Plump singer known for her small, high-pitched voice, Mildred Bailey was one of the most popular female vocalists of the 1930s. She began her career in Los Angeles during the 1920s singing on radio and in nightclubs. With the help of her brother, Rhythm Boy Al Rinker, she was hired by Paul Whiteman in 1929, becoming the first featured female vocalist with a major national dance band. Her sweet and flexible voice, equally capable of singing both jazz and ballads, made her Whiteman's star attraction after Bing Crosby left for Hollywood in 1930.
In the early 1930s Bailey married Whiteman xylophonist Red Norvo. They eventually left the King of Jazz and formed their own band in 1936. Billed as ''Mr. and Mrs. Swing,'' the couple was featured on CBS radio and made many recordings together. Their group broke up in 1939, and they eventually divorced,* though they continued to work together on and off in the early 1940s. Bailey also recorded independently from time to time during their partnership.
Despite all of her success, superstardom eluded Bailey. She blamed her plumpness, but others claimed it was her temper and sharp tongue as well as the bitterness she carried with her towards better-looking female vocalists whom she thought less talented. She claimed her obesity was glandular, but many of her friends felt it had more to do with her great love of eating.
Bailey continued recording until the mid-1940s, when health problems forced her to retire. Plagued by a combination of diabetes, heart trouble and hardening of the arteries, she was near death and broke until she was rescued by composer Jimmy Van Heusen, who arranged to split her medical bills with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. She recovered well-enough to begin performing again, but her health problems eventually took their toll, and she died, penniless, on December 12, 1951, at age 44.
*Sources vary widely on the exact dates of Norvo and Bailey's marriage. One says 1930 to 1942, another 1933 to 1938, while still another says 1933 to 1945. One even says they remained together until her death in 1951 -- a rather dubious and polygamous claim, as Norvo was already married to Eve Rogers by that time!