The natural resource damages, however, extend upstream and far downstream from the 21-square mile “box” that is now under Superfund”.

All of this may seem extraneous to the story of Mildred Bailey, but it helped shaped her reaction to adversity both in positive and negative ways. It also informed her view of discrimination and the downtrodden,  So it was into this environment that Mildred, her three brothers were born..  Despite the surroundings the Rinker siblings were also fortunate to be exposed to music all their lives.  Their mother, Josephine, played piano and taught all of them to play at an early age. Mrs.Rinker had studied music at the Catholic Academy in Tekoa..  It’s said that she was proficient in both classical music as well as all the current popular genres sweeping the nation.  Their father, Charles Rinker was a fiddler who took part in local squaredances and also took time to teach his children as much music as he could. The family spent many a night playing and singing, often with neighbors joining in.

By the time Mildred was 13 years old the Rinker family had moved to the city of Spokane Washington. In 1912, Charles Rinker had bought one of the first automobiles in the Takoa area and upon his work-related trips to Spokane he found he was more suited to city life. The Rinkers leased their farm and moved 60 miles to the city…already Washington State’s second largest metropolis.,.  Mildred’s father  opened an auto supply shop.  It was after this move that Mildred and her brothers became more closely involved in music as a vocation. Mildred was enrolled at St. Joseph’s Academy, where she studied piano and her brothers continued to learn piano with their mother at their side.

In 1916 their mother Josephine died. Various reports indicate the cause of death being either tuberculosis or The Spanish Influenza.  Soon after the death of Mrs Rinker, Charles Rinker remarried.  According to Mildred Bailey biographer Gary Gibbin the second Mrs Rinker was;
“an abusive, grasping woman, who moved in with her daughter while insisting he send his kids to boarding school”. Charles Rinker resisted her threats, trying to keep the family together, but Mildred despised her”.

Even so the house was still filled with music.  Al Rinker remembers his step-mother at the piano singing songs of longing and faraway places: Rinker recalled some of her favorites were “Siren of the Southern Seas,” “Just a Baby’s Prayer at Twilight,” and “Araby.” among others.

After putting up with her step mother for about a month Mildred packed her bags and headed for Seattle to live with an aunt  We know that for a few months Mildred demonstrated and sold sheet music at Woolworth’s in downtown Seattle.  She also began singing in some of the local speakeasies. Within a year she married a man named Ted Bailey. The marriage was brief, but upon the couple’s divorce Mildred chose to keep the surname Bailey.  She believed it sounded more professional, and more American than her birth name, Rinker.  It’s not coincidental that Mildred chose Bailey over Rinker;  her given name sounded vaguely Teutonic and WWI had aroused suspicion and overt abuse toward anyone suspected of being of German heritage.

After her father’s divorce from her step-mother Mildred returned to Spokane and once again began to demonstrate and sell sheet music; this time at Spokane’s  Baileys Music Store-the name of the store and Mildreds surname were coincidental.  Her brother Al began hanging out at the shop and brought along one of his friends, a young singer named Bing Crosby.  Soon the three of them became fast friends and hang  out at the store on Riverside Avenue where Mildred briefly worked.  The three no doubt spent time strategizing about their future careers.

This was the era of Prohibition and the speakeasy.  Mildred would spend the next few years travelling up and down the west coast singing her way from Seattle and Los Angeles to Vancouver BC and as far afield as Alberta.

Mildred’s Spokane break came with a one night singing engagement at Spokane’s most popular speakeasy Charlie Dale’s.  It’s said that Bing Crosby saw her at Charlie Dale’s that night and called her “the area’s outstanding singing star”  Even though Mildred was obviously talented and fashionably lithe at barely five foot tall and weighing under a hundred pounds, Bing’s statement may be apocryphal, but he later remembered her as “specializing in sultry, throaty renditions with a high concentration of  southern accent such as “Louisville Lou” and “Hard Hearted Hannah”  That would be far closer to the truth, even if she eventually perfected her style in much the same manner. And she had not yet become the heavy-set, matronly figure she’d later become popularly associated with.

Soon Mildred was off to Los Angeles hoping to pursue her singing career in popular speakeasies. Biographer Giddens reports that

“Mildred and Benny moved to Los Angeles where they bought a house at 1307 Coronado Street, a few blocks off Sunset Boulevard.  He was prospering with his bootlegging and she was earning a reputation singing sad songs in local dives”.

By 1925 Mildred was singing at Jane Jones’s Hollywood Hills speakeasy-a popular watering hole for the Hollywood elite.  During her stint she had convinced brother Al and his buddy Bing to come to Los Angeles.  Still, it was a shock when the two showed up unannounced.  However as the older more experienced artist she allowed them to stay and showed them the ropes to survive in Los Angeles.

By this time Mildred had begun to put on weight-a condition that would follow her the rest of her life.  She also cemented her life-long friendship with Bing Crosby, who would later come to her aid. During he and Al’s first months in Hollywood Bing called Mildred “mucho mujer”, a great talent. Within a few months Mildred, through her connections,  had the famous bandleader Paul Whiteman have a look at Al, Bing and Harry Moss (The Rhythm Boys).  After one audition Whiteman hired them as featured vocalists in his Orchestra.

Three years later, before Bing went solo, he and Rinker returned Mildred’s favor by getting Whiteman to have a look at Mildred onstage. At the time The Rhythm Boys were involved in the filming of Paul Whiteman’s film The King of Jazz .  Al Rinker later retold the story that Bing Crosby could only film during the day.  He was on work release after hitting a telephone pole while driving drunk!

The film and Whiteman’s orchestra were in a state of disarray at the time..  Whiteman had no time audition a new singer, and that same week he saw Mildred he had turned down Hoagy Carmichael.  The three (Al, Bing and Mildred)  concocted a plan.  Mildred was friends with several members of Whiteman’s orchestra and invited them and the bandleader to a “going away party” where she would serve her own well-regarded homebrew, taking advantage of the well-known fact that Whiteman was a heavy beer-drinker.

At some time during the party Bing Crosby (on cue) asked Mildred to sing something. At first she pretended to be too embarrassed, but finally she asked brother Al (as planned) to accompany her on “(What Can I Say) After I Say I’m Sorry?”

She nailed it.

Whiteman was impressed, asked her to sing an encore, and by the end of the party had made arrangements for Mildred to appear on his Old Gold radio show.  Although she was not an outright member of The Paul Whiteman Orchestra within the year Mildred Bailey became Whiteman’s highest-paid musician.

The story may or may not be true, but it’s an interesting one. There are other reports that Whiteman only became familiar with Mildred Bailey through a demo recording she’d made.  We’ll never know if the party stunt was ever employed-but it makes for a good story, and it’s as likely as any other.

Mildred’s was making her ascent to becoming the most well-known singer of her era.  Soon the critics were heralding her as the first “white” singer to be compared with black singers such as Ethel Waters. Bessie Smith and those taking advantage of the syncopation Louis Armstrong had brought to jazz.  This claim, however, dismissed the fact that Mildred had a strong Native American heritage and she was proud of it.  She made no attempts to hide her ancestry, and was one of the first American celebrities to actually stand up for racial equality. It would be years before her ancestry was truly recognized and admitted among her fans and champions.  But even then there was some confusion. Some believed she was black. Others believed she was of mixed race-the former being true, but the races assumed being incorrect.   As late as 1994 The US Postal Service issued a series of stamps commemorating the great Black blues and jazz musicians that had made notable contributions to American music. The series included  Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Ma Rainey, Howlin’ Wolf…and Mildred Bailey, the only non-African American in the series.  It’s hard to say if this was a case of mistaken racial identity or not, but one other problem with the Mildred Bailey stamp is that it is printed with the wrong year of her birth (1907 instead of the correct 1903).That, however is a common mistake.

It wasn’t the first time Mildred was assumed to be African American.  Nothing of consequence was made of her ethnicity in the jazz world (except for later, after Prohibition ended). Because the milieu she worked in, it was populated by people of color.  But to be Native American during the early to mid 20th Century could be even worse than being black and discrimination was widely practiced.  In fact even in the early 21st Century discrimination and outright dislike of Native Americans is not unusual. But within the jazz world things were more relaxed since it wasn’t a strictly whites-only profession.  In fact Mildred Bailey believed that the Native American music she grew up with had influenced her style.  In an essay by Chad Hammill “American Indian jazz: Mildred Bailey and the origins of America’s most musical art form” the author cites Mildred Bailey as saying:

““I don’t know whether this (native) music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable background and training. It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that made it squeak; it removes the boom from the contralto voice, this Indian singing does, because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you’ve got to cover an awful range.

In any event by the 1930s Bailey had created a sound of her own that acted as a transition from the old blues belters (like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey,) to the breezier, jazz interpretations of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. It’s especially easy to hear Bailey’s influence over Billie Holiday, even though Bailey’s style is slightly stiffer, more clearly enunciated  and her voice not as sultry and breathy as Billie’s. The years of.
Mildred’s success set off the popular format of the “girl singer”.  The name might not be politically correct today, but at the time of the “girl singers” it referred to the women who Big Bands featured to interpret well-known songs, try out new material for up-and-coming songwriters and provide a few torchlight songs in order to break up the big band’s mostly instrumental presentation.  Most women singing with the big bands were and are referred to “girl singers”.  Women as diverse as Mildred Bailey herself to Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Anita O’Day, Kay Starr and Helen O’Donnell. The list goes on and on.  One of the attractions of the “girl singers” is that they usually sang for several big bands, some for a few years at a time, and others working with several bands simultaneously.  This offered fans of both the singers and the big bands a heady mix of styles and sounds.

Mildred first recording was a 1929 uncredited vocalist for a session by the Eddie Lang Orchestra in 1929 (“What Kind o’ Man Is You?”), Her next was a Hoagy Carmichael song that was issued only in the UK).  In 1932 she recorded what would be her signature song, “Rockin’ Chair” written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1929.  The song became so popular that she would be known as The Rockin’ Chair Lady”. It was a name that would stick.

By 1933 Prohibition and the era of the speakeasy had ended and Mildred Bailey found herself more and more in demand.  She toured the country, played legitimate nightclubs, dance halls and ballrooms.  She made frequent radio appearances.  She continued to work with the best big bands of the day, and created several herself to back her. Bailey’s backup bands were never less than first-rate. Besides Norvo’s ensemble, she’s accompanied on these vintage recordings by the Casa Loma Orchestra, the Benny Goodman Orchestra and a band led by the Dorsey brothers, Jimmy and Tommy.  According to Owen McNally of the Hartford Courant;

“There’s a classic blues session with pianist Mary Lou Williams (a powerful, groundbreaking female figure in the sexist jazz world) and more than 20 tracks with the John Kirby Orchestra, an early chamber jazz group that was a forerunner of the classicism of the Modern Jazz Quartet. There are witty arrangements by Eddie Sauter and composer Alec Wilder’s progressive, third-stream charts for an octet. Wilder scored for oboe, English horn, bass clarinet and flute — instruments then not much associated with jazz”.

One blatantly missing facet of her career was appearances in feature films.  She certainly had the popularity of other singers who were featured.  It may have come down to her being less photogenic than her peers.  She continued to gain weight, and there was no escaping she was obese.  Her biographers believe she made a Vitaphone short, and possibly one for Universal but as of 2018 they haven’t been discovered.

She remained popular throughout the 30’s but even more fame came after she married her third husband, Red Norvo (Kenneth Norville) .  Norvo had been a vibraphonist, marimba player and xylophonist who brought those instrument to the fore in many jazz recordings.  He’d started his career playing in an all-marimba band on the vaudeville circuit, and early on in his career had become part of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra in 1931.  It was there that he and Bailey met.  Soon afterward they married, Mildred having dumped her second husband, the bootlegger.  Norvo would go on to be one of the most influential figures in jazz.  After a brief stint with Whiteman, Norvo went on to form his own band.  During his career he would come to work as a soloist, with his own band and a featured player on the recordings of Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, and Woody Herman,  Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra. Norvo was a non-conformist and attracted to the newer movements in jazz.  During his later years-after the popularity of big bands came to a close- he would play with bebop luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker as well as establishing a name for himself

Shortly after marrying Mildred, Norvo’s band was on the verge of collapse.  Mildred offered to step in and bring some of her popularity to Red’s band.  The coupling saved Norvo’s band and both played off each other, creating some of their finest music.  After success the couple became known as  “Mr. and Mrs. Rhythm” Now Mildred had two nicknames “The Rockin’ Chair Lady” and “Mrs. Swing”  It’s been said the thin “Mr. Swing” pounding out near-athletic backing on vibes and xylophones and the corpulent “Mrs. Swing” doing some of her best singing created quite a dramatic scenario.  And the fans loved it.

