The history of The Blues is littered with long-forgotten names, who, in their day, achieved significant success, some reaching impressive heights. Almost always they came from the most humble beginnings and left us with fascinating recordings.
Take Maggie Jones, for instance. Known variously as The Texas Nightingale and sometimes as The Texas Moaner, she was a fine singer and pianist whose name has probably slipped under the radar of most blues fans. She must have been something special in her day, as she recorded with accompanists that included Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith and sidemen Charlie Green and guitarist Elmer Snowden, who preceded Duke Ellington as bandleader of The Washingtonians.
Maggie was born in Hillsboro, Texas in 1894, which made her the granddaughter of freed slaves, Pomp Jones and his wife Augusta. The reports that she was born Fae or Fay Barnes should be ignored, that was a stage name that she adopted at some point. She moved to New York in 1922 and must have quickly fallen on her feet as she commenced her recording career within a few months, cutting a remarkable 38 sides in five years, the first black Texan singer ever to record. For Black Swan and Paramount she was Fay and Fae Barnes, while Pathe and Columbia used her real name, Maggie Jones.
She played New York’s nightclubs until going on the road to play the TOBA circuit, known to touring musicians as Tough On Black Ass, which is far more colourful that the Theatre Owners Booking Association. She returned to New York to feature on Broadway as part of Bill Bojangle Robinson’s Blackbirds of 1928 which then went on to tour through USA and Canada. By the early 1930s she was back in Texas, running her own revue troupe in Dallas, featuring on live broadcasts from Fort Worth before slipping from view around 1938.
The Texas Nightingale died in Fort Worth in March 1940, leaving important recordings which included “Single Woman’s blues”, “Undertakers Blues” and “Northbound Blues”, the last vigorous attack on Jim Crow, a very unusual move for a classic blues singer. Her “Good Time Flat Blues” is probably her masterpiece, and “Anybody Want To Try My Cabbage” is also worthy of note.
When it comes to being known by the greatest number of stage names, the first prize might just go to Rosa Henderson who also employed the sobriquets Flora Dale, Rose Green, Mae Harris, Mamie Harris, Sara Johnson, Sally Ritz, Josephine Thomas, Gladys White and Bessie Williams. To complicate the procedure yet further, her birth name was actually Rosa Deschamps, with the surname Henderson taken from the name of the Kentucky town where she was born in 1896. Rosa left home at seventeen to join her uncle’s carnival show to tour through the South playing tents and plantations and later the Vaudeville circuit where she teamed with another Henderson, this one known as Slim, who she married in 1918. What was by then The Slim Henderson Company, they were booked into The Lincoln Theatre in New York and from 1923 recorded for Victor, Paramount, Vocalion, Columbia, Ajax, Pathe-Actuelle labels. Presumably, she used a different one of her nom-du-disque with each company.
Her recordings included “Afternoon Blues”, “Doggone Blues”, “He May Be Your Man, But He’s Wearing My Collar” and “Papa, If You Can’t Do Better [Let A Better Papa Move In]”. Some of her new recordings featured, inevitably, another Henderson, Fletcher. Rosa’s recording career ground to a halt when her husband, Slim died in 1928. She continued to feature in Broadway revues, reputedly appearing in London, but in 1932 she quit the business and took a job in a New York department store – though she did continue to appear in benefit concerts. She died of a heart attack in April 1968 on Roosevelt Island at the age of 71.
Rosa Henderson was one of the most outstanding of those early blues Vaudeville singers with a fine throaty voice and really does deserve her place in the history of the music.
The surname Smith is not uncommon among early female blues singers, with Bessie, Mamie and Clara instantly coming to mind. But there were others – Susie, Mandy, Mabel, Carrie – and Trixie. There is a distinct lack of certainty with regard to the year of birth in Atlanta, Georgia, of Trixie Smith, with sources citing 1885, 1888 and 1895. Whatever, she was clearly a remarkable woman. For the granddaughter of a freed slave to get to study at Selma University in Alabama, and at various times in her life, when necessity arose, to successfully work not only as a blues singer, but also as an actress, dancer, comedian, takes a very special level of determination.
Trixie Smith arrived in New York City in 1915, sang in clubs, cafes and bars before taking to the road with travelling Vaudeville shows where she honed her skills before returning to New York, well ready to take the next steps in her career. In 1922, she won first prize in a blues singing contest at The Manhattan Casino which was sponsored by the celebrity dancer Irene Castle, where her competitors included Lucille Hegamin and in the same year found herself singing on Broadway, using the pseudonym Bessie Lee as well as making her first recordings. She recorded briefly with Silvertone, before moving to Black Swan Records where she recorded “My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll”. Trixie was probably the first on record to refer to rocking and rolling in a sexual context and immediately inspired Lil Johnson’s “Rock That Thing” and Ikey Johnson’s “Rock Me Mama”.
She was one of the earliest Vaudeville Blues singers to record, cutting 48 sides in a recording career that lasted from 1922 to 1939. Her most memorable cuts are probably “Railroad Blues” and “Trixie’s Blues”, both with Louis Armstrong accompanying, “The World’s Jazz Crazy and So Am I” and “Mining Camp Blues”. Her sidemen on record included Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, Fletcher Henderson and Freddie Keppard.
By the late 1930s, her voice had lost that early girlishness and was more full-bodied and direct, redolent of early Rhythm and Blues singers. Trixie Smith appeared in five films including “The Black King” in 1932 and “Gods Step Children”, sang in John Hammond’s famous “Spirituals To Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and as her blues career waned after 1940, still appeared in cabaret reviews and musicals.
In September 1943, following a short illness, she died in New York aged 48. Or 55. Or 58.
In 2017 her recording, “Jack I’m Mellow” became the theme for the comedy TV series “Disjointed”.
I found it difficult to whittle my choices down to just three from my original list which included Bertha Chippie Hill, Lucille Hegamin, Hattie McDaniel, Edna Hicks, Pat Yankee, Mattie Hile and Katie Crippen. I guess that I will have that pleasure another time.