Five Indigenous American dancers and singers who helped shape the American vaudeville circuit and jazz era music
November is Native American Heritage Month, and we want to acknowledge the incredible American Indian and Alaskan Native contributions to Jazz. If you are interested in supporting Indigenous American Women in your city, please jump to the bottom of this blog for some helpful links!
Note: The terms. American Indian and Alaskan Native, are definitions commonly from federal census documents and government papers. When possible, it is important that we continue to educate ourselves and refer to individuals by their relation to their tribe. Learning about individual tribal history and using specific terminology helps to empower and strengthen the voices of American Indian peoples.
Learn what Indigenous land you live on and consider giving back:
1. Molly Spotted Elk
Molly was born on November 17, 1903, on Indian Island, a Penobscot Reservation, and christened at birth as Mary Alice Nelson by a Catholic Priest. Her father was a Penobscot political leader, serving as the Penobscot Representative in the Maine Legislature from 1921 to 1922 and as the Penobscot governor from 1939 to 1941.
“The Penobscot (Panawahpskek) are an Indigenous people in North America from the Northeastern Woodlands region. They are organized as a federally recognized tribe in Maine and as a First Nations band government in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec.” – Wikipedia
Having a love of music, her father played in a local band and encouraged his children to learn music as well. Molly’s mother was an artisan basket maker and worked as an artist selling her craft to local tourists in the Maine area.
Growing up, Molly learned the traditional dances of the Penobscot Nation, performing them in local shows for tourists at nearby hotels. Around the age of 15, she started to desire to join the stage of vaudeville, performing off and on as a vaudeville artist throughout her career. Sometime in the early 1920s, she won a dance competition of Natives Americans in Oklahoma. Upon her win, the local Cheyanne gave her the name Spotted Elk.
Becoming a cabaret dancer
Feeling the call of becoming a dancer, she moved to New York City in 1926 in pursuit of more opportunities. While in NYC, she studied ballet and eventually won a role in the chorus line of the Foster Girls.
Side note: I tried to find reference of the “Foster Girls”, and I believe this is likely the “Gae Foster Girls”, which was a troupe based in NYC, also known as “Roxyettes”, and who were apparently considered fierce competition for the Rockettes. If you have a different theory – let us know!
She traveled for 8 months with the chorus line troupe. While on tour in Austin, Molly realized she wanted to pursue a career in writing. After the tour completed, Molly returned to NYC where she wrote poetry, fiction, and more. Even in the dressing room, she would bring a typewriter and absorb herself in her work between stage shows.
“When the engagement at the Aztec in Austin ended, she returned to New York and found work with Lucy Nicolar, a Penobscot entertainer 20 years her senior. Lucy, known as Princess Watawaso, led an all-Indian troupe that performed on the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit.
Eventually, Molly Spotted Elk went off on her own performing Indian dances along with the Charleston and the Black Bottom. In one New York cabaret, she appeared in a floor-length Indian headdress and little else. She described her show business life as a ‘heartbreaking one full of promises, trouble, glamor and rush.’”New England Historical Society
While dancing in a nightly cabaret in NYC, Spotted Elk was discovered by a film producer W Douglas Burden. In 1930, Burden cast her to star in the silent film, The Silent Enemy, distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Working in film
The premise of The Silent Enemy aimed to show the story of the Ojibway Indians before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. While sometimes advertised as a documentary, it is important to note that this film is a fictionalized account based on a 73-volume account of Jesuit missionary work entitled Jesuit Relations. Reportedly employing over 200 Indigenous people in the making of the film, it was shot on location in the harsh winter of northeastern Canada. You can watch the entire film on YouTube.
Unfortunately, the film was a flop on Broadway. In 1931 Molly moved to Paris where she continued to perform traditional dances. While in Paris, she danced in the ballet corps of the International Colonial Exposition.
