“Is That Religion?” (1933) Mildred Bailey and the Dorsey Brothers with Bunny Berigan

“Is That Religion?”

Composed by Maceo Pinkard (music) and Mitchell Parish (lyric); arranged by Glenn Miller.

Mildred Bailey accompanied by the Dorsey Brothers with Bunny Berigan.

Recorded for Brunswick on April 8, 1933 in New York City.

Mildred Bailey, vocal; Tommy Dorsey, trombone,directing: Bunny Berigan, trumpet; Jimmy Dorsey, clarinet and alto saxophone; unknown tenor saxophonist; Fulton McGrath, piano; Carl Kress, guitar; Arthur Bernstein, bass; Stan King, drums. Solos: Berigan; Jimmy Dorsey, clarinet; McGrath.

The story: Mildred Bailey (1903-1951), was a pioneering jazz-oriented female vocalists, and one of the greatest singers of the swing era. Her influence on many of the singers who emerged as stars during and after the swing era, including Bing Crosby, Helen Forrest , Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, among many others, was great. Her career escalated through the 1930s, and then slowly declined through the 1940s. One of her accompanists was pianist Bill Miller, who worked with her in her then husband Red Norvo’s band in the late 1930s. Later, he was Frank Sinatra’s accompanist for forty-plus years. He recalled some years ago; “Oh yeah, the Old Man (Sinatra) liked Mildred and the (Norvo) band. He had forgotten that I was on that band for awhile until I reminded him that I was with Red and Mildred for two years. People remember Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, but Red Norvo fell by the wayside–which is a shame, because that was such a great band, and Mildred was so good. She knew how to ad-lib. (By that) I mean that she never sang anything the same way more than once. She wasn’t quite a jazz singer, but other than that I wouldn’t know how to describe her. She was an oddity. She just never made it, not really.” (*)

The obvious question is: why didn’t Mildred Bailey really make it?

Mildred Bailey-late 1920s.

Any story of Mildred Bailey’s singing career must include Bing Crosby. He was inextricably intertwined with her at the beginning of her rise to fame, and sadly, at the end of her life, which came far too soon, when she was only 48 years old.

Here is a summary of her early years, which is based on notes her brother, Charles Rinker, wrote for a Bailey LP entitled” Mildred Bailey with Paul Baron’s Orchestra…1944, Hindsight LP HSR-133 (1979). I have tried to correct and augment Mr. Rinker’s recollections when necessary, based on my own research: “She was born on February 27, 1903(**) as Mildred Rinker in Tekoa, Washington. She was the oldest of four children. Her ancestry included Scottish, Irish, French, Swiss, and Native American. Her mother, Josephine, was a member of the native American Coeur D’Alene Tribe, and a devout Roman Catholic. Her father, Charles, sang, played fiddle and called square dances. Her mother was a talented pianist, and played piano every evening after supper and taught Mildred to play and sing. Her three brothers all eventually worked in the music business. They were the vocalist, composer and singer Alton (Al) Rinker; the lyricist Charles (Chuck) Rinker, who also worked in music publishing; and Miles Rinker, who became a booking agent.

Mildred began studying music, including piano and singing, around 1910, and continued in Spokane, Washington where she moved with her family In 1912, until about 1917, when her mother died of tuberculosis.Then she went to work as a sheet music demonstrator at Woolworth’s and Eiler’s music store, both in Spokane, until about 1918, when she was fifteen. By that time, her father had remarried, and Mildred did not get along with her father’s new wife. Consequently, she moved to Seattle, initially living with her Aunt Ida. There, she met, married and soon divorced Ed Bailey, keeping his last name because she thought it would look better on a marquee than Rinker. 

With the help of her second husband, Benny Stafford, whom she married on November 8, 1920, she slowly became a professional singer. It appears that Stafford was a bootlegger, and he used that enterprise to get his wife auditions and singing jobs at speakeasies along the West Coast that were his customers. Mildred worked at Marquand’s Cafe’ in San Francisco in the early 1920s. By 1924, she was in Los Angeles, working at Mike Lyman’s Alabam Cafe’, and then in Franchon and Marco vaudeville productions. Within a short time, she began singing in speakeasies in Los Angeles, and by 1925 was also singing on L.A. radio station KMTR. (At left: Al Rinker and Bing Crosby-1927.)

