Birth: Born Florence Winfrey on January 25, 1895, in Washington, D.C.
Parents: ex-slaves Nellie (Simon) and John Winfrey
Siblings: Florence was the seventh of eight children (5 died); 2 older sisters in which she sang duets with as a child
Spouse: Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson (married 1921-1927)
Accomplishments, Achievements, and Contributions:
Florence was the first African-American to become an international superstar. Unfortunately, there are no known footage of her on stage or recordings of her voice. It is said that she had a unique birdlike voice. She began performing as a child, when at the age of six she sang duets with her two older sisters. They eventually formed a vaudeville act, calling themselves “The Mills Sisters”. The act did well, appearing in theaters up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Florence’s sisters eventually quit performing, but Florence stayed with it, determined to pursue a career in show business. In time, she joined Ada Smith, Cora Green, and Carolyn Williams in a group called the “Panama Four,” with which she had some success.
Mills became well-known in New York as a result of her role in the successful Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921) atDaly’s 63rd Street Theatre (barely on Broadway), one of the events credited with beginning the Harlem Renaissance, as well as acclaimed reviews in London, Paris, Ostend, Liverpool, and other European venues. Mills told the press that despite her years in vaudeville, she credited Shuffle Along with launching her career.
In 1924 she headlined at the Palace Theatre, the most prestigious booking in all of vaudeville, and became an international superstar with the hit show Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds (1926). Among her fans when she toured Europe was the Prince of Wales, who told the press that he had seen Blackbirds eleven times.
Many in the black press admired her popularity and saw her as a role model: not only was she a great entertainer but she was also able to serve as “an ambassador of good will from the blacks to the whites… a living example of the potentialities of the Negro of ability when given a chance to make good”.
Mills was featured in national magazines, Vogue and Vanity Fair, and photographed by Bassano‘s studios and Edward Steichen. She made a signature song from her biggest hit, “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird”; another of her hit songs was “I’m Cravin’ for that Kind of Love”. From 1921 until her death in 1927, she was married to Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson (1888–1990), whom she met in 1917 as the dancing conductor of a black jazz band known as the Tennessee Ten.
Mills is credited with having been a staunch and outspoken supporter of equal rights for African Americans, with her signature song “I’m a Little Blackbird” being a plea for racial equality, and during her life Mills shattered many racial barriers.
After her death, Duke Ellington memorialized Mills in his song “Black Beauty“. Fats Waller also memorialized Mills in a song. “Bye Bye Florence” was recorded in Camden, New Jersey, on 14 November 1927, featuring Bert Howell on vocals with organ by Waller, and “Florence” was recorded with Juanita Stinette Chappell on vocals and Waller on organ. Other songs recorded the same day include “You Live on in Memory” and “Gone But Not Forgotten — Florence Mills”, neither of which were composed by Waller.
A children’s book, Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage, written by Alan Schroeder, was published by Lee and Low in 2012.
Ms. Mills in costume when she performed in a skit called, ‘Indian Habits’ in the play Dixie to Broadway in London in 1926 … and for those curious here is an FYI about the history of the swastika: The swastika is an ancient symbol that has been used for over 3,000 years. (That even predates the ancient Egyptian symbol, the Ankh!) Artifacts such as pottery and coins from ancient Troy show that the swastika was a commonly used symbol as far back as 1000 BC. During the following thousand years, the image of the swastika was used by many cultures around the world, including in China, Japan, India, and southern Europe. By the Middle Ages, the swastika was a well known, if not commonly used, symbol but was called by many different names: China (wan), England (fylfot), Germany (Hakenkreuz), Greece (tetraskelion and gammadion), India (swastika). Though it is not known for exactly how long, Native Americans also have long used the symbol of the swastika. The word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit svastika – “su” meaning “good,” “asti” meaning “to be,” and “ka” as a suffix. Until the Nazis used this symbol, the swastika was used by many cultures throughout the past 3,000 years to represent life, sun, power, strength, and good luck. -From ipernity.com
Quotes by or about Florence:“I don’t want anyone to cry when I die. I just want to make people happy, always”-Florence’s last words
About Florence Voice:
It seems paradoxical to assert that a twentieth century singer who was never recorded was one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, yet there is ample evidence to support this. Florence’s voice was very unusual, small, high , very sweet and very flexible. It defied attempts at description, usually being likened to a bird or a musical instrument. Here are some contemporary comments:
Mezz Mezzrow (jazz musician): “What hit me about Twinkle [Davis], Alberta [Hunter], and another fine singer in the [Panama Cafe] named Florence Mills, was their grace and their dignified, relaxed attitude. Florence, petite and demure, just stood at easy and sang like a humming bird.”