“When the troupe returned to the United States, she stayed behind. She found European audiences appreciated her authentic Native American dances, unlike the Americans who preferred racist Indian stereotypes. She also worked with anthropologists and attended lectures at the Sorbonne.”New England Historical Society
In Paris, she met French journalist Jean Archambaud, and they eventually married. In 1933, due to the Great Depression, Molly struggled to find work as a dancer. Her husband lost his job at the newspaper. She traveled to New York to work and save some money, and while in NYC, gave birth to their daughter. In 1938, Molly brought her daughter to Paris to be reunited with Achambaud. Only a few years later, the Nazis invaded and they were separated from him in the chaos. They never saw him again, which leads one to believe he was likely killed in the war.
She eventually returned to the United States with her daughter and lived the rest of her life on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine, as a prolific writer of books and poetry.
2. Kay Starr
I’m going to try not to gush more on this bio than the others because to be honest, Kay Starr is in my top 3 favorite jazz singers of all time. I even have an autographed record sleeve by her framed and on my wall at home.
Kay was born on a reservation in Dougherty, Oklahoma. Her father was Iroquois, and her mother was Choctaw, Cherokee, and Irish. At around age 5, her father got a job working as a traveling water sprinkler system installer. His work caused the family to move around quite a lot, primarily in the Texas area.
As a child, a young Kay would sing to the chickens while feeding them. Her aunt overheard her one day and was so impressed that she took Kay to a local radio station competition at age 7. It was a weekly radio competition, and although she came in 3rd the first week, Kay came in 1st every subsequent week that she entered.
Kay’s father eventually changed jobs and the family moved to Memphis, TN. She continued to sing for local radio stations, singing western swing, country, and pop tunes of the day.
Supposedly, fans would often misspell her last name Starks as Starr, and she eventually adopted it as her stage name. In Memphis, she ended up receiving her own 15 minute radio shows twice a week, earning $5 a week – quite a sum during the Great Depression!
Big Breaks with Big Bands
While singing on the radio in Memphis (at the age of 15), she was selected to sing with the Joe Venuti Orchestra. Venuti had been touring through town, but under contract, was supposed to have a female singer traveling with him. His manager heard Kay on the radio and immediately asked if she’d like to join the band on tour. She informed him he’d have to get the permission of her parents. They agreed and her mother ended up going on tour with Kay as her chaperone.
According to Kay, she began singing Bob Crosby starting around 1939. After the gig with Crosby ended, Glenn Miller‘s manager needed to find a singer to fill in on tour for a couple of weeks. He learned of Starr’s great talent and she was quickly signed on. She sang without arrangements (although she, herself, claimed to never have learned to read music), completely by ear.
Managers everywhere seemed to learn of Kay’s natural talent and wanted to work with her. As Starr has said, “I’ve never really auditioned for anything. I’ve kind of always been in the right place at the right time.”
She returned to Memphis to finish high school when not touring in the summers.
Taking the next step
After finishing high school, she moved to Los Angeles and signed with Wingy Manone‘s band. From 1943 to 1945, she sang with Charlie Barnet‘s ensemble (taking over for Lena Horne). She retired for a year after contracting pneumonia and later developing nodes on her vocal cords, as a result of fatigue and overwork.
In 1946, Starr became a soloist and a year later signed a contract with Capitol Records. The label had a number of female singers signed up, including Peggy Lee, Ella Mae Morse, Jo Stafford, and Margaret Whiting, so it was hard to find her a niche of her own.
In 1948, as a result of a strike threat, the American Federation of Musicians, Capitol wanted to have each of its singers record a back list for future release. Being junior to all these other artists, every song Starr wanted to sing was taken by her rivals on the label, leaving her a list of old songs which nobody else wanted to record.Wikipedia
Kay Starr becomes a Famous Star
In 1952, she recorded one of her biggest hits, “Wheel of Fortune.” As Starr told it, “I didn’t read music, so they had to teach me the song over the course of 3 hours, all before the band got back to the studio and would be ready to record the song. We all got into the studio, and it took longer to record the sounds of the roulette wheel than it did the actual song.” According to Kay, the song is actually about the Korean war, and she claims she received a lot of mail from fans telling her they’d named their new babies after her because of that song.
