Before Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and other female jazz singers established (in the late 1930s and early 40s) that special All-American style—relaxed yet rhythmic, slangy but bull’s-eye-certain—there were earlier isolated women who had blazed the trail in the Jazz Age 1920s: singers who may not have been selling jazz as we came to know it but who, in a stage dramatic way, shone like quivering beacons in a world of male fox-trotting dance bands.
Starting in the ragtime era when pop hit the city street, letting diction get looser, and when non-stop syncopation shook the system, there appeared as vocal accompaniment such bear-like shouters as May Irwin and Sophie Tucker, fully-liberated ladies, stout-voiced and firm-footed, not sweet and demure fan-shaking parlor ballad maidens as of yore.
These pioneers, singing steady as the music jolted from rag into jazz, held the public’s attention on stage and on record and then radio with their embrace of new wild dances and unreliable fancy men. Marion Harris, Miss Patricola, Margaret Young portrayed Jazz Babies and Red Hot Mammas ready to take on all comers.
But by the end of the Flapper Era a tragic figure had, wraith-like, forced them aside: the Torch Singer, suffering from unrequited love, from a guy who knocked them about--- and how they loved it in a delicious sort of way! Ruth Etting, Belle Baker, Libby Holman, Lee Morse, Welcome Lewis-- sad singers but pouring out gorgeous heart-on-sleeve tones.
These pioneer vocalists were splendid idiosyncratic individuals not yet subordinated into the ranks of the Big Bandstand, not yet mechanized into glamour chicks paid to canary a chorus between the riffs. This is their story, a jazzy pre-jazz one.