Gilbert Seldes (1920s art critic and writer): “And Florence Mills, who died very young, is, after all these years, a great person in the memory of all who ever saw her. . . .When she sang, the whole of her person was engaged, so that even if I cannot remember her voice, I am still under the spell of her singing.”
Alberta Hunter (blues singer): “Florence Mills became just as big a star as Bessie [Smith] but she was the opposite. She was a hummingbird, and dainty and lovely. Her little voice was as sweet as Bessie’s was rough, and it was like a cello.”
Eubie Blake (Composer, ragtime piano player): “I’m Craving for That Kind of Love was a sensation in [Shuffle Along] as sung by Florence Mills. She began the number mid-stage, but then she would begin to creep down on the audience. By the end of the song she was at the footlights with the audience screaming and hollering.”
James Weldon Johnson (black intellectual leader): “And yet, after all, did she really sing? The upper range of her voice was full of bubbling, bell-like, bird-like tones. . . It was rather a magical thing Florence Mills used to do with that small voice in her favourite song, I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird; and she did it with such exquisite poignancy as always to raise a lump in your throat.”
Theophilus Lewis (Harlem Renaissance figure): “When she sings her song I’m a Little Blackbird she lets herself out, and – My God! Man, I’ve never seen anything like it! Not only that, I never imagined such a tempestuous blend of passion and humour could be poured into the singing of a song. I never expect to see anything like it again, unless I become gifted with second sight and behold a Valkyr riding ahead of a thunderstorm. Or see Florence Mills singing another song.”
Basil Maine (English music critic): Criticising the quality of voice production amongst English singers and actors, he went on to hold Florence up, along with John McCormack, as an exemplar of excellence; “Let me sing of Florence Mills, whose voice beguiles as it were an enraptured bird, whatsoever its plumage or lineage; beguiles, and saddens too, for the tones of it are all with pathos delicately edged. Her coloratura is as wide in range, as clean and sure in flight and descent as that of any ascetic prima donna.”
Irving Berlin (Quoted by C.B. Cochran): “I remember Irving Berlin saying to me regretfully when Florence was at the London Pavilion that if he could find a white woman to put over a song as Florence did, he would be inspired to write a hit a week.”
Heywood Broun (American drama critc): “The method of Florence Mills is like that of no one else. She does not precisely sing but she makes strange high noises which seem to fit in somehow with a rapidfire sort of sculpture. Sometimes the intent is the creation of the grotesque and then it fades into lines of amazing beauty. Now I have seen grace.”
Dudley Nicholls (American drama critic): “In her small throat she hides all manner of funny little sounds that flutter out like sparrows from an inexhaustible nest.”
Listen to fellow performer Maude Russell on Florence’s singing
Florence went to the Victor studios in 1924 for test pressings of Blackbirds and Dixie Dreams. Her friend Edith Wilson said later that that the old acoustic equipment made her small voice sound shrill and tinny. No trace of the tests exists in the current Victor archives. There were plans for recordings with the newer electrical technology when she returned to America in 1927 but she died too soon.”
Death: November 1, 1927 of an infection following an operation after contracting tuberculosis (some sources say appendicitis) at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York, New York
I salute this AMAZING HER-story making sista!