Meanwhile in Spokane, Mildred’s brother Al, and a young man known as Bing Crosby, formed a six-piece group called “The Musicaladers,”  which included Al Rinker on piano, Miles Rinker on alto sax, and Bing Crosby on drums. By October 1925, Al Rinker and Crosby were in Los Angeles. By then, they were the singing duo “Crosby and Rinker.” They stayed with Mildred and Benny Stafford until they got enough work in L.A. to afford their own apartment. Mildred was instrumental in getting them started on the L.A. show business scene. Crosby’s biographer, Gary Giddins, stated that Crosby first heard of Louis Armstrong and other Chicago black jazz recordings at the Bailey-Stafford house from records in Mildred’s collection in his book “Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903–1940.” 

By late 1926, Rinker and Crosby were working for Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. In 1929, they (who had been joined by Harry Barris to form the Rhythm Boys), helped Bailey in turn by introducing her to Whiteman. She first sang for Whiteman at a party she hosted for the Whiteman band in Los Angeles in August of 1929. Immediately thereafter, Whiteman put her under contract to sing with his orchestra and allow him to manage her career. She sang a tune called “Moanin’ Low” on Whiteman’s radio program sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes on August 6, 1929. Positive public reaction was immediate. She sang with Whiteman’s band from August of 1929 to September of 1932.Bailey in 1931 with Whiteman sidemen (Above right: L-R: Harry Goldfield, Jack Fulton, and the King’s Jesters vocal group.The man with the unruly hair is an unidentified radio announcer.)

For a number of reasons, Whiteman was not making many records in the period from the summer of 1929, when Bailey joined him, until the fall of 1931. Nevertheless, Bailey was quite busy during this time singing with the Whiteman organization, and away from it, under the aegis of Whiteman. He subcontracted her services to RKO for a vaudeville tour in 1931, and then on radio in Chicago in the same year. It was during this time, when Whiteman was selling Bailey’s services for several times what he was paying her pursuant to the personal management contract he had with her, that a strain developed between the two of them. This disagreement over money eventually drove Bailey out of the Whiteman organization in September of 1932.( At left: Mildred Bailey-1930)

Her first recording with Whiteman was “It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” made in Chicago on October 4, 1931 for Victor. Don Rayno, author of the monumental two-volume biography/discography Paul Whiteman…Pioneer in American Music, states at page 597 of volume 2: “Fine vocal performance by Bailey on this mammyesque song, singing solo for sixteen bars,then for thirty-two more backed by the King’s Jesters (vocal group). She closes with a two-bar tag, with a glissando a’ la Jolson.”

After Bailey left Whiteman, she went to New York and began her career as a radio singer. Throughout the fall of 1932 and into 1933, she was featured on several radio shows emanating from Manhattan. By early spring 1933, she was also beginning to make some recordings as the featured artist. These were done for the Brunswick label, which was managed then by the enterprising Jack Kapp. Kapp had “borrowed” Bailey from Whiteman on September 15, 1931, to make four recordings with the up and coming Casa Loma band which was then contracted to make records for Brunswick. The Casa Loma records were trial balloons to see what the public reaction would be to a girl singer being featured with a big dance band.The experiment was successful. Jack Kapp was duly impressed by the singing of Mildred Bailey. More would come of this. (NBC promotional photo-1933.)

The music: The adjective “joyous” is the most appropriate word to describe this recording. Exuberant and humorous also fit. This song by Maceo Pinkard (music) and Mitchell Parrish (words) falls into the category of songs that were intended to humorously deal with the rather bizarre racial stereotypes that existed in the U.S. in the early 1930s. The words of many songs in this mode would cross the line of what is considered offensive today. But we must remember that this was a time when two white men played two black men on radio with great success (Amos and Andy), and it was considered enlightened to have white and black children appear in the same comedy films (The Little Rascals), even though the dialog and story lines of those films were laden with blatantly disrespectful racial stereotypes. Fortunately, the satire in “Is That Religion?” is aimed primarily at the weaknesses most members of the human family share.