Many critics point to Mildred and Red’s best work together on the album 1937 album Smoke Dreams. (re-released in 1999) The sound is a critical departure from big band stylings and more forward looking, as most of Red and Mildred’s work would veer toward.  Originally released on Songbirds Records, the label’s web site includes a review by Jeff Austin.  He writes;

“The Red Norvo Orchestra with Mildred Bailey had an unmistakable sound, with Bailey’s feather-light vocals paralleled by the delicacy and grace of Norvo’s xylophone, all couched in light, ever-swinging arrangements by the likes of Eddie Sauter. The title track, ‘Smoke Dreams,’ epitomizes what made Bailey/Norvo different than anyone else. Legend very credibly has it that, subsequent to Sauter’s being the object of a Bailey rage, he fashioned for her an arrangement that would be any other singer’s worst nightmare, riddled with ear-bending dissonance that might have permanently traumatized most other lady band singers. Undaunted, Bailey sails serenely through the din—and one is left wondering what other band (save, perhaps, for Stan Kenton ten years later) might have attempted a chart so avant-garde.”

Although the couple was successful, by the late 1930’s Mildred’s weight had become such a problem that she was kept more and more from public appearances.  Along with the weight came problems with diabetes.  This may have been part of her Native American heritage (Native Americans and Alaska Natives have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other US ethnic group according to the CDC). She had always had wild mood swings, but now she was more and more depressed.  This was a time in her life that would have been incredibly bittersweet.  She and Norvo divorced in the late 1930s (though remained friends and worked together on several recordings).  She would also have two more number one hits during this period.  In May of 1938 Red Norvo and His Orchestra with Mildred Bailey would have a chart-topper on the Hit Parade chart with the song “Please Be Kind”. In June of the same year they would also have a number one hit with “Says My Heart”  Mildred’s final number one hit would be on Benny Goodman and His Orchestra’s 1940 song “Darn That Dream”.

She continued to take solace in food. Medical specialists-in fact most citizens today- know that there is a dangerous correlation between weight and diabetes. It wasn’t well known before the 1960s.   Top that off with depression and it becomes an even more serious life-threatening condition.  Today we would recognize Mildred Bailey as having an eating disorder that could be treated, alongside her mood swings.  At the time many of her friends felt sorry for her and her inability to lose weight, while others simply blamed her condition on her own gluttony.  According to her best friend, jazz singer Lee Wiley, Bailey suddenly threw herself on the floor just after Wiley said goodbye and was leaving her apartment one day.

By God, I really talked her into living, because she apparently wanted to be dead,” Wiley said. “Well, what I did was to use some of her own language. I said, `Mildred! Now get your ass off that floor! Or something like that. And do you know that pretty soon a smile came over her face, and she got up?” 

Yet she would again turn to food for comfort.  The only other comfort she found was in her two dachshunds’

Her working relationship with Norvo lasted until 1944 when she retired because of her ongoing health problems.  She continued to make sporadic appearances and in 1947 she performed to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall.  Her health continued to deteriorate and along with the diabetes came something she’d never achieved while she was well.  She became dangerously thin and frail.  Not only was she very ill, she was broke and living in poverty in Upstate New York,  Old friends like Bing Crosby paid her back for starting his career and supporting her during her final years.  Those friends she’d picked up along the way also came to her aid, including Frank Sinatra who she’d dueted with in her later years. In fact it was an appearance on Bing Crosby’s radio show (her final appearance) that covered her mortgage payment in late 1951.

Finally on December 12, 1951 in Poughkeepsie, New York, at age 48 Mildred Bailey died of heart failure, due chiefly to diabetes and the exertion put on her heart throughout her adult life.  Her death had not been a dramatic tragedy.  Instead it was a long, drawn out affair that was precipitated by years of ill health.  She was no longer in the public eye by the time she died, and although swing was in its final years her early contributions to be-bop weren’t yet recognized.  So we’re still left with the unanswered question: why is Mildred Bailey forgotten?.  Every 20 years or so jazz critics and enthusiasts ask the same question.  The last period of interest in Mildred Bailey to ask the question came when Columbia Records released their complete recordings box set in 2001.  That means we’re headed toward the same interest in Mildred Bailey and being stupefied why she is so forgotten is due within the next couple of years.  I say take a listen NOW.

According to her official biography Mildred Bailey was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1989. Her contributions to jazz were commemorated by a United States Postal Stamp was issued in 1994.  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.  The resolution was adopted by The National Congress of American Indians.  She has not yet been inducted into the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame.


-Dennis R. White. Sources: Scott Yanow “Jazz on Film” (Backbeat Books, 2004); Catherine Bainbridge & Alfonso Maiorana “RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World” [film] (Kino Lorber 2017); “Mildred Bailey, American Singer” (retrieved February 14, 2018); “Mildred Bailey” (retrieved February 13, 2018); Murray Horvitz “Mildred Bailey: That Rockin’ Chair Lady” (NPR, August 1, 2001); Owen McNally “Unforgettable Mildred Bailey Somehow Forgotten” (Hartford Courant, March 18, 2001); “Bailey Discography” (retrieved February 12. 2018); Michael Steinman “Who Erased Mildred Bailey?” (Jazz Lives, December 27, 2009); Gary Giddins “Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams-The Early Years, 1903-1940 (Brown & Little, 2001); Dennis Zotigh, “Meet Native America: Paulette E. Jordan, Idaho House Representative” (National Museum of the American Indian, 19 December 2014 retrieved February 12, 2018); Gary Giddins “Mrs. Swing” (The Village Voice, June 6, 2000); “Native Americans with Diabetes (Center for Disease Control and Prevention retrieved February 14, 2018); Jim Kershner “Coeur d’Alene Tribe celebrates jazz great’s reservation roots” (The Spokeman-Review lSpokane] April 1 2012);

Jimmie Rodgers: Corrupt Cops, The Mob and Not Knowing How To Quit

 It sounds like the plot of a 1950’s film noir movie.  It’s December 1st, 1967.  A man leaves a party.  As he drives down the San Diego Freeway in the San Fernando Valley he sees a bright light in his rear view mirror.  The light gets brighter so he pulls over on a side road.  He thinks maybe it’s a friend who’s also left the same party.  The  man in the car following him walks toward the driver’s car and the driver  rolls down his  window.  As soon as he does, the man in the following car begins to beat him with something hard-probably a tire iron. He is left unconscious with a broken arm and a severely fractured skull.  But the story isn’t the plot of a movie. The man who was beaten was Jimmie Rodgers, a fading star from the early days of rock and roll. A man that was one of the pioneers of early pop, rockabilly and electric folk music.

A few days later the attacker comes forward.  He’is an off-duty policeman named Michael Duffy.  Later Duffy would claim he pulled Rodgers over for “erratic driving”.  Rodgers remembers the light was “real bright. Like a train light. I pulled over to stop. I thought it was Eddie Samuels who was my conductor. He was staying at my house at the time. Rodgers says that once he rolled down the window he was struck by a tire iron.  “He hit me in the side of the head so hard, the left side of the skull, that it split the skull on the right side”.

The off-duty policeman says once Rodgers pulled over he got out of the car and during his arrest, Rodgers fell over (backward) resulting in a fractured skull and a badly broken arm and knocking him out.   Duffy says he then drove to the nearest telephone and called two of his LAPD friends that were on duty, Raymond Whisman and Ronald Wagner.

Duffy says they all converged on Rodgers’ car and his unconscious body laying on the side of the road rather than inside. They decide to pull Rodgers’ body back into his Cadillac,and take off.  No calls for medical assistance.  No report of the incident.  No mention  in any of their daily log reports. No test for intoxication. No record of Duffy attempting to book Rodgers for a crime.

It was Eddie Samuels who was staying with Jimmie at the time found Rodgers bleeding in his car that night.  When Rodgers didn’t arrive home as expected, Samuels went looking for him, retracing the route he knew Jimmie would have taken.

“He’d driven to my home says Rodgers. “I didn’t show up. He knew the road that I always came home on. He found me in the car. Just as he was pulling up, he saw a police car pull away. He also saw a white Volkswagen pull away behind the police car. Then he found me lying face down in the front seat of the car. He was the one that saw the police car. The guy in the Volkswagen was an off duty policeman who had stopped me, for whatever reason”.

Whisman and Wagner were charged with failing to make an arrest on arriving at the scene, and falsifying police logs. Whisman claimed that Rodgers had been gone by the time he and his partner arrived.  Wagner made the same false statement in his daily field activities report. Nonetheless, Los Angeles Police Chief Thomas Reddin claimed that “investigators had been unable to establish any criminal act by the off-duty policeman (Duffy) or that he had any personal involvement with the supposed assault on Rodgers or the fractures Rodgers had sustained. Reddin added “these officers  had failed to follow through with proper procedures.  They know that they did wrong and admitted it”

He suspended Duffy, Whisman and Wagner for 15 days  Rodgers was never formally charged for driving while intoxicated because, as Reddin said “it would not serve the causes of justice to so charge him now”.  Oddly enough this incident caused the third suspension of Officer Duffy within only three years of being hired by the LAPD.  He had been suspended for “ unnecessary use of force” when he’d used a blackjack on a juvenile suspect.  His third was  a “driving while intoxicated” conviction.

It’s clear the LAPD wanted to cover up this story and allow it fall out of the public’s consciousness as soon as possible; but it wasn’t going away so easily.  Rodgers spent the next year in the hospital, went through three brain surgeries, lost his ability to talk and walk and was incapable of caring for himself, even after he was released. His convalescence took decades.  While Rodgers lie in a hospital bed his lawyer filed an $11 million lawsuit against the LAPD and the City of Los Angeles for his beating by officers of the LAPD. Doctors treating Rodgers had at first concluded that his injuries were the result of a beating, but by late December had changed their opinion and that Rodger’s fractured skull to be the result of a fall…just as the three policemen (who’d falsified documents) had claimed. Clearly someone or something aside from medicine had changed their minds.

Amazingly the three officers involved in the incident and the LA Fire and Police Protective League filed a $13 million slander suit against Rodgers for his public statements accusing the three policeman  of brutality.  This suit never came to court, but Rodger’s case was settled with an out of court settlement years later (in 1973) for $200,000.  Los Angeles County and the LAPD knew that to continue to fight Rodger’s charge would end up costing millions and Rodgers graciously accepted the meager amount of money, because he too had already spent so much pursuing  his case and would probably go broke in a battle with the city of Los Angeles.

“In those days you could not sue the police department and be successful. No attorney would take the case. They just would not take a police case like that”  In this case it may have been even more difficult, since the assault could have been a message from mobsters by way of the LAPD.

The entire incident-the beating and the ensuing court battles had taken a tragic toll on Rodgers physically and emotionally.   Although he started to work again after two years of recuperation, it actually took about 20 years for him to completely heal. “I was lost. I was taken away from the business because I couldn’t sing anymore.  It took me years to relearn to walk and talk”.  At one point Jimmie’s weight had gone down to 118 pounds.

Jimmie has said that for years it was hard for him to explain what had happened to him, but eventually became able to talk about it.  He mentions his faith and the determination he’d inherited from his father as crucial to his recovery.  He also mentions that his Chrisianity allows him to forgive what was done to him even though he is mystified why he was attacked so brutally.

