She had the diction of an elocution teacher, but a voice that cut through an ensemble like a trumpet. She received her first vocal training at a convent, but she spent over a decade singing in a jazz band at a time when that musical genre was still considered somewhat disreputable. When she’d had enough of the road she opened up a restaurant–The Chicken Shack–in Los Angeles, and only sang locally, disappearing from the national scene and thereby ensuring that she would fade into obscurity even though her voice had contributed mightily to American music of the 1930s.
You’ve probably seen her if you’ve ever watched the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races, but you may not have realized that the woman who danced with Harpo in the “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” scene was Ivie Marie Anderson, the principal vocalist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra in its prime.
The story of how Anderson came to join Ellington is a curious one. The band was playing a theatre in Chicago and the producer suggested that they add, in Ellington’s words, “a girl singer.” Two candidates were considered: Anderson and May Alix, who had already achieved popular success with clarinetist Jimmie Noone singing risqué songs such as “Big Butter and Egg Man” and “My Daddy Rocks Me.” The producer was calling the shots since he was paying the bills, and he chose Anderson over “the girl with the Big Record,” as Ellington put it. He later found out that the reason Anderson was chosen was her darker skin–call it black privilege.
Before she landed the job with Ellington, who would be her employer from 1931 until 1942, Anderson had scuffled: she had worked at clubs and cafes in Los Angeles; as a dancer, then a vocalist, in a revue that starred Mamie Smith; and with a succession of bands now lost to the memory of all but the most fanatical jazzbos–Curtis Mosby’s Blues Blowers, Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders, and Sonny Clay’s Band among them.
She eventually toured as a featured attraction, and landed her first job as part of a top-tier band when she played with Earl Hines at the Grand Terrace Club in Chicago. From this launching pad she came to the attention of the producer who picked her to enhance the sound–and the look–of the Ellington orchestra.
Her voice was unlike that of the sweet crooning female vocalists who were fashionable at the time. She was a blues singer, but with none of the melismatic affectations put on by rock shouters and screamers today; Ellington’s early orchestration sought to deliver a frisson of black night life to all-white audiences at Harlem’s Cotton Club with a sound that came to be known (even by him) as “jungle music,” but Anderson never descended into minstrelsy. On “Rocks in My Bed” she is tough but without self-pity, and there is nothing of what later came to be known as “ebonics” in her singing. Ellington liked his horns to growl, but not (with the exception of Adelaide Hall in his early days) his female vocalists.
Her life had none of the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s, so she doesn’t fit the mold of the jazz heroine, doomed to die in squalid circumstances. Nor was she hardened by a tough adolescence like Ella Fitzgerald, who worked as a lookout at a whorehouse and with a Mafia numbers runner before winning a talent contest by imitating a white singer, Connie Boswell. And yet there was something distinctive about her manner and voice that produced an effect neither Holiday nor Fitzgerald could achieve. As Ellington recounted it, on the band’s first tour of England she was singing “Stormy Weather” when the audience and theatre management “broke down crying.” Anderson herself, who projected the no-nonsense demeanor of one of the nuns back at St. Mary’s Convent, began to cry too once she saw the effect she had produced.
Proving, if there was any doubt, that you don’t have to be a bad girl to sing the blues.
Con Chapman’s “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” will be published by Oxford University Press.