by Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at

Before Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and other female jazz singers established that special All-American style—relaxed yet rhythmic, slangy but certain—there were some splendidly individualist women who blazed a trail leading into the Jazz Age 1920s and cooler early 30s: singers who may not have been selling jazz as we know it but who, in a stage histrionic way, shone like quivering beacons in initially a world of strident macho ragtime and then of unstoppable fox-trotting dance bands.

       In the Victorian era a woman’s place was squarely in the home. Here she could sing at the piano—and even dance—to her heart’s content. But no public parading. That was the domain of brazen hussies of the stage and worse: like the big black Mama Lou who sang lewd ditties at Babe Connors’ niterie-cum-whorehouse in St Louis, a cradle of the new ragtime.

        Lou’s hit was “The Bully Song”, a fearsome tale of rival black thugs slashing each other to death down on the riverfront. May Irwin, a buxom Broadway actress had the song polished up and in 1895 it was the hit of her show “The Widow Jones”. Delighted businessmen and their wives could see that Miss Irwin, white and refined, was only play-acting. She bellowed and she puffed but she smiled and winked so that audiences were relieved that she was only funning, bringing respectability to the stage --

an actress portraying a wild underworld, a modern woman belting out about near-at-hand savagery. Her new rag style was dubbed “Coon Shouting”.

       By 1910 she had rivals in this field. Blossom Seeley, Mae West and Sophie Tucker were getting famous shouting in the looser diction of the street slangy syncopated style. Driving, fully liberated ladies, self-confident and stentorian, quite unlike the sweet-voiced demure parlor ballad maidens of yore.


       From 1917 with the flashy coming of jazz—blatted out first by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band of New Orleans, five boys promising musical chaos but peppy as hell and great to dance close to, with plenty of smeared blue notes and barnyard explosions—the lady shouters now had suitable accompaniment.

Sophie Tucker, once “The Mary Garden Of Ragtime”, was now  “The Queen Of Jazz”, backed by her “Five Kings of Syncopation”. She became a Red Hot Mamma, a tough gal who could best all of the unreliable fancy men who came her way.

       A new kind of song grew out of ragtime:  Tin Pan Alley labeled them “Blue Flames”. Many were written and published by burgeoning black companies, the top of the list being W.C. Handy’s outfit. He’d already written “St Louis Blues” and now he poured out a lot more blues items, howling and moaning to a pulsing beat as befitted this post-war atmosphere of nihilistic bewilderment coupled with a desire to get out and fling yourself madly about, making sure your hip flask remained in place.

       “Everybody’s Crazy ‘Bout the Dog-gone Blues But I‘m Happy”, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, “After You’ve Gone”—just a few of the African-American-created hits propelled on stage and disc by the white jazz babies.

       Prominent among them was Marion Harris, a quite extraordinary artist who, as well as recording masterful versions of the above numbers, could handle a ballad (“The Man I Love”) as well as a hotty and who went on to pioneer vocalese in the early 1930s.

       Her background is a mystery. Was she related to a General and/or a Senator? Did she run away from a convent to break into show business and bring shame on her well-to-do parents? Contemporary press reports claim all this but there is no evidence. She simply turns up on Broadway, a pretty thing with a stalwart steady voice, in a 1915 Irving Berlin revue and is later featured in a Ziegfeld Midnight Follies. Later she scaled the Palace, mecca of vaudeville.

       Her private life was miserable—a child-killer first husband and a rapist second. After her career fizzled in America she found a haven in 1930s cabaret London—the English properly appreciated her as they did Sophie Tucker—where she married a literary man but they got bombed out in the Blitz. Back in New York for mental problems treatment she dozed off while smoking in bed and was burned to death. Good reason, then, for a career of poor-me songs but in fact Harris’s vocals are valiant and project as if shot from a gun. Lack of early recorded facts notwithstanding, we need no more than the legacy of her records—the best being the acoustics because she had a clear clean voice for delivering the black Alley blues songs and the recording horn adored her.

Other jazz babies included Miss Patricola, a conservatory trained violinist who militantly blasted boasts about her man “Lovin' Sam, the Sheik Of Alabam'” and Margaret Young who, though looking settled in a flower hat, sang burstingly of “Hard Hearted Hannah”, caught at the seaside pouring water on a drowning man. Not forgetting Jane Green, Esther Walker and Peggy English and other flaming flappers strutting their stuff in the Jazz Age of bathtub gin and the Charleston.

       Their material was provided by the Alleymen—no women involved—bending their ears to the prevailing trends of the times. And after electric recording arrived in 1925 they fashioned songs that were less frenetic and more intimate, more heart on sleeve, particularly apt for sobs and the beat of heartache. The ribbon mike, developed in radio, let every sliver of emotion slither through in high definition.

How else to explain the appearance, at the end of the 1920s, of a melancholy train of “torch” singers, wailing of unrequited love and uncaring brute men, who nevertheless were the object of undying love even as they treated their ladies rottenly?