When this record was made, Mildred Bailey was in her first period of success on network radio. By 1933, the Great Depression in the U.S. had reached catastrophic levels for much of the American economy, including the record business. Radio however was booming. Jack Kapp at Brunswick Records, wanted to capitalize on Bailey’s success on radio by recording her. He selected the musicians to back her probably by giving Tommy Dorsey a call. Tommy then was one of the busiest New York free-lance musicians, playing a number of radio shows each week, putting together ad hoc bands quickly for recording sessions, and occasionally leading a band to play for dancers in the greater New York area, when time permitted. The musicians in the small group Tommy gathered for this recording were all in the same category. Trumpeter Bunny Berigan however was in the early months of his association with Paul Whiteman. He was able to do as much free-lance work in New York as possible, scheduling that work around whatever Whiteman had going on. Finally, Tommy contacted trombonist/arranger Glenn Miller to sketch a minimalist background for the musicians to play behind Ms. Bailey. (Above left: Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey-1934.)

Glenn Miller could not resist creating the mock dramatic “Gabriel blows his horn” opening cadenza for Berigan to play. (***)Berigan plays it perfectly, with the exact feeling required,and with apparent casual ease. (He did this twice because two takes were made.) After this bravura intro, the rollicking fun begins. Other soloists are Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet; Fulton “Fidgey” McGrath on piano; and an exuberant few bar of jazz by Berigan on trumpet. Bunny also plays scintillating lead trumpet throughout. (Above right: Bunny Berigan in 1933.)

There is more to this story, especially in the influence the young Mildred Bailey had on the development of Bing Crosby’s singing style, which was a pervasive influence on singers throughout the swing era. The musical interaction between Bailey and Crosby was well explained by Will Friedwald in his excellent notes accompanying the Mosaic collection of Bailey’s early recordings “The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey,” (2000) at page 3: “But from the evidence on hand, we can only surmise that if Bailey could have hooked-up with a major band, or began recording in 1926 instead of 1929, what we know of the development of pop and jazz singing might have been quite different. Since Bing’s recording debut in 1926, we have documentation of the many innovations rightfully credited to Crosby. These include his intimate and direct way with a lyric, his incorporation of jazz techniques into the love song and his cultivation of the microphone and the mass media to create a newer, more immediate relationship between performer and audience. We can only assume that Bailey was also doing at least some of this in the mid-20s, and that she was, as Crosby himself averred, an influence on him.” Crosby did indeed “cultivate the mass media.” For despite his less than matinee-idol appearance, he forged throughout the 1930s and well into the 1950s, a spectacularly successful career as not only a recording artist, but also as a star of radio and Hollywood films. (Below: Mildred Bailey, Red Norvo, Sally and Joe Venuti – outside of the Bailey-Norvo home in Forest Hills, New York – 1932.)

Despite considerable success throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s on records and in radio, Bailey never appeared in a feature film. This undoubtedly was caused at least in part by her ongoing challenges relating to her obesity and how it affected her. Benny Goodman, who knew Mildred well and worked with her often, described her as follows in his “autobiography,” The Kingdom of Swing at page 168: “Mildred, who is a great big woman, you know, weighing about 250 pounds…” In an age when obesity was little understood, treated insensitively, and often resulted in nicknames like “Fats” and “Chubby,” Mildred Bailey suffered ongoing problems with her self-confidence because of her appearance. She probably had what now is termed “binge eating disorder.” Consequently, she would rapidly gain weight, and then try through various difficult diets to lose it. This vicious cycle, which gradually came to include bouts of ever deepening depression, continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s, until she began to suffer serious chronic health problems, principally diabetes. As that condition worsened, so did her overall health. Work, indeed life, became difficult. Through the kindness of several people, including Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, she was helped with her medical bills and living expenses in her last days. She died of heart failure on December 12, 1951.

(*) Much of the information in this post came from Will Friedwald’s excellent liner notes to the Mosaic CD set “The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey” (2000). Mr. Friedwald’s concise explanation of the relationship between the Brunswick, Vocalion and Columbia record labels in the 1930s follows: “American Record Corporation (ARC), was the parent company that owned, among other small labels, the Brunswick and Vocalion masters made after December 1931, as well as all Okeh and Columbia sessions, until CBS bought ARC in 1938, and reactivated the Columbia label.” (Pages 12-13.)

(**) Mildred Bailey’s year of birth is widely reported as being in 1907. However, members of the Rinker family have verified that she was in fact born in 1903. Her brother Charles Rinker gave her birth date as February 9, 1903 in the liner notes referred to above. This leaves unclear whether she was born on February 9 or 27, 1903.

(***) Berigan would expand the idea of an opening cadenza considerably in 1936 and 1937 when he recorded his signature theme song “I Can’t Get Started.”

This recording has been digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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