Others are not so forgiving, and not so mystified why an attempt on Rodger’s life happened.  In his 2011 autobiography .Me, the Mob, and the Music Tommy James (of Crimson and Clover fame) confidently states that the attack was a mob hit choreographed by Morris Levy, the president of Roulette Records It also included corrupt officials in the LAPD and The Medical Examiner’s Office.  Jimmie Rodgers had recorded with Roulette  between 1957 and 1960.  James also recorded for Roulette and claims that Rodgers had been seeking to recoup royalties from the millions of records he’d sold-and never been paid for.  It’s said by the time Rodgers left Roulette he was owed about $1.5 million.  That would be $12.405 million in today’s money.  At the time of Rodger’s leaving Roulette, their books claimed they had spent $26,000 on him and paid him $20,000….leaving Rodgers owing Roulette $6000.  This was the kind of outrageous way Levy ran Roulette Records.  It was almost wholly a criminal enterprise. This was the mileu Jimmie Rodgers had unknowingly gotten himself into..

James Frederick Rodgers  was born on September 18, 1933 in Camas Washington, a small town just north of Portland Oregon on the Washington side of the Columbia River.  Both of James’ parents worked for the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill that at the time dominated the working-class community.  James too would work there in order to pay for his time in college. Jimmie has said that he had never taken a music lesson in his life, but if that’s so, his mother would have been a very strong influence on his abilities.  Aside from work at the pulp mill Jimmie’s mother was an accomplished guitarist and piano player who did ocasional tutoring.  She also had played organ and piano to accompany silent movies as a young woman.  His mother was a devout Christian, a faith she instilled in her children.  It was this faith that Jimme later said pulled him through the darkest days after his 1967 beating.

James was brought up in a typical mid-century household that seems to have been fairly happy, but one thing he lovingly remembers his father, saying;

“My dad was a tough guy, They called him “Tuffy”…he was a little Irish guy.  He would never let my brothers or I complain about anything. If we went fishing and we said we were cold he wouldn’t take us fishing anymore. One time I had a big decision to go on a television show or something.  My dad never gave me any instruction at all.  When I asked my father about what I should do in that situation, him being a fighter said keep your right hand high and your ass off the floor”. He laughs. “That’s the only thing my father ever told me to do”

It’s been speculated that Jimmie’s name became spelled with an “ie” rather than the more common “y” by his mother. Their last name was spelled as the lesser-used “Rodgers”….like Jimmie Rodgers the father of country music.  Jimmie’s mother was a fan of the “Yodelling Brakeman, who had died the same year her son was born. Rather than calling him the more formal “James” the family used the more easy-going “Jimmy”  It’s also thought that she chose the spelling “Jimmie”-after Jimmie Rodgers.

In 1951 Jimmie graduated from Camas High School and went on to spend a year studying engineering at Clark College in nearby Vancouver Washington. In 1952  Jimmie put college aside  and joined the United States Air Force.  Since he had been taught how to use a rifle growing up, and was fairly proficient he ended up training other recruits in shooting.

In a 2015 interview with Dr. Roman Franklin (a/k/a Doctor Doo-Wop) Jimmie talked about his time in Korea.

“I was in Korea teaching weapons just off the front line so it was pretty rough. Back in the Quonset hut at night we’d sing and drink beer because there was nothing else to do. There was a couple of kids that could sing pretty good and they’d and sing from the behind me and they really had that black rhythm feel. I wrote a song “The Woman From Liberia” from the Bible-the story about the woman at the well, but I didn’t want to name it after a story in the Bible.  I wrote the song and I started playing it sitting on the foot locker, playing it alone with an open chord strum on my guitar and playing it at that tempo, and they’d back me.that could sing pretty good and they’ sing behind me and they really had that black rhythm feel. I started playing it sitting on the foot locker, playing it alone with an open chord strum on my guitar and playing it at that tempo, and that’s tough-every time you change keys it’s really tough.  By the time you hit that high note at the end your tired.

“So these kids would sit with me  and sing.  I didn’t have a recorder or anything and when I finally got back to America I lost track of them.  I didn’t even know their real names-just their first names, but later I recorded that song because I felt like doing it.  It’s a cool song.  It’s really fun to listen to.

As an aside; Jimmie refers to his black co-airmen as “kids” not out of disrespect, since he always referred himself and his fans as “kids”  He still uses the term  occasionally as a term of inclusion rather than as a veiled epithet.

Jimmie may not have ever seen his singing buddies from Korea again, but there was at least one incident of meeting a fellow black servicemen when he got back stateside. He was assigned to Sewart Air Force base at Smyrna Tennessee, Rodgers had a chance meeting with one of his black wartime buddies in the mess hall. They hugged, laughed and pounded each others backs.  A Staff Sergeant snarled aloud at seeing this white airman “hugging a nigger,” Rodgers pounced on him, beating  the larger man into submission.  Several other  soldiers pulled him off the Staff Sergeant Airman 2nd Class Rodgers pulled extra duty for a month “I never did learn how to handle prejudice,” he admitted to biographer Will Ruha.

Skin-based hatred made no sense to him. Ruha explains; “Such stupidity was anathema and intolerable, even if defending a friend meant month-long military reprisal. Even among the staunchest of southern racists, Rodgers signaled a message of moral courage and egalitarian defiance: beneath the skin we all bleed red. The kid with the guitar had guts”.

Rodgers’ reaction to discrimination fell squarely within the lessons he’d learned from his mother and the church.  It also fell squarely into the ideals of the folk music he loved so much.  Folk music was blind to color or ethnicity.  It’s roots lie in traditions from all cultures, all around the world.

While stationed at Sewart AFB he began singing in  Nashville.  In 2015 he said;
“I was working in bars-playing and singing in Nashville Tennessee. I was working in a little place in Printers Alley called “Club Unique”. I’d work about six hours a night…ten dollars a night and free drinks.  Then I’d play guitar and sing.  When I was working there the people that owned the place (Bob and Bobbi Green)  said ‘there’s a song we’d like you to hear’  They had it at home so I went over there and  I listened to it.  It  had been recorded by Georgie Shaw in 1954 and they taught me how to play it. I sat on the floor and learned it right there, and then in that little nightclub I’d play it every Friday or Saturday night during prime time…probably a dozen times and people liked it”

Although Georgie Shaw’s version of “Honeycomb”, the song the Greens had recommended, was largely ignored when it was released it had a good pedigree.  It was written by George Merrill.  Merrill wrote songs as diverse as “How Much is That Doggie in The Window” for Patti Page to “People” for.Barbra Streisand.  Merrill went on to write and produce some of the most popular musicals and songs of the 1960s and ‘70s and garnered eight Tony Award nominations.

After being discharged from the Air Force in 1956  Jimmie returned home to Camas Washington.  He found work  in small clubs around his hometown, in Portland and throughout the Northwest. For awhile he was living out his 1948 Buick.  Then he began to seek work up and down the west coast and eventually ended up in Los Angeles where he auditioned and appeared on CBS’s Art Linkletter’s House Party show in 1956. Once back home he began playing at The Fort Café in Vancouver Washington  One night Chuck Miller-who’d had a big hit with Mercury Records called “The House Of Blue Lights” walked into the club. He listened to Jimmie and encouraged him to set up an audition with Roulette Records in New York City.  At the time Roulette was an affiliate of Mercury. Much to Jimmie’s surprise, Miller was actually able to put in a good word for him.

“When I got out of the service me and my wife drove my old car to New York thinking ‘I’m gonna make it big’ and of course no one in any night club would listen to me. So I went to Roulette Records, which was then a little place on 10th Avenue.  I was trying to get enough money to get out of the hotel I was in, I didn’t have the money to pay them” he laughs” I played that song (Honeycomb) and the Roulette guy says to me ‘where did you get that song?’ I told him

They had already taken notice of Jimmie, both from Chuck Miller, but also from an appearance as a contestant on The Arthur Godfrey Show in a talent contest on the radio. Jimmie won $700 by performing “The Fox and the Go

They signed him on the spot.

“I went into a studio a couple of days later called Bell Sound”   In those days Bell Sound was a small two track-four track studio, which at the time was state-of-the-art and used by many successful singers.

“I did that song in an hour and they had three or four people I didn’t know.  I had no manager there.  My wife was sort of sick back at the hotel and she couldn’t come over.  After I finished I went outside to smoke a cigarette and they closed the closed the door and I couldn’t get back in.  So I was knocking on the door out there and the red light was on.  They thought I had gone home because I was so shy. I didn’t have any money because I’d taken a cab over there, so I had to walk several miles back to the hotel at night with my guitar and little amplifier.  I wanna tell you” he adds “ I didn’t know what I had done, but when I got to the hotel I told my wife “I did something pretty good”.

“So to make a long story short we had the money to go home really soon because I’d made some money in New York. We drove my old Buick all the way back to Washington State.  One day I’m outside washing the car and they played “Honeycomb” on the radio”. Jimmie recalls.

It became the first of a run of hits Jimmie Rodger’s cut for Roulette between 1957 and 1960. His debut single would become his biggest hit, charting at number one for seven weeks on the Billboard Top 100 in 1957. “Honeycomb” also reached number one on the R&B Best Sellers chart and number seven on the Country & Western chart. It was followed by a succession of hits. Those included “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, “Bimbombey” and “Are You Really Mine?” Jimmies’ career eventually included more than 450 songs-40 of them being top ten hits.  He made hundreds of television appearances, had his own TV show and sang the theme song for 1958’s “The Long Hot Summer” starring Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles and Paul Newman. Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick were also featured.  The film was a huge success and garnered Paul Newman a Best Actor Oscar.  Jimmie played his song from the film at that year’s Academy Awards.  He admits he “was scared to death”

Jimmie Rodgers with The Crystals at Mascot Airport, Sydney Australia during their 1964 tour Down Under.

Jimmie’s screen debut as an actor came in 1961 with “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come’  His next role was in 1964 in “Back Door To Hell” co-starring  a young Jack Nicholson. Neither did very well at the box office, but today “Back Door To Hell” is considered a classic of it’s genre-the WWII action drama.

He was also part of several Allen Freed’s and Dick Clark’s all-star touring shows with The Everly Brothers, LaVern Baker, Chuck Berry, Bobby Darin, Buddy Holly and others.  He became good friends with Buddy Holly since they usually roomed together while on tour.  Jimmie was not used to live performance and the audience reaction of screaming above his voice irritated him. He told Buddy how unhappy he was with the tours and had decided to quit.  Holly told him how important it was to continue, He was persuaded by Holly to remain.  After his good friend died, Jimmie committed himself to performing live in Buddy’s honor.

Despite his success with fans across the world, he had to work hard selling himself to promoters.

“I was never recognized as a “pop” singer….I was a folk singer…But they (the promoters) didn’t want that. I worked with Johnny Cash and people like that, but I wasn’t country. It wasn’t really pop so much.  Dick Clark didn’t know what to do with me because I really wasn’t rock and roll.  He really didn’t like it that much”

When Jimmie signed with Roulette Records the label gave their artists a great deal of creative control.  The downside was that the label hardly ever paid them.  The company was run by Morris Levy who had known ties to organized crime and Roulette was a money-laundering front for the Genovese family; one of the five mobs that ran of New York’s crime syndicates..  Despite the “downsides” Jimmie speaks fondly about his time in the studio while at Roulette

“Roulette Records was very smart. They had good producers (Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore) and knew how to work in the studio.  They let me just sing. I’d have a small glass of black brandy to clear my throat. I never warmed up my throat.  I didn’t do hours of warm-up.  I never had to”

“The technology then wasn’t like it is now.  We used to mix a little on the edge of the recording so it stayed on the edge of the vinyl.  When you do that the sound comes out a little more on the top edge instead of the bass.  Of course that vinyl would wear out more quickly, but now that you digitize it It’ll come back with that sound.  I would listen to the mix as much as I could and I would sit-in on the mix as much as I could”.  

“I would take a little tiny four-inch speaker and maybe a six inch speaker and set it on each side while we were working and bring the level down and put it right against your chest, right off the board so it would hit you right in the chest like your driving a car. I would mix on little car speakers and nowadays they mix on these huge speakers and I think it’s wrong because you get the normal sound’

Listening to mixes on crummy speakers is a trick that’s been used by producers, engineers and artists for a few decades.  During the golden age of Top-10 Radio it was presumed most hits would be heard on car radios or poor quality consumer audio (hi-fi) players.  It seems that Jimmie and his producers Hugo and Luigi had caught onto this technique earlier than most. These were singles created for fans, not audiophiles.