Starr continued to record albums throughout the 1950s and into mid 1980s.
She died on November 3, 2016 in Los Angeles at the age of 94 from Alzheimer’s. Sadly, Kay Starr was among hundreds of artists whose material was destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
3. Mildred Bailey
She grew up in a musical family; her father played the fiddle and would play for local square dances while her mother played piano and taught Mildred how to play and sing. Mildred wasn’t the only lover of Jazz in her family. Her two brothers who also went into the business of jazz performance. Her brother, Al, was a performer alongside Bing Crosby in The Rhythm Boys.
Mildred was also known to perform traditional ceremony songs of the Coeur d’Alene people, and would accompany her mother at shows performing.
Sadly, at only the age of 36, Mildred’s mother, Josephine, died of tuberculosis. Not long after, her father remarried and the new marriage caused much strife in the household. This new marriage eventually caused a complete rift between Mildred and her father. At age 17, she moved out of the family home and came to Seattle.
In Seattle, she worked as a sheet music demonstrator (I’ve never heard of that as a job but that is SO COOL) at a local Woolworth’s. Mildred got married and divorced, but decided to keep her first husband’s last name of Bailey for herself. After the divorce, she started to travel as a musician.
Entering the Jazz Scene
“She toured with a West Coast revue and finished in California where she obtained work at radio station KMTR and at a speakeasy in Bakersfield called The Swede’s.
Bailey became an established blues and jazz singer on the west coast of the United States. According to Gary Giddins in his book Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903–1940, she found work for her brother Al Rinker and Bing Crosby, who had started performing in Spokane, Washington. They had traveled from Spokane to join her in Los Angeles. Crosby heard about Louis Armstrong from Bailey, who urged him to hear Armstrong if Crosby was to be a serious jazz singer. She also played Crosby records from her collection by Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith.
Crosby helped Bailey in turn by introducing her to Paul Whiteman in Los Angeles. She sang with Whiteman’s band from 1929 to 1933. Whiteman had a radio program for Old Gold Cigarettes, and when Bailey debuted on it with her version of “Moanin’ Low” on August 6, 1929, favorable public reaction was immediate. However, Bailey’s first recording with Whiteman did not take place until October 6, 1931 when she recorded a song called “My Goodbye to You”. Her recording of “All of Me” with Whiteman the same year was a hit in 1932.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mildred_Bailey
Over subsequent years, Mildred worked with the Eddie Lang Orchestra, as Paul Whiteman’s vocalist, the Casa Loma Orchestra, the Dorsey Brothers, and was part of an all-star session with Benny Goodman‘s studio band in 1934 featuring Coleman Hawkins, Dick McDonough, and Gene Krupa.
In 1933, she married fellow Jazz musician, Red Norvo, and the two became known as “Mr & Mrs Swing”. Although they divorced in 1942, the two continued to work together as artists and remained friends.
During the late 1930s and 1940s, Bailey suffered from health problems as a result of her diabetes, and retired in 1949. She passed away in 1951 at the age of only 44 due to heart failure.
4. Lee Wiley
Lee was born in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, a member of the Cherokee Nation. At the age of 15, she traveled east to NYC to pursue a career in music, working a bit in Chicago clubs on the way there. She began her career by singing on NYC radio stations, where she was known as a “a tall, striking‐looking woman with olive skin and corn‐color hair“.
Around age 17 (or 19, by different accounts), she became a member of the Leo Reisman Orchestra, a big name group in the New York music scene of the 1920s.
Recording on Vinyl
Starting in the late 1930s, Wiley began making records, singing tunes by Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, just to name a few. She sang with both Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and the Casa Loma Orchestra.