       If the jazz age mammas were high-speed slapstick the torch singers were crawling melodrama.


       Curiously the archetypal torch song goes back to just after World War One, on the eve of the flapper attack. “Mon Homme” was French and the property of Parisian star Mistinguett. All France reveled in this tale of abuse and masochism: her man has other girls, he’s no good, he beats her too but he’ll never know how much this one girl loves him. No matter what he does to her or where he goes she’ll come back on her knees because when she’s in his arms the world’s alright. A mad obsession and very continental but it caught on in America when Fanny Brice, a yiddisher comedienne, rendered it complete with subdued keening in a 1921 Ziegfeld Follies. The Victorian parlor ballad tradition was now toast. The template for senseless obsession was established—but “My Man” was a one-off hit and the torch song was not properly taken up until the late 1920s when the scene was ready, following the completion of the electronic revolution.

       The stage was ready too: Ruth Etting, with a personal life that involved an abusive gangster boyfriend, lamented “Love Me Or Leave Me” in the Eddie Cantor vehicle “Whoopee” and Helen Morgan, dowdily pathetic, expressed her addiction in  “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, as the half-breed in “Show Boat”.

       Interestingly, in the same show she scored with a quiet and understated paean to her “Bill”, an ordinary fellow with no looks or heroics but she loved him because “ He’s…I don’t know.. because he’s just my Bill”. Written by comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse to music by Jerome Kern for a 1918 musical but never used till “Show Boat”, this modest gem is made moving by Helen Morgan’s wistful and loving delivery. She had a penchant for sitting on a grand piano with mussed-up hair as her debonair boy accompanist played and she twisted her hankie and her face in anguish.

       There were many other tortured souls in the train of torch singers—too many to describe in detail here—but all singular in their way: Libby Holman, stuck with tragic love affairs of her own but introducing classics like ”Can’t We Be Friends” and “Body and Soul”; Los Angeles-based and sometimes gambling ship entertainer Welcome Lewis of the gin-and-cigarette voice and aroma of stale air night clubs that never saw day, who sang “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” and “Nevertheless (I’m In Love With You”) ; Lee Morse of Oregon with her Bluegrass Boys and their touch of country and her breaking into yodels every so often with a voice that scaled the heavens and plumbed the depths. Today she has her avid fans like entertainer Leon Redbone, seen searching in the snow to find her grave.

       We end our torch tour with a vibrant sunny singer, even in sad songs: Annette Hanshaw has quite a following today especially among vintage jazz aficionados. Tripping lightly over a bed of fine jazz musicians, she was at home in many song genres—singing the praises of the ukulele, then exulting that “Happy Days Are Here Again” but next confessing “My Sin” was loving a fellow who couldn’t return it and telling he’s “Mean To Me”. The tried-and-true torch song situations.

       Annette Hanshaw takes us to the edge of the jazz we have come to know, though: in her recording of  “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home”, a strong driving tune with a bluesy feel, she lightly rides her little girl voice on top of the small and loose ensemble (which includes jazzers Jimmy Dorsey and Phil Napoleon in clearly a head arrangement) yet manages to mesh perfectly with the jazz boys. That’s because she lays back behind the steady four-four beat and is lazily vernacular but always musically on target. Not qualities, I have to say, that you find in the recordings of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, hard-core deep blues earth mothers of the period.

       Now Sophie Tucker was proud of her ability to sing behind the beat but her records are still rooted in ragtime and minstrelsy, a trifle too rigid and strident. However, Marion Harris, as noted earlier, made an astonishing contribution to the jazz armory in a 1934 London recording--a revolutionary version of the Bix Beiderbecke/Frankie Trumbauer version of “Singing The Blues”: Harris sings her own words to the improvised solos by the two men and thus invents vocalese years ahead of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, King Pleasure, and other oh-so-hip jazz performers.

       But by 1934 it was curtains generally for the idiosyncratic singular pioneer women of pop. The only regular venues now were cabarets and nightclubs where their intimate and dramatic interpretation of words & music, including the all-important verse, could be appreciated, even as martinis were sipped. Hildegarde wore gloves as she strummed the piano and softly sang—with this gimmick she got some attention from the night clubbers.

         Centre stage in the music industry would soon be seized by Big Bands in large ballrooms catering to kids who wanted to dance to a relentless beat that had no time for the well-made song. When tired-out the kids watched open-mouthed as the regimented battering rams of brass and sax beat out the endless riffs factory-style. Into this mechanization women were permitted providing they were cute chicks, well-rounded. Canaries or thrushes they were termed. The bandleaders, suited like businessmen, knew that a sexy bird could bring in lusty patrons.

       Into this unpromising situation stepped the young Ella Fitzgerald. But that’s another story, a continuation of the ever-changing and frustrating American industrial music scene. How art ever managed to be seen and heard on the raucous battleground is remarkable—perhaps the struggle is one of the reasons that art turned out so beautifully tough and enduring.

       All praise then to the lonely ladies of the Jazz Age.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at