As for Morris Levy; Steve Kurutz of reports a contemporaneous record executive calling Morris “a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties.” Levy’s birth name was Moishe and members of the record business called him that name.  In a  jazz-themed issue of Playboy it was written that “He is called Moishe by friends – and other one-syllable names by enemies.“. Levy was both respected for his business acumen and feared because it was no secret his success was the result of working with mobsters.

Levy had been born in The Bronx but moved to Brooklyn shortly after his father Simon died of pneumonia. He quit  school at the age of 13 after assaulting a teacher over what he considered an unjust order to re-do a math test that most of the class had failed-Morris himself had passed the test, but was also expected to take it again.  He later said:

“She looks at me and says ‘Levy, you’re a troublemaker.  I’m gonna get you out of this classroom if I have to take your family off home relief’  And I got up-I was a big kid-and took her wig off her head, pouted and inkwell on her bald head and put her wig back on her fucking head. Walked out of school and said ‘Fuck school.’  Never really went back to school after that.  I was sentenced to eight years to  reform school by the children’s court…The bitch had no fucking humanity” .

Levy says that after the incident he ran away to Florida to avoid a sentence in Juvenile detention. He ended up working in mob-owned clubs first as a hatcheck boy  and later as an assistant, developing photos for professional photographers who took pictures of customers in the clubs, developed them and sold them back to the customers before they left.  Both were lucrative jobs that could be done while skimming undocumented cash off the top.

After spending five months in the Navy Morris received an honorable  discharge based on his mother’s failing health.  He returned to Miami and  became more involved in the hatcheck rig which was a favorite of crime families to enter their ranks.  Skimming the proceeds from jukeboxes was also popular.

Levy convinced some of his “bosses” to buy a jazz club in New York City called “Topsy’s Chicken Roost”’ at 1580 Broadway.  It was a prime location for what he had in mind.  Levy would manage the club for a “finders fee” which included a piece of the club itself as well as a cut of the lucrative hatcheck proceeds.  He  partnered  up with a man named  Ralph Watkins. Watkins had been a jazz promoter since the 1930s and had ties to a myriad of jazz artists and their managers. So Levy and Watkins changed the name to “The Royal Chicken Roost” and later dropped the “chicken” altogether.  Levy took care of “business” and Watkins did the booking and promotion.

Soon the club was hosting be-bop greats such as Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.  The Royal Roost became so closely associated with bop that it became known as “The Metropolitan Bopera House” and “The House that Bop Built.“.

In his 2016 essay “The Royal Room; The Birthplace of Bop”. Richard Carlin writes;

Things were going very well at the Royal Roost by 1949:  so well that Levy and Watkin’s apparently started to look for a larger space. According to Levy, Watkins failed to cut him into the new deal which involved opening a lavish new restaurant/night club on the second floor of The Brill Building at 48th and Broadway, to be called Bop City. Although significantly larger and more expensive to operate (rent alone was quoted as being $35,000 a year), Bop City mirrored the unusual admission policies and seating arrangements of the original club”.

This left Morris Levy to manage the Royal Roost, but he had bigger ambitions.  In 1949 he found a small space on Broadway named The Clique.  Levy rebranded it  “Birdland” in honor of Charlie Parker whose nickname was “The Yardbird”.  Eventually Parker became known simply as “The Bird”.  Although the club only held about 400 patrons, it went on to become the most important jazz venues of all time. Birdland was known for astonishing performances by the word;s best jazz players. This did not mean Birdland was above open mob violence.  In 1958, a man was gored to death with a piece of broken glass in the Birdland doorway. The crime went unsolved. Two weeks later Morris’s older brother, Irving, was killed at Birdland while Morris was off-duty.. The murder was said to be prompted by Morris Levy’s “business” connections. According to news reports, the suspects were described as a balding former convict and his wife, who has been convicted of prostitution.. The two were held without bail Saturday in the slaying of an assistant manager at Broadway’s Birdland. They were charged with the knife death of Zacariah (Irving) Levy, 36, at the Birdland club last Monday night.”

Kliph Nesteroff, wrote an essay on the WFMU blog called “Mobsters, Scoundrels, Comedians and Rat Finks”  In it he reports

“A few years later during a heated argument with a client, Morris intimidated his opponent, lecturing, ‘Do you know what I did to the bum who killed my brother? I fucking took a knife and stuck it in his fucking stomach – and I twisted it. I stuck it in his fucking stomach until his guts fell out.”

Author Steve Kurutz wrote about Levy being approached by a representative of ASCAP and told he must pay the publishing company a monthly stipend for the privilege of booking live music.’

Levy himself said
“A guy comes in from ASCAP and said he wanted money every month. I thought it was a racket guy trying to shake me down. I wanted to throw him out. And then he came back again and said he’s going to sue. I said, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ I went to my lawyer and I says, ‘What is this guy? He keeps coming down, he wants money.’ My lawyer says, ‘He’s entitled to it. By act of Congress, you have to pay to play music.’ I said, ‘Everybody in the world’s gotta pay? That’s a hell of a business. I’m gonna open up a publishing company”.

Levy may not have known about publishing at the time, but he saw it as a way to increase his profit, so soon he’d set up his own publishing business. Patricia Publishing, with a view to acquire as many copyrights as possible. It wasn’t long before Levy learned how to manipulate the business to his own favor. Nesteroff adds that Levy demanded the rights to “all songs first performed in Birdland, including the venue’s soon-to-be-famous Lullaby of Birdland.  Morris amassed his royalty money and received a substantial loan from Thomas Eboli of the Genovese crime family. He had used the money to open Birdland.  Always the confidence man, Levy’s publishing company had a propensity for ludicrous claims. When Roulette artist Jimmie Rodgers recorded an album of Christmas songs, Morris Levy was listed as the composer of Silent Night.”

Levy was also engaged in adding his name (or a pseudonym) as a writer’s credit in order to collect some of the royalties for himself.  He hung onto his false songwriting royalties while refusing to hand out what was rightly due writers and artists, and often bragged how successful he’d become because of the practice.

Since the music business was essentially run by the mob, and Roulette having direct ties it’s not surprising that the label was a success out of the box.  One of its first signings was Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, in 1956. In 1955, The Teenagers (at that time calling themselves The Premiers) auditioned “Why do Birds Sing So Gay?” for  producer and owner of Gee Records, George Goldner. The group’s tenor, Herman Santiago, had written the song. He’d come across a letter that featured the words “Why do birds sing so gay?,” which fit in with the lyrics he’d been writing.  It became the working title of the song.

The harmonies were tweaked to take advantage of Frankie Lymon’s high tenor/soprano voice. During the audition for Goldner, Frankie’s voice stood out, so Goldner advised the band to give Frankie all lead vocals. Frankie did some of his own tweaking of the melody of Why do Birds Sing So Gay?” to match his voice and delivery.. According to Jimmy Merchant, “what happened at the recording session was a combination of Frankie’s singing ability coupled with George Goldner’s special ability to bring out the best in Frankie”.

Although “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” original release on Gee Records credited Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago, and George Goldner as co-writers  later releases and cover versions were attributed only to Lymon and Goldner. Morris Levy dropped Golder’s credit and added his own name as a co-writer when he bought out Gee Records and re-released The Teenagers song on Roulette Records. It  reached Number one on the R&B chart, Number six on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart, and number one on the UK Singles Chart..  Levy made sure he controlled the publishing and himself as one of the songs writers.

Later, in 1981, after  Diana Ross had a top ten hit with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” a major controversy concerning Lymon’s estate ensued. Zola Taylor, Elizabeth Waters and Emira Eagle each approached Levy as being the wife of Lymon, although Taylor had not divorced her previous husband before marrying Lymon. Lymon then married  Waters, but neglected to divorce her before marrying Eagle.  The saddest part of course was that Lymon had famously been found dead on the floor of his grandmother’s bathroom after a heroin overdose in 1968.. He was only 25 at the time.

A lengthy court battle ensued and  songwriting credits were awarded to Teenagers members Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant in December 1992. In 1996, the  ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals  because the and authorship had run out due to the Statute of Limitations.  Santiago and Merchant had not brought the case to court earlier This decision gave the song rights back to Lymon (who had famously died in in 1968 of a heroin overdose) and Morris Levy  Since Lymon left no legal  heirs 100% of the copyright reverted to Levy.

Jimmie Rodgers would also find that the royalties illegally withheld from him for his years at Roulette would also fall outside the Statute of Limitations when he sought to recover them…  even though it was charged that Levy had engaged in fraud, and had even gone so far as to re-release and license Rodgers’ music even after Rodgers had left the label.

After Jimmie Rodger’s beating his career seemed to have ended. He went from one of the most visible people in the US to obscurity.  He’d had several modest hits since leaving Roulette-most of them were for Dot Records, where he also wore the hat of producer, head of A&R and director of Folk Music Dept. He remained at Dot until the mid to late 60’s.  Shortly before his assault he’d signed with A&M Records and seemed to be headed toward a come-back with the release of “Child of Clay” which became his last charting hit, peaking at number 31 on Billboard’s Top 100.

He’d also written the song “It’s Over” in 1966.  It would prove to be his most covered song, with renditions by Glen Campbell, Dusty Springfield (both in 1967),  Elvis Presley (1973), The Sweet Inspirations (2006) as well as a multitude of other notable stars.  In fact many of his compositions have become standards that have been recorded by many artists in many diverse genres.  One presumes that he receives his songwriters’ royalties from these recordings.

Eventually it was fans that would come to him rather than the other way around.  He began to show up on television, do live performances. The audiences weren’t as large as the 84,000 he’d played for at Chicago’s Soldier Field in April of 1958. They had not forgotten all of his hits, his appearances on Dick Clark’s Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show (three times), Perry Como, His poignant version of “Waltzing Matilda” used in the classic film “On the Beach” his playing the theme from “Long Hot Summer” at the 1958 Academy Awards,  the all-star tours and his personal appearances.  So Jimmie began touring again.  Because of the change in tasts of music by the mid-60s Jimmie Rodgers became less of a “pioneer of rock and roll” and thought more of an “adult-contemporary” artist-nearly a death sentence for most artists-but he continued and eventually was able to put together world-wide tours in sold-out venues.  Even though he tried to avoid the “oldies circuit” claiming he didn’t want audiences to think he hadn’t done anything after 1960, he finally relented. It was during this period that Jimmie would face the second greatest blow to his career.Spasmodic Dysphonia, a vocal ailment that affects the nerves and muscles that control the larynx.

During a tour of Australia and New Zealand he started having difficulties with his voice. The day of his opening night in Aukland he told his wife Mary that he was having problems wheezing and coughing.  He went on stage anyway.  Jimmie recalls he tried to sing “Honeycomb”

“At first air would come out and then the voice would catch.  I worked for an hour with that voice and I struggled all the way through.  When I came off I said “I don’t know what’s wrong”.  I got up the next day and it started again. I finished the tour but it was very difficult and by the time I got home I couldn’t even talk”

Though he’d  completely lost his voice, but he sought an answer and went through several voice instructors.  Eventually he was diagnosed, even though it was unclear what had caused it.  At one time doctors and researchers thought it may have been caused by a virus.  Some think it’s the result of an injury.  It’s hard to wonder if his beating was the cause of his Spasmodic Dysphonia, but the truth is, it could have been caused by a number of things.  Medicine has never found it’s cause nor it’s cure. Over the course of years of practice, determination and faith his voice partially returned.  It ended his career as a singer, but not as a performer. In 2010 he said:

“Before I talk on the phone I have to clear my voice. If I go to talk to somebody in a crowd they can’t hear me. I can’t do it. I can’t go to dinner and sit and carry on a conversation.  I’ve had it ( Spasmodic Dysphonia) now for 40 years and there’s no cure for it.  There’s a lot of people working on it now, but nobody really knows what it is or what causes it so I’ve had to live with that.  Like I said for awhile nobody would book me.  They think this guy can’t sing anymore but he can perform.Well that’s not true.  I’m doing a great show and there’s people out here who want to hear Jimmie Rodgers, and people who want to book Jimmie Rodgers.  I want to work and this is the time in my life that I think I sing better than I ever have”

Now in his later years (he’s 85) he still performs from time to time.  He uses a twist on a  technique that’s become all too common in today’s music business.  He does a great performance but uses tapes of his voice and sings over them.  The difference is that Jimmie is open about it with his audience.  He tells him what he’s doing, about his ailment and invites them to join in.