Miss Wiley’s voice—warm and easy and with a wide vibrato—was often remarked on for its erotic effect. Such comments were invariably associated with admiration for her ability to choose superior matetrial and to deliver it with unusual sensitivity.
“Although she sings with devastating sex appeal,” George Frazier, one of her more ardent admirers, once wrote, “she does so in an exalted way.”
But Miss Wiley found nothing unusual about the way she sang.
“I don’t sing gut‐bucket,” she once said. “I don’t sing jazz. I just sing. The only vocal trick I’ve ever done is putting in the vibrato and taking it out. I don’t believe in vocal gimmickry and I had never had the commercial instincts to concentrate on visual mannerisms.”NY Times Obit
Wiley was also a lyricist, famously writing the lyrics for the songs “Got the South in My Soul” and “Anytime, Anyday, Anywhere.” I was surprised to learn this fact as I knew the song from the Nat King Cole version.
In 1963 a made-for-tv-movie about her life aired, as part of a Bob Hope show on NBC. Titled Something About Lee Wiley, the film told the story of her life, including a horse riding accident that left her temporarily blind, and her relationship with ex-husband and bandleader, Jess Stacey. The film received two Emmy nominations.
Lee passed away in 1975 at the age of 67, and is buried at the family plot in Cherokee Nation.
5. Keely Smith
Keely was born in Norfolk Virginia to a Cherokee and Irish family tree. She started singing around age 6. Her father was a carpenter and her mother would take in laundry to to earn money to buy gowns and pay for weekly music lessons for Smith when she was old enough.
Entering her teenage years, Keely sang with local bands and joined the Joe Brown’s Children’s Radio Gang show in Norfolk. With this show she really learned how to perform on stage.
Working with Louis Prima
As a teenager, Louis Prima was on tour she saw him perform while in NYC. Seeing the reaction from the fans, she encouraged local Norfolk venues to book him. After seeing her sing, himself, she was asked to join his orchestra (at age 20) and she took the stage name of Keely Smith.
“The girl singer was important to Louis because he always worked off of her. But in the days of the Big Band, I would sit in the chair on stage. I’d get up, do a song or a duet with him or whatever, then go sit back down in the chair. Then, after the big band died down and there was no more work for the big bands, he and I went out, just the two of us. Naturally, I became more important to him as time went along, because he only had me. There was nobody else for him to work off of.”Ruby Keeler interview
On stage, the duo created their own playful dynamic, with Keely often having a stone cold face or bored presence to balance out Prima’s crazy and zany antics.
Life in Vegas
Ruby and Louis married on July 13, 1953, and in 1954 they started a show run at The Sahara in Las Vegas. In Vegas, they would perform up to five shows a night! This act continued in Vegas for nearly a decade. As a solo artist, her first big solo hit was “I Wish You Love” in 1957, which earned her a grammy nomination. Her debut solo album by the same name went gold.
Keely and Prima recorded That Old Black Magic in 1958, and in 1959 at the 1st Annual Grammy Awards, they won a grammy for it. She earned Billboard and Variety’s number one female vocalist award in 1958–59, and the Playboy Jazz Award in 1959.
“Something I think was very important, which I still do today: any gown I wore on stage, any girl could go and buy in a store. I don’t wear very expensive clothes. I used to always think “we belong to the people.” And I really think that’s what our success was.”Ruby Keeler interview
Life after Prima and later career
In 1961, after two daughters with Louis, countless exhausting shows, and Louis’ ongoing issues with infidelity, Smith filed for divorce. She continued to record in the mid 1960s, but took a large step back from the stage. Starting again in 1985 and going into the early 2000s she started to record again, receiving more grammy nominations for her work. She had a run of shows at Feinstein’s nightclub in Manhattan in 2005, and her final performance was in 2011 at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center in Southern California.
Keely died of heart failure at the age of 89.
Ways to support Indigenous women in your community
Indigenous Womens Organizations to Check Out and Donate To
Special thanks to Kendra Aguilar and Dangelei Fox for your wisdom and advice!