Forgotten “Blues Craze” Singers • Esther Bigeou

Forgotten “Blues Craze” Singers • Esther Bigeou
By Allan Sutton

 

The success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920 set off a mad scramble among record companies for similar artists. Many of the women who were signed in the early days of the “blues craze” — like Esther Bigeou — were not blues singers at all, but vaudeville comediennes who specialized in blues-inflected pop tunes.

From a prominent New Orleans Creole family, Bigeou married theatrical producer Irvin C. Miller and was soon landing featured roles in his stage productions. She first attracted the critics’ attention in 1915, in Miller’s Mr. Ragtime.

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Miller and unidentified female cast members, one them presumably Esther Bigeou, from Mr. Ragtime (September 1915)

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Praise for Bigeou in The New York Age (September 9, 1915)

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Bigeou went on to star in Miller’s Broadway Rastus, which opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in July 1917, after a try-out on the road that took the company throughout the mid-Atlantic states.

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An overworked Esther Bigeou takes a break (August 1917)

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Suffering from “a variety of ailments due to overwork,” Bigeou took a break for several weeks after Broadway Rastus closed its brief run at the Lafayette. The company was soon on the road again, embarking on a year-long tour during which audiences and critics alike heaped praises on Bigeou.

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Broadway Rastus on the road: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
(September 1918)

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By early 1920, Bigeou had parted ways with Miller and was touring in Perrin & Henderson’s Lyric Road Show, an obscure revue that also starred “Mlle.” Rosa Henderson, who would become one of the most prolific of the “blues craze” recording artists. Miller’s Put and Take opened at the Town Hall, New York, on August 23, 1921. The female featured role, which might have gone to Bigeou, instead was given to Edith Wilson. Miller went on to marry Kathryn Boyd, who was given a position as Miller’s road manager that she found to be “a little too strenuous.”

The Okeh label signed Bigeou in the autumn of 1921. Her first release, a coupling of the already over-used “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” (Okeh 8026) appeared in the Christmas 1921 list but seems to have attracted little attention. “Stingaree Blues,” her November follow-up (Okeh 8025), seems to have sold reasonably well based on the number of surviving copies, despite its plodding accompaniment.

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Many of Bigeou’s Okeh releases were covers of other artists’ hits on competing labels — in this case, Bessie Smith’s popular Columbia recording of “Gulf Coast Blues.”

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Although Okeh did not renew Bigeou at the end of 1923, she continued to promote her records for a time (Pittsburgh, February 1924)

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Overall, Bigeou’s Okeh output will disappoint hard-core blues enthusiasts. The performances are purely in the vaudeville-blues vein, with accompaniments ranging from mediocre to awful, and many are simply cover versions of other singers’ hits on competing labels. Okeh released seventeen Bigeou titles before letting her go at the end of 1923. Only her last is of above-average interest, with a rollicking accompaniment by the Piron orchestra that imparts a Creole flavor not evident on her other recordings:

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ESTHER BIGEOU with ARMAND J. PIRON’S NEW ORLEANS ORCHESTRA: West Indies Blues

New York: December 1923
Okeh 8118 (mx. S-72175 – B)

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Okeh recorded Bigeou again in December 1926, accompanied by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, but no issues resulted. By then, Bigeou was touring with her own company on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit. In late 1927, she joined the cast of Southland Follies. But perhaps her most visible role was as a celebrity endorser of  Hi-Ja beauty products, in whose ads she appeared from 1925 through 1929.

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1925

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1929

 

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are resered.

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The Playlist • Victor Tip-Toes Into the Race Record Market (1923)

Victor’s management remained aloof in the face of the blues craze until mid-1923, when they reluctantly decided to try a few blues-inflected titles by black singers. They made only a minimal effort, turning to publisher/talent-broker Joe Davis, who ran a booming business dispatching pre-packaged singers and accompanists, armed with his latest hits, to record-company executives who lacked the skills or desire to develop a race-record catalog on their own. Davis’ singers (some of whom had come to him from the defunct Black Swan operation) were a competent if undistinguished lot, able to make quick work of whatever was handed them for very little money.

In the group of recordings presented here, Rosa Henderson, Lena Wilson, Lizzie Miles, and their accompanists all came from Davis’ stable. They were local cabaret and vaudeville performers, and their work paled in comparison with the greats like Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Ma Rainey, who were beginning to appear on competing labels whose managers made the effort to scout truly great talent. But it was a start, at least, for what was then one of the most hidebound, complacent companies in the industry.

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Victor’s first “blues” ad (Chicago Defender, August 4, 1923)

That summer, Victor took what was (for it) the unprecedented step of placing a large display ad in The Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading black newspaper, announcing their new “blues” records. Besides the first titles by Davis’ singers, there was a comedy skit by Moss & Frye; a couple of pop-ish duets by Sissle & Blake; and two generic-sounding fox trots by Arthur Gibbs & his Gang. Victor also dredged up their 1921 medley sides by the “Shuffle Along” pit orchestra for the list.

For the full story of Victor’s involvement in the race-record market, be sure to check out Race Records and the American Recording Industry, 1919–1945: An Illustrated History, the latest release from Mainspring Press.

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LIZZIE MILES (CLARENCE JOHNSON, piano): You’re Always Messin’ ‘Round with My Man

New York: May 23, 1923 — First advertised August 4, 1923
Victor 19083 (mx. B 28025 – 3)

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LENA WILSON (PORTER GRAINGER, piano): ‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do

New York: May 9, 1923 — First advertised August 4, 1923
Victor 19085 (mx. B 27894 – 3)

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NOBLE SISSLE (EUBIE BLAKE, piano): Down-Hearted Blues

Camden, NJ: May 25, 1923 — First advertised August 4, 1923
Victor 19086  (mx. B 27976 – 3)

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LIZZIE MILES (Clarence Johnson, piano): Cotton Belt Blues

New York: July 19, 1923 — Released October 1923
Victor 19124 (mx. B 28298 – 4)

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ROSA HENDERSON (with uncredited band): Midnight Blues

New York: July 19, 1923 — Released October 1923
Victor 19124 (mx. B 28299 – 4)
The accompaniment is credited to Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in most discographies, with no source cited, although the aural evidence does suggest that at least some of Henderson’s men were present. The Victor files show only “Colored Orchestra – Edward T. King, director” (King was the Manager and Chief Petty Tyrant of Victor’s New York studio at the time).

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JAMES P. JOHNSON: Bleeding-Hearted Blues

Camden, NJ: July 25, 1923 — Released October 1923
Victor 19123 (mx. B 28197 – 6)

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