In many ways Jimmie Rodgers is a Renaissance Man.  In his Dr. Doo-Wop interview he said

“I’m writing every day.  I get up 6:30 every day and I’m writing to noon at at least to noon.  I’ve written three animated features.  I’m also writing screenplays.  I read a lot..I’m really kind of a hermit.  I’ve been married 35 years.  My wife is a retired  ballerina and dance instructor, and I teach golf.  I’m a certified golf teacher on the side”. He says in his 70s he was running 10 kilometers a day.  Now he only does it every other day. Jimmie has also written his autobiography, ‘Dancing On The Moon’ and a screenplay for its motion picture adaptation.  It’s been described as

“ a highly charged emotional autobiography, detailing the savagery of the recording business, his brutal beating by an off-duty Los Angeles policemen and many other answers to “What Ever Happened To Jimmie Rodgers?

Jimmie’s bio calls ‘Dancing On The Moon “’A true story that is uplifting and yet tragic as it describes his journey through the Mafia power of some of the music business to the high road of success that can changes lives”.

For the time being Jimmie and his wife Mary stay busy around their Palm Springs home, and make regular trips back to Camas as well as Seattle where he maintains his management. In 2013 he made one of his trips to his hometown to have a street named after him. On September 13th NW 10th Avenue became Jimmie Rodgers Avenue.  His hometown paper, The Columbian reported that as a kid Jimmie would take his soapbox racer to the top of the hill and zoom down it like hell on four wheels. Even as a youngster, Rodgers knew there’d be one of two outcomes on that street.

“I’d either get killed on this street,” Rodgers said with a chuckle, “or I’d have my name on it.”

Morris Levy’s life did not end on such a high note.  After a 3 ½ year investigation by the FBI a case was levelled against Levy for the extortion of John LaMonte, a record wholesaler from Darby, Pennsylvania. LaMonte had agreed to purchase records valued at $1.25 million in a 1984 deal.   He subsequently refused to pay the full price, claiming that the best titles had been removed from a 60-truck delivery. It was claimed that Levy extorted the money from him and LaMonte received a fractured eye socket along with the deal.  Levy had sold Roulette Records and his publishing rights for $55 million during the investigation.  The FBI knew Levy had long used Roulette Records as a front for Vincent Gigante and the Genovese family.  Now they were able to prove it through covertly recorded conversations and wiretaps of Levy and of Gaetano Vastola,  part owner of Roulette.

During its investigation, the FBI determined  that Levy had used the Roulette as a front for the mob.  Much of the trial evidence came from covertly recorded conversations taken from wiretaps and listening devices planted in the phones and business offices of Levy and Gaetano Vastola. After Gaetano’s conviction for his part in the extortion of John LaMonte he became a cellmate of another notorious criminal, John Gotti.  Gotti was convinced that Gaetano would turn state’s witness in the case and he would be caught up in it. When Gotti was released, he pressured New Jersey’s DeCavalcante family boss John Riggi to murder Gaetano. The FBI were able to catch wind of the plot.. In the end Gotti and the DeCavalcante leadership, including Riggi and Stefano Vitabile (another mobster) were  tried and convicted of conspiracy to murder Vastola.

Morris Levy was convicted in December 1988 by a Federal jury of two counts of conspiring to extort the money from LaMonte. Others were convicted, along with Roulette’s controller Howard Fisher and Dominick Canterino who was part of the Genovese crime family.  The FBI also testified that Levy had also been a major supplier of heroin for a Philadelphia drug dealer, Roland Bartlett. Levy was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1988 and fined $200,000.  Levy appealed his conviction. Canterino was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and Lamonte did indeed testify for the state.  He then entered the federal witness protection program.

While he was awaiting his appeal Morris Levy was free on bail, obviously through money he’d stolen from many of the Roulette artists. In October of 1989 Levy’s conviction was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. In January 1990, Levy’s lawyers petitioned to have his sentence eliminated because of his failing health. It was rejected, but he was granted a 90-day stay.  He was scheduled to report to prison on July 16, 1990 but died on May 20, 1990 after a long, painful battle with cancer.

For all the ups and downs in Jimmie Rodger’s life there has been  poetic justice.  He’s lived through corrupt cops, dishonest business dealings, beatings, mobsters, lean times and ill health yet it could not stop him. Instead he has lived a long life, found success, lost it, then regained it.  He has worked despite the Spasmodic Dysphonia that took his voice from him. He loves his wife dearly and enjoys his life far more than he could ever have imagined as a kid in Camas Washington.   It’s hard to look at his life without considering the advice his father had given him years earlier:  

“Keep your right hand high and your ass off the floor” his father Tuffy told him. “I don’t quit”says Jimmie.  “I don’t know how to quit. Nobody ever told me how to quit”



-Dennis R. White; Sources-Gary James “Interview with Jimmie Rodgers (, retrieved January 6, 2018); Dr. Doo-Wop “Jimmie Rodgers Interview” (June 4, 2014); Troy Lennon “The Mystery of Jimmie Rodgers’ Bashing” (The Daily Telegraph


The first thing the former members of rapid-i want to make clear is that their name pre-dates the wide success of R.E.M. Their name evolved out of the same expression (Rapid Eye Movement) but it was coined in 1980, about three years before the debut of R.E.M.s album, Murmer on I.R.S. Records. The point isn’t really that important except to point out that the small “i” in the name is a reference to Prince-Far-I, the dubbiest of the deep-dub artists to come out of 1970’s Jamaica…go through the used records racks and find a copy of one of the the tuffest records of all time; “Prince Far I & King Tubby “‘In The House Of Vocal & Dub”.  rapid-i was not a reggae band, but their respect for a wide range of artists brings up accomplished and experimental pop artists and music figures. They name artists like Mark Smith and The Maffia as well as Smith’s former band The Pop Group. Linton Kwesi Johnson,  James Chance and the Contortions, James Blood Ulmer, Adrian Sherwood, King Crimson and The Sex Pistols among the jazz greats.

It might seem these guys were all over the map musically, but it’s clear they were more interested in musical execution and innovation than any particular genre. This interest showed up in their own music, whilw doing a ripping version of the funky Barney Miller theme song-written by Jack Miller and Allyn Ferguson with the killer bass line performed by Chuck Berghofer. The rapid-i version is practically note for note-not because they were anything near a “cover band”, but because, hell…why mess with something near-prefect?

The changes in keys and difficult rhythm patterns of their original compositions were clever moves for them to share onstage. One might not understand exactly what they were up to but audiences weren’t left out as if their musicianship was an “inside joke”. The bands joy and exuberance in pulling off a slick musical move never cane off as intellectual and snobbish. The audience could see their open enthusiasm and glee. The band didn’t care if it’s audience was classically trained, musically illiterate or astute jazz and classical musicians. They openly invited them to enjoy what they were doing. In fact, one of the apparent “inside jokes” they shared with the audience was covering the Barney Miller theme…It proved finding brilliance in the most mundane, unexpected places.

Which comes to audiences-or perhaps lack of them. The early 1980’s and Seattle’s post-punk era produced some mighty fine bands that strayed from the punk formulae developed in the late 70s. For instance, how would it be possible to accurately label The Blackouts, with their weird and  near-mysticism laid over an almost indescribable sound? And how could a power-pop oriented band like X-15 be referred to as “one of Seattle’s original punk bands” when, as entertaining as they were, they simply were not a punk band, and arrived on the scenefrom Bellingham in the 1980s;  long after The Telepaths, The Lewd, The S’nots and The Mentors had established Seattle as a major outpost of West Coast punk. All of these bands (punk and post-punk) shared one thing in common; small, very loyal fan bases and audiences that mostly consisted of friends, family and like-minded musicians and fans.

This is typical of what goes on in all cities, but Seattle at the time seemed so insular, and it seemed that everyone on “the scene” either knew or knew of everyone else.  So it was with rapid-i. They spent many nights at local “punk” clubs like WREX or The Gorilla Room playing to near-empty houses., to friends family and others who actually appreciated the music.  Of course the upside to this for any band is that it allows them to practice, to grow and try-out new material to mostly open (if small) audiences. This seemingly negative situation has birthed many of the greatest pop and rock bands of the 20th and 21st century. Even today it’s difficult for friends around the globe to believe that Nirvana’s first Seattle show on April 10, 1988, at the Central Saloon was practically empty.

No one else remembers it,” says Sub-Pop founder Bruce Pavitt “because it was just me, the doorman and about three other people.”

As Nirvana went on to success on their own terms (at least originally) rapid-i certainly had the chops and the good nature to play the more lucrative fraternity-boy filled clubs that abounded in Seattle at the time. Their repertoire included plenty of “accessible” dance-music, but they studiously avoided falling into that “trap”. Oddly enough unapologetically “pop” bands like The Visible Targets and X-15 also avoided playing to drunk, mostly indifferent and rowdy college crowds. As far as The Visible Targets went, they pulled in crowds, but they were far more dedicated to performing their tight, self-written music; and to be honest a band fronted by three attractive sisters would have probably killed any chance of being taken seriously in a club full of horny young students They would be a novelty act that were nothing more than “three hot sisters” despite their musical talent.  On a side note, The Visible Targets were one of the bands that set the stage for the following generation of women involved in the riot grrrl movement.  The Visible Targets’ music wasn’t the same, the lyrics not as political, but the attitude toward being taken seriously certainly was.  It’s interesting to note that the aforementioned Bruce Pavitt took an early interest in The Visible Targets as well as Drew Canulette and Steve Fisk-none of them  known as fans of lightweight pop.  Even the Target’s first EP was recorded in Olympia WA…later the spiritual home of the riot grrl movement.

The odd thing is that rapid-i often attracted fewer audience members, and that even though what they were doing was almost the antithesis of punk, it is probably more punks that saw them in near empty rooms than anyone else. This is not to say they had nothing in common with the punk scene.  It’s also not to say they were underappreciated. Promoters and fans came to see them as solid performers even though it was hard to pigeon-hole what they were doing. It made it difficult to find appropriate opening slots for the great variety of new American and British artists touring at the time.  Bands like Magazine, The Specials, John Cale, The Dead Kennedy’s, Pere Ubu or The Stranglers..all bands that had a high degree of popularity in the Northwest, and had played sold-out concerts in early 1980’s Seattle.  None of the bands mentioned fit into neat pigeonholes either, but  rapid-i wasn’t a logical choice as opening bands, no matter how inventive or oddball the headliners were. So they chose small club shows which in the end didn’t hurt them in any way.  There was one opportunity to play to a large crowd-an all day event at Seattle’s Showbox Theater that went exceedingly well.  The audience was enthusiastic and their set was one of the best of the day.

So how did all of this come to be?

Phil Otto and Dave Ford met at Stanford University. Otto was working on a degree in Cultural Anthropology and Ford says he was “just hanging around”, though it’s hard to believe he was simply a slacker or couch surfer. He is by nature always on the move; always working hard to accomplish what he’s set out to do.  Otto and Ford  joined three fellow students (Jimmy Jett on bas,s Tim Clark on Rhythm Guitar and Dave Latchaw on drums) to form a band called Raw Meat.  Otto took on vocal duties and it’s been reported that even at this early stage (1978) Ford was already a top-notch, inventive and talented guitarist.   The band found an audience on campus and in couple of clubs in Palo Alto.  They also became a part of near-by San Francisco’s burgeoning punk scene, playing famed venues like The Mabuhay Gardens and The Deaf Club. Otto often performed wearing nothing but a black skeleton painted on his body…”I was very devoted to Iggy Pop, that’s all I can say.”

Otto and Ford both agree that their original tastes in music were quite different, with Ford being drawn more toward jazz, the experimental and the mélange of dissimilar sounds coming out of Britain at the time.  Otto’s background in music was more “traditional” but there’s no doubt that he used the best of it while becoming exposed to newer sounds and changed quickly by exposure to punk, reggae, garage rock, etc.  By the time Raw Meat were at their height both Ford and Otto were pretty much in synchmusically.  Although the band was closer to being punk than what we’ve come to know as new wave Dave Ford wrote at the time

“Listening to New Wave is like having a nose job done with a jackhammer during an earthquake in a vat of boiling tar and pig intestines

Just substitute “new wave” for “punk” and you get the idea…especially if you were there.

After Otto graduated from Stanford he headed home to Everett WA and his parent’s home to ponder his next move.  Phil and Dave had made enough of a connection at Stanford that Dave (a native of the Bay Area) followed his buddy north where they both crashed at Phil’s parents house until moving to Seattle, where they decided to continue their musical pursuits.  Those pursuits may have been different than those of Raw Meat, but Seattle at the time was a great place to experiment and invent, whether it was the hardcore punk of The Fartz or the incredibly dense and near incomprehensible barrage of Audio Leter (yes, that’s spelled correctly).

Having decided to form a new band Dave and Phil put a “musicians wanted” ad in The Rocket, Seattle’s all-around chronicler of the music scene.  The two were incredibly fortunate when a fellow named Jerry Frink turned up.  Jerry was a great drummer, but his real talent was in his mastery of all forms of percussion, whether it be congas, bongos, bell trees, marimbas or just about anything else he could hit or strike in perfect unison.  The greatest-and probably most unexpected instrument he brought into the mix was the timbale….not an instrument normally found in punk or no-wave music-outside the Contortions, perhaps…but still not a featured instrument by any means

The addition of a stand-alone percussionist offered a broad array of directions, but the band would still need a drummer behind a full kit.  Terry Pollard, a drummer who’d studied music theory but with little live experience showed up on the recommendation of Bryan Runnings who was then running The Gorilla Room on Second Avenue.  Pollard admits he didn’t have a musical agenda.  He was ready to play just about any genre as long as it presented a challenge…why waste that music theory degree?  The other three were open to jazz, funk, Caribbean, African, rock and punk themes, and as they wrote new songs they took advantage of all those sounds, as well as bit of  musique concrète ala John Cage.  Despite delving into some serious musical territory there was always a sheen of fun encapsulating everything the band played. Self-seriousness was never a part of the show.

In late 1980 rapid-i went into American Music studios to record four songs for a projected EP.  Songs included “New Style”, “Each Second (both featured here) as well as “Misinformation” and “Hungry People“.  The two tracks here are less angular and more traditionally structured than both “Misinformation” and “Hungry People”, but there’s no doubt the other two tracks are plenty of fun with odd (changing) time signatures and plenty of clanging (but not annoying) guitar laid over an inventive rhythm section, and of course, plenty of quirky percussion fills by Jerry Frink.

Unfortunately the EP was not released at the time, and the tapes were forgotten,  They finally saw the light of day in 2013, and were released as a digital download on dadastic! sounds along with an extended mix of the title song “New Style”  The EP is widely available at almost all internet download and streaming services.  Take a chance!

Shortly after the EP’s recording rapid-i called it quits.  Ford was ready to go back to the Bay Area and pursue a career in journalism.  He became a contributor for The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Bay Guardian.  He also became a yoga instructor a vocation he still takes part in.  By all accounts he’s a pretty good teacher.  His students love him and the quirky sense of humor he has always shared has made many of his students actually enjoy yoga! Dave is currently living in Tampa Florida.  He still plays occasional gigs and records.

After the dissolution of rapid-i Phil Otto formed the band Steddi-5 along with Student Nurse drummer John Rogers, guitarist Tim Clark, Saxophonist David Fischer and Corinne Mah on vocals.  The band had a brief but successful career in Seattle, and in 1983 their song “Fame or Famine” was included in The Seattle Syndrome Volume II compilation.  The song featured Jack Weaver on trumpet.  Jack was the original owner of Triangle Studio, which would later be made famous when Jack Endino took it over as Reciprocal Recording.

After their break-up Rogers would continue to play in Student Nurse and self-produce his weirdo-pop solo project “Sunworm”  Tim Clark had been a member of The Hurricanes, although it’unclear if he continued with the band.  Corinne Mah, would return to British Columbia where she was born. David Fisher continued to lend a hand in several productions by Marc Barreca (formerly of Young Scientist).

Otto took a job teaching on the east coast, but soon found himself back in the Bay Area, where as his profile as the head of his Otto Design Group says;
“Philip has been designing innovative systems for retail and living for over 20 years — beginning with his work at the Headlands Center for the Arts crafting spaces for artists Ann Hamilton, Andres Serrano and David Ireland. With a degree from Stanford in Cultural Anthropology, an MA in Human Development from Pacific Oaks College and MFA from San Francisco Art Institute — Phil brings a uniquely humanistic approach to all of his work — creating truly memorable environments and experiences for clients all over the globe”.

Jerry Frink and Terry Pollard went on to co-found The Beat Pagodas along with Terry’s brother Tim on vocals, Stanford Filarca (previously of The Spectators), and Steve Homman and Chris Anderson (besides Jerry and Terry) on various drums and percussion and vocals. The band became very successful on the Seattle club circuit, and never failed to point out that the entire band were percussionists except for Filarca who played bass. so their rallying cry became “no guitar!” Their shows were kinetic, full of dedicated abandonment and driven by controlled chaos.  The Beat Pagoda’s only released one EP on Left Coast Records in 1984.were, like rapid-i a complete anomaly among Seattle’s then crop of  rock bands-perhaps the same can be argued even today.  It’s  certain there have never been Seattle bands that brought across such joy in the decades since.  After all is said and done the gloom and doom that became so fashionable in the late 80s and early 90s “grunge” era there was a parallel universe of fun, unabashed dancing and the pull of the avant garde in Seattle’s early to mid 80s scene.  We still need bands like rapid-I to remind us in the joy of both the avant garde and the mundane.  Most of all we could all use a respite from the seriousness of our times.



-Dennis R. White, Sources; Dave Ford (interview with the author, September 9, 2017); Philip Otto (interview with the author, September 19, 2017); Terry Pollard (interview with the author, September 20, 2017); “rapid-I New Style”, retrieved December 29, 2017); Dave Seminara “Chasing Kurt Cobain in Washington State” (New York Times, March 25, 2014); Dave Ford “A Mabuhay Punker Spills His Wisdom” (The Stanford Daily, 18 May 1978); “Philip H. Otto, Primary” (, retrieved December 29, 2017)  Raw Meat -78″ (, retrieved December 29, 2017) 

Billy Tipton

When Billy Tipton died on January 21st 1989 he was penniless, living in a mobile home, and his ability to play piano or saxophone had been destroyed by years of  ravaging arthritis.  He led a very private life with only a small circle of friends in his adopted home-town, Spokane Washington.  He and his jazz trio had disbanded years earlier.  During their time they had played small joints, Fraternal Hall dances and cocktail lounges for little pay throughout the mid-west and west coast.  Billy had only two recordings to show for his almost 50 years in music.  Both albums had been released in 1957.  Essentially his passing would have gone unnoticed by anyone except his loved ones and a handful of professional friends.  The rest of us would never know a thing about him.

But as Billy lay on the floor of his kitchen dying of a hemorrhaged peptic ulcer a  paramedic called by Billy’s son William (against Billy’s wishes)  loosened Billy’s pajamas in order to try resuscitate him looked up at William and asked;

”Did your father ever have a sex change?”

That single question would make Billy Tipton one of the most talked-about jazz performers for the next few decades.  It would also lead to public debates, books, research papers  and magazine articles on gender, personal identity, transexualism, deception and an individual’s right to live as they wish.

Billy Tipton was pronounced dead when his body arrived at Valley General Hospital in Spokane Washington.  Later the Medical Examiner told Billy’s family what the paramedic seems to have confirmed-that Billy had been born a female. In an attempt to keep this from the public Billy’s estranged wife  Kitty arranged for his body to be cremated,  But before the cremation occurred the local press had discovered the story.  After financial offers from the media poured in Kitty and one of their sons went public with the story. The first newspaper article was published the day after Tipton’s funeral and it was quickly picked up by wire services.  The story went around the world immediately

Billy Tipton had presented as a man for over 50 years, had been “married” five times (all of them were “common law” marriages) travelled non-stop with his trio and adopted three boys with his final wife.  All of them, including Billy’s associates and friends swore they had no idea that Billy had been born female…not even his wives.  Now the truth was out and the obscure pianist and bandleader became a “celebrity” after his death.  It all made great fodder for the tabloids, talk radio and the bottom feeders in the media.  But it also attracted attention from the “legitimate” media who pretended to seriously analyze and find answers to the question “Why would a woman live as a man for over 50 years, without telling anyone?”  Even more misguided questions were presented and the statement that Billy Tipton had lived a “double life” were discussed.  The first question seems a bit naïve but understandable in an age that didn’t fully understand transexualism.  But claiming Billy Tipton had been leading a double-life was patently untrue.  Billy had spent his adult life presenting himself as a man, had loving relationships with heterosexual women and had been a good father to his sons. He dressed every day as a man, and as far as anyone is able to tell, he believed he was a man.  It’s ironic that Dave Sobol, a longtime friend and Billy’s agent had once called him “A perfect gentleman”.  After Tipton’s death Sobol fretted “I couldn’t sleep for two days. For 40 years I knew Billy as a man, and now he’s a woman”.  Such is the power the perception of gender-identity can have on individuals and on society in general.

Today most of us would accept this as leading the life of a transsexual, but almost 30 years since his death, there are people who believe being transsexual is a mental illness, a delusion, or simply being gay but not willing to admit it…presuming that people are willing to go through painful hormonal treatment, expensive surgery, marathon psychiatric examination and public demonization just so they might not be called “gay”.  Even with that knowledge there are people who still believe that a transsexual could not be a transsexual while keeping the genitalia one is born with.  Of course during Titpton’s lifetime most therapeutic  options for transsexuals either did not exist, or were so expensive that they were out  of reach of most people wishing for treatment.  Even Christine Jorenson-the most well-know transgendered person up until Tipton-who was treated in Denmark had to obtain special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of hormone treatments and surgical operations in that country; and even though she’d gone through surgery and hormonal therapy in Denmark it would take even more surgeries to complete her transformation to the gender she felt she belonged to.  It actually wasn’t much different than it is today, although candidates for sexual reassignment are subjected to long-term psychiatric evaluation and government permission is no longer needed in Denmark-or in the USA.

William Lee Tipton was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914.  He was assigned the gender female at the time of birth.  The Tipton family soon moved to Kansas City Missouri, and despite his parents being somewhat estranged, the family was well-off and Billy had intermittent contact with his father, an airline pilot..  Tipton’s mother was far less gregarious than his father and when Billy was 14, his parents divorced, so he and his younger  brother (ironically, named William) were sent off to live with their aunt.  This would provide the only link with those who knew Billy’s  story…or as much as anyone outside Billy could tell.  His two cousins, Eilene and Madeline had known him as a girl growing up, and when Billy began dressing as a man it was they that helped him prepare.  Throughout their lives they kept in contact with Billy, but never let on anything except what he wished to be known.

By the time Billy was 7 years old he was playing violin for home-recitations (dressed as a girl, of course).  By the time he was in  High School his love of jazz and the burgeoning sound of swing made it evident that he intended to make a career as a jazz player. It was about this time that Billy (as”Dorothy”) began calling himself “Tippy”...a name that conveyed the spirit of the jazz age. Later he began to study music at The Horner Conservatory of Music in Kansas City and then moved back to Oklahoma City to finish studies at Oklahoma Jr. A&M College.  It was in 1933 that Billy began to seek work as a jazz musician.  There are divergent stories about the reason Billy began dressing as a man.  Some have postulated that jazz clubs and jazz ensembles would not hire a woman.  But we know that Billy had previously played in jazz ensembles, and that many of the venues that featured jazz were considered either “seedy”, or smoky dens of “anything goes”  None of this would preclude women playing jazz.  Some have insisted that jazz is inherently misogynistic.  This might come as news to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, Hazel Scott or Mary Osborne…all of whom found fame in the 1920s and 1930s in small jazz clubs.

Musician Red Kelly-who played for years with Woody Herman and is a legend in his own right-dismissed the theory that a woman could not get a job in the world of jazz.

“There weren’t a lot of women” he says“but there were plenty that were good, and highly respected”

Don Eagle, a Spokane musician and friend of Billy’s told reporters
“Everybody wants to leap on this idea that he was a girl who played piano and wanted to make it on the big scene.  It’s kind of a cop out, isn’t it?  I say this was actually a gender change.”

The claim that Billy Tipton’s decision to “become a man” to get jobs is questionable on it’s face.  The jazz world had always been populated by women.  Many would find fame precisely because they were women.

When musician’s jobs became sparse Billy in Oklahoma City, Billy went to Muskogee to crash on the floor of her aunt’s one-room apartment with two teenage cousins and a baby.  These were the same cousins (Eilene and Madeline) who’d always known Billy’s story and helped him conceal his assigned gender in favor of him presenting as a male.  Shortly after their help Billy returned to Oklahoma City.

Norma Teagarden, the sister of bandleader Jack Teagarden, also knew Billy as her mother Helen had run a boarding house in Oklahoma City that Billy stayed in.  Norma and Billy-and Norma’s brother Jack-had become friends.  Norma herself was a featured pianist and violinist with some of the biggest names in jazz; Ben Pollack, Matty Matlock, and Ray Bauduc.  She was also a member of her brother’s big band. After Billy’s death Norma said that Billy’s
“decision to change gender actually was motivated as much by personal as career success“.
Norma  went on to say;
“He wanted to “play in the front line” and he “just wanted to (wear) men’s clothes”.  These are not the trademarks of living a “double life”since Billy maintained his persona as a man, and did not go back and forth between male and female depending on the circumstances.  The term “double life” connotes willfull deception and manipulation.  Even when Billy was involved in early lesbian relationships she did not hide it.

During the 1930s Billy was playing in bands and did not conceal the fact that he was engaged in an affair with a lesbian named “Non Earl” Harnell.  It’s said that “Non Earl” had gotten her odd name because she was once married to a man named “Earl Harnell”.  Non Earl was a “horse“on the dance marathon circuit, and an eccentric herself.  Billy was wearing men’s clothing in his day-to- day life with her, but it’s been noted that when not onstage Billy took no care to bind his breasts or deny his assigned gender. Billy’s only biographer to date-Diane Ann Middlebrook-points out in her misleadingly named book “Suit’s Me; The Double Life of Bily Tipton” that Non Earl may have been the only “wife” of Tipton’s who knew Billy was physically born a woman, though later in his life one of Billy’s later estranged wives (Maryann) is thought to have  found a birth certificate in the name of Dorothy Lucille Tipton after their parting.  It’s said she confronted Billy asking him if he was actually a woman.  Billy just looked on and did not answer.

Though Non Earl eventually returned to her ex-husband, for several years Non Earl and Billy passed themselves off as man and wife. Like Tipton, Non Earl was a show person, having made a name for herself as a “horse” on the sadistic dance-marathon circuit of the 1930s. Unlike Tipton’s future partners, Non Earl knew Billy was a woman. Cross-dressing wouldn’t have fazed the inveterate rule breaker Non Earl.  She not only broke ground as a club dancer but she also passed off her much-younger girlfriend as her husband. She and a cross-dressing female radio station owner who gave Billy an early break are aptly used to suggest Tipton’s unconventional life was not entirely without precedent…especially in Oklahoma City, which is thought at the time to have had a large lesbian population.  Later Billy and Non Earl moved to Joplin MO. where it’s thought that Billy dropped the “Dorothy” character altogether and began his nearly 50 years of living as man.

In 1936, Tipton was the leader of a band playing on Oklahoma City’s KFXR radio station. In 1938, Tipton joined Louvenie’s Western Swingbillies, a band that played on radio station KTOK (also Oklahoma City).  Billy was also a regular entertainer at a hangout called Brown’s Tavern. By 1940 Billy was touring the Midwest playing at dances with Scott Cameron’s band. In 1941 he began a two and a half-year run performing at Joplin Missouri’s Cotton Club with George Meyer’s band, toured for a time with Ross Carlyle, then played for two years in Texas.  It’s claimed that Billy toured with Billy Eckstein and Jack Teagarden, but Teagarden’s sister Norma says Billy never played in Teagarden’s band.

George Meyer’s band-along with Billy-began performing with bigger acts, including The Delta Rhythm Boys, The Ink Spots and the aforementioned Billy Eckstein at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  By 1938 he was working with bass player, Wayne Benson. All the while Billy continued to develop his male persona; he became a  gentleman, and a heterosexual male, living as a typical 1940’s man would.  But by the early 1940s Non Earl began to get bored “playing house” and left the relationship in 1941.  After splitting with Non Earl Billy began creating his own history about an unhealed rib, an accident that had affected his genitals, and a vague, unspecified reason to explain why he wasn’t in the war and why he wore tight chest bindings.

According to author Francesca Susannah;

“After Non Earl, Billy cultivated a definite taste in women; young, beautiful, glamorous – the sort of women straight men drooled over. He got them too”. In 1943, she continues ,Billy “married” a woman known as “June”, who was 17 when they first met; Billy was 28. They lived together and traveled to Billy’s various gigs together for two or three years before they split up. June began to tell tales on Billy, that he was a hermaphrodite with a very small penis. At that time, hermaphrodite was often used as a euphemism for lesbian, but it’s impossible to guess if she meant that she knew he was a woman or if he explained away his vagina by claiming to be a hermaphrodite”.

By the time June left, Billy was already involved with an 18 year old woman named Betty.  She was smitten with Billy, calling him “cute as a bug”.  They “married” in 1943.  Although the couple were sexually active Billy was able to hide the fact that he was born female.  Their time together ended after about a decade and after Billy died Betty claimed she never had any idea that Billy was different from any other man.

Francesca Susannah goes on to write;

That marriage (with Betty) broke up in 1954, and almost immediately there was another woman in his life, Maryann, a classy call girl. She was a little older, thirty-three, but beautiful and glamorous. She did not guess that he (Billy) was a woman during their marriage, although they had sex and she was already experienced. When she was interviewed for a book about Billy, she said, ‘Honey, I can hardly wait to read your book. I thought it was a penis.’ Billy had unbreachable habits to avoid discovery. He locked the bathroom door when he bathed and dressed, he made love in the dark, and he was always the dominant partner. “You didn’t touch Billy,” Maryann explained”

While all these romantic ups and downs were happening Billy kept steady work as both a pianist and a saxophonist. George Meyer’s band-along with Billy-began performing with bigger acts, including The Delta Rhythm Boys, The Ink Spots and the aforementioned Billy Eckstein at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  Finally, Billy decided to go solo.  In 1951 he was playing at the Elks Club in Longview Washington.  Shortly after this he formed The Billy Tipton Trio with Tipton on piano and occasionally on sax.  Dick O’Neil was on drums and Kenny Richards on bass.  Richards would later be replaced by Ron Kilde.

During a performance at King’s Supper Club in Santa Barbara, California, a talent scout from the small independent Tops Records heard Billy’s trio and offered them a contract. Reports vary about whether he scout was in the audience or saw a television recording of that night.  This contract would lead to The Billy Tipton Trio recording two albums for Tops: “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano”, both of them released in 1957. The albums contained adequate but unoriginal covers of jazz and pop standards.  They are the only real documentation of Billy’s skill-aside from a couple of acetates that had hurridly been recorded for radio in 1949. Listening to the albums makes it clear that the superlatives used in the media following Billy’s death were pure hyperbole.  Billy was not the”well-known” innovative” or “influential talent” that that many in the media had proclaimed simply to embellish his story.  The truth is both albums are “pleasant” but not much off the beaten track as far as originality.  During 1957 Billy’s albums sold 17,678 copies- a”respectable” sum for a small independent label like Tops

After the albums’ modest reception The Billy Tipton Trio were invited to become the  house band at the new Holiday Hotel opening in Reno, Nevada including an engagement backing Liberace.  Tops Records also offered a contract that would allow the trio to record four more albums.  Tipton turned both offers down. His bandmates were thoroughly discouraged at passing this chance up.

Instead of taking advantage of these offers Billy chose to move to Spokane, Washington along with his “wife” Maryann and the trio.  Billy planned to work  as a talent broker for his old friend Dave Sobol, who had hired him to play his hotel in Coeur d’Alene hotel several years before.  Billy’s trio became the house band at Allen’s Tin Pan Alley in Spokane, performing weekly. The trio played swing standards rather than jazz, and their performances included skits and Billy’s impersonations of showmen like Liberace and Elvis Presley.

After moving to Spokane Billy and Marryann’s relationship fell apart and she left him in 1960; but true to Billy’s past behavior there was already someone waiting in the wings.  His next partner was Katherine “Kitty” Kelly, a twice divorced dancer and west coast stripper who exuded glamor and sexuality. Her stage name was “The Irish Venus” taking advantage of her luxurious red hair.  Kitty had had a tough life, and even ’til the end the pain continued.  She was born to a 15-year-old mother in Middletown, Ohio.  She never knew her father. She was raped and impregnated as a teenager and by 28, twice-divorced and stripping in nightclubs in Seattle and Spokane when she met the 47-year old Billy Tipton and “married” him.  She took on the task of being a middle-class role model  living along Spokane’s tree-lined Manito Bouleva

Billy and Kitty  adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William.  As parents they were involved with their local PTA and with the Boy Scouts. After Tipton’s death, Kitty gave several interviews about Billy and their relationship. In one she lamented on women breaking into the 1920s and 1930s music industry;

“He gave up everything… There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician.”

Marian McPartland, the late jazz authority and NPR host of “Piano Jazz” commented on Kitty’s claim by musing;

“I can only say that if it’s true, this person must have been somebody with a great commitment to the music. Or maybe this was someone who just felt more comfortable as a man.

“Competing as a female jazz instrumentalist in the ’30s was difficult”, said McPartland, “but it was done, she said, noting that performers she admired such as Hazel Scott and Cleo Brown had overcome the adversities.

What McPartland failed to comment on-even though most of her listeners already knew-she herself had been a jazz performer both in the US and Europe during the 1930’s.  Perhaps she was being modest, and didn’t want to stray from Billy’s own experiences

According to all three sons Billy was a generous, loving and exceptional father. In interviews after Billy’s death Kitty had nothing but good things to say about Billy even though they had been separated for ten years.  Kitty would later re-marry and  divorce. She then went by the name “Kitty” Oakes.  Her estate and sons later became involved in a bitter family dispute involving the written vs. purported will of Billy Tiptonn and the house Kitty owned at her death (worth $300,000) as well as the rights to Billy’s story.  Kitty was plagued by dementia during  her last years and the state appointed her a guardian to oversee her finances.  She died at age 73 in 2007 after her mind and body faltered and she was involuntarily committed to Eastern State Hospital.

We can never be certain of Billy’s inner motivations, except to say that he desperately wanted to be a jazz musician.  It’s easy to pick apart and analyze why he lived as he did; but sometimes we should take each other at face value.  Billy chose to live as a man.  He chose to have long affairs and “marriages” with heterosexual women.  He enjoyed being a father.  Billy left no letter or other clue as to why he chose to live as he did; but who are we to question it?  Back in his prime the public were not aware of transexualism.  Maybe Billy didn’t even know about it exactly.  Instead of the initial shock the media and the public feigned maybe the simple truth was and is that Billy Tipton was a very brave individual.  That he didn’t lead a “double life”…he led HIS life.  It’s as possible as not that Billy didn’t live a sad closeted life that caused him to hide his real self…maybe he was quite happy with who he was and should provide inspiration for all of us.  Maybe he was exactly who he appeared to be.

Since Billy’s death he’s been memorialized with

-The 1991 song “Tipton” by folk singer Phranc is a tribute to Billy Tipton.

-Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is a 1995 short film based on the life and career of Billy Tipton

-In 1998, Diane Middlebrook wrote a biography of Tipton which she titled Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton” published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

-“Stevie Wants to Play the Blues” was a play based on Tipton’s life written by Eduardo Machado and performed in Los Angeles, directed by Simon Callow and starring Amy Madigan.

-The Slow Drag was a play based on Tipton’s life by Carson Kreitzer performed in New York City and London.

-An opera based on Tipton’s life, Billy, was staged in Olympia, Washington.

-“Trumpet” is a novel by Jackie Kay inspired by Tipton’s life.

-The Opposite Sex Is Neither, a theatrical revue by noted trans woman Kate Bornstein features the character of Billy Tipton

-“Billy’s Thing” is an unreleased track by Jill Sobule.

-“The Legend of Billy Tipton” by the punk band The Video Dead, is about the story of Billy Tipton.

-“Kill Me, Por Favor” is a short story with a section about Billy Tipton in Ry Cooder’s book “Los Angeles Stories” (City Lights Books, 2011)

– Jorge Orfão wrote “Female Masculinities: The Tipton/Moody Transgender Case“an MA Dissertation in Feminist Studies presented at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra, coordinated by Professor Doctor Adriana Bebiano November 8, 2012.

-The singer-songwriter and cabaret artist Nellie McKay occasionally performs an original biographical show about Tipton, “A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton“. The first performances were given at the New York nightclub 54 Below on August 5–9, 2014. The show uses music from various genres and periods.

Soita minulle Billy [Call me Billy], a Finnish play with Joanna Haartti playing Tipton, presented at Theatre Jurka in 2011[ and again at the 2012 Helsinki Festival.



-Dennis R. White.  Sources; Kathryn Robinson “The Double Life of Billy Tipton” (The Inlander, June 17, 1998); Queer Music History (2003,; Diane Wood Middlebrook “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (Mariner Books, June 16, 1999); Dinitia Smith “One False Note in a Musicians Life, Billy Tipton is Remembered With Love, Even By Those Who Were Deceived” The New York Times, June 2, 1998); Karen Dorn Steele “Billy, Kitty’s Strange Story Not Over Yet” (The Spokesman-Review [Spokane WA] Jun 8, 2008);  Chris Park “Billy Lee Tipton (1914-89) – Jazz Musician”  (The LGBT History Project, 16 February 2012); Hannah Judge “Navigating Gender: Billy Tipton and the Jazz Culture of Masculinity” (University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, May 2015) Laura Mills “Billy Tipton and The Question of Gender (Making Queer History, September 9. 2017); “Diane Wood Middlebrook, author of Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton” interview (Jerry Jazz Musician, August 29, 2000); Amy Denio (correspondence with the author, December 3, 2017); Wikipedia entry “Billy Tipton”




Edmonia Jarrett

The Northwest has been the cradle of many more jazz artists than you might imagine.  Certainly not as many as New York or Chicago or LA. but it certainly seems a haven from those scenes.  Who can say why this little corner of the world has both attracted and spawned so many jazz careers? From Larry Coryell to Don Lamphere and Jeff Lorber.  From Dianne Schurr to Ernestine Anderson to Ray Charles and a very young Quincy Jones.   Even the self-proclaimed “inventor of Jazz” Jelly Roll Morton spent time in the Northwest; first in Tacoma, then in Seattle, and later in Vancouver.  Since there are only a handful of Jelly Roll’s documented gigs in the area it’s thought that Morton was spending more time running his “West Coast Line” (a series of bordellos) and gambling. Although he spent less than two years in the areain 1929 he wrote a song called “The Seattle Hunch”.

However, none of these artists’ stories are as interesting or unusual as that of singer Edmonia Jarett.

Edmonia was born in South Carolina on March 11, 1933.  Like most of the jazz and soul greats she grew up in the church. singing in the choir and spreading “the Lord’s word” through music.  At the same time Edmonia’s parents pushed her to make something of herself.  She chose the field of education.  Her path would first lead her to work at The Pentagon, and eventually to Seattle and a job at Boeing. Then she was hired by the Seattle School District, first as a teacher (African-American History and  Physical Education) and eventually as principal of Wilson Middle School and Cleveland High School.  Finally, after 23 years with the Seattle School District she retired.
After retiring Edmonia then made a move that few would even attempt.  She decided she would become a professional jazz singer.  She was 55 years old…much older than anyone else would have dared to begin a musical profession. But Edmonia had kept up her singing in church and to herself for decades.   She had never had a singing lesson in her like.   Edmonia was known for her “grit and determination”.  It was having these qualities that would make her name regionally-and even gain a loyal fan base around the world. As a performer she was even sought out for various international jazz festivals.  Sue Jackson, a former choir mate at St. Therese Church in Madrona. said:

“When she decides she wants to do something, she does it, to heck with everybody.”

Edmonia took her faith seriously.  In the early 90s she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Instead of relying on doctors, chemotherapy or any of the usual routes cancer patients take, she chose to set all of those aside in order to be healed by the Lord.  Either by determination or divine intervention, Edmonia was cured of her breast cancer.

In 1991 she had her first big break.  She was chosen to play the part of Bessie Smith in an original play called “Janis” starring local R&B singer Duffy Bishop.  The play followed the life of Janis Joplin, and included a series of scenes in which Joplin spoke with and about some of people that had inspired her career.   During the play’s run Edmonia was spotted by a booking agent who helped amp up Jarrett’s jazz career by getting her into several jazz clubs in the Seattle area.

Her turn as Bessie Smith was not her only acting role.  She also appeared in a made-for-TV movie, “Face of a Stranger” that starred Gena Rowlands, Tyne Daly and Cynthia Nixon, Kevin Tighe and Jeff Probst.  Edmonia had a small role (unfortunately) as a maid.  In 1994 she lent her talents as the character Poika, in the video game The Vortex: Quantum Gate II, and in 1995 she was included in the soundtrack (along with Gas Huffer) of Maria Garguilo’s film “The Year of My Japanese Cousin”.  The film was a local production that took advantage of several locally known actors, technicians and musicians.  Lulu Garguilo of The Fastbacks, and sister of Maria is credited as cinematographer.

Meanwhile Jarrett’s singing career was gently taking off.  Many of her friends and fellow musicians have mentioned her generosity and the warmth that she infused with her singing.  By the mid-90’s she was Seattle’s favorite live jazz vocalist.  In 1998 The Seattle Times wrote:

“If thick, cloudy ribbons of cedar smoke could talk, their voices would sound a lot like Edmonia Jarrett.”

She was singing more and more alongide well-known and well-respected jazz musicians.  Fellow performer Greta Matassa said of her voice:

“It’s not terribly flowery. It’s a very forthright, direct way of delivery.”

This may have sounded like an underhanded comment, but with even a cursory listen you can tell how effectively Edmonia used this style.

When Edmonia Jarrett was ready to record her first album she was surrounded by a wealth of local and national talent to help her.  She entered the studio alongside Barney McClure, Bill Ramsay, Billy Wallace and fellow Northwest legends Floyd Standifer and  Clarence Acox.  The result was the album “Live, Live, Live!”.  It should be noted that although a live performance would have resulted in a great album the title “Live, Live, Live!”  actually refers to life, not to  live performance. The songs recorded for the album were Jarrett’s interpretations of jazz standards, with a few lesser-known songs thrown in.  The fact that these are interpretations doesn’t detract from the album at all.  Jim Wilke of Public Radio International’s “Jazz After Hours”  said of the album:

“Onstage she’s gracious and commanding with a tough-love, no-nonsense approach…with warm arrangements and hot players it’s a life-affirming celebration that shouts “Live, Live, Live!”

As her local star was ascending she also became noticed by American and international audiences.  During the mid-90s she began appearing at regional and international Jazz Festivals, including the Mile High Festival in Carson City NV, Victoria’s British Columbia Jazz Festival and “Blues Al Femminile” (“women in Blues”) in Torino, Italy.  She also became a member of Seattle’s Northwest Women in Rhythm and Blues, a loose-knit group of women that over the years has included Katie Hart, Nancy Claire and Edmonia’s friend and mentor Duffy Bishop.

In 1998 Edmonia entered the studio again, this time with Larry Fuller, Joshua Wolff, Buddy Catlett, Geoff Cooke,  Larry Jones, Brian Kirk, Susan Pascal, Ernesto Pediangco, Jim Sisko and Floyd Standifer and the estimable bassist Andy Simpkins. Simpkins had played with jazz artists as diverse as Carmen McRae. Anita O’Day, instrumentalists  Monty Alexander and Stéphane Grappelli as well as other top-notch artists.  The result was the album  Legal at Any Age”.  It also includes two duets with Freddy Cole, “Too Good To Be True” and “East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon)”  Edmonia had developed a working relationship with Freddy Cole and was also featured in Cole’s band in Atlanta GA.  Freddy had to live in the shadows of his late, older brother, Nat “King” Cole and niece Natalie Cole. despite being a respected and well known musician in his own right.   Freddy’s career has spanned over 60 years and he has recorded at least 33 albums.  Freddy Cole was also the subject of the 2006 documentary The Cole Nobody Knows, which covers his career as an impeccable jazz pianist and vocalist.

This album was also full of standards and other songs that Jarrett had been inspired by.  “Legal at Any Age” also garnered rave reviews.  John Gilbreath of Earshot Jazz said the album is “brimming with soul and spirit.  Her singing is a celebration of life.”

Jack Bowers of  All About Jazz wrote:
“On ‘Legal at Any Age’ she meshes wonderfully (on “Too Good to Be True” and “East of the Sun”) with another survivor, Freddy Cole, who has spent years calmly building a solid reputation as someone other than Nat’s brother. She also duets (on “Come Rain or Come Shine”) with virtuosic bassist Andy Simpkins. On both recordings, Jarrett shows that she can swing, sing the blues or caress a ballad about as well as anyone. While the wellspring from which her abundant talent flows is a mystery, we should be thankful that it’s there for everyone to hear and appreciate. Her choice of material, by the way, is exemplary, and her sidemen are outstanding”.

Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s  Edmonia Jarrett was a fixture on the Northwest jazz circuit and audiences never tired of her performances.  Unfortunately cancer reared it head again in 2001.  This time it was lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain.  Once more she put her trust in her faith, but this time she was not able to overcome the disease.  Edmonia Jarrett died on March 16, 2002.  Earlier in March she had shared her birthday with over 150 friends and family members.  Just three days before he death Edmonia gave her last performance: a tribute to singer Carmen McRae at the Seattle Art Museum.  According to her obituary “Though she looked frail, with short hair and dark glasses, Ms. Jarrett wore a stunning, long, silver-blue satin gown and she sang her heart out.”

Edmonia had only had her time in the spotlight for a decade….but she made every moment of it memorable.  Instead of mourning her passing (which couldn’t be helped coming from friends and family) Edmonia should prove to the rest of us the power of “grit and determination”.

-Dennis R. White.  Sources:  Phil Pastras :Dead Man Blues:Jelly Morton Way Out West” University of California Press, 2003); Kurt E. Armbruster “Before Seattle Rocked: A City And It’s Music” (University of Washington Press,2011); “James Bush “Encyclopedia of Northwest Music” (Sasquatch Books, 1999); Dave Nathan “Edmonia Jarrett” (; Janet L. Tu, “Jazz scene loses a fixture as ebullient Edmonia Jarrett dies” ( The Seattle Times,arch 17, 2002); Jack Bowers “Edmonia Jarrett: Live, Live, Live! / Legal at Any Age ” (All About Jazz, March 1, 1999); Edmonia Jarrett (Pony Boy Records); “Edmonia Jarrett (; Timothy Egan “Estate Loses Suit to Control Plays on Janis Joplin (The New York Times, December 18, 1991)