Today is the 90th anniversary of the beginning of Prohibition in the US. Intending to do a post about it, I got sidetracked (I love when that happens) when I bumped into the life and career of someone who, without the freewheeling mood of the Prohibition and certainly the popularity of Harlem, may have never had success. But I doubt it. So....
Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Florence Mills!
To begin at the beginning, Florence was born to former slaves in Washington DC in 1896. At age five, having won contests for Buck & Wing dancing, she was invited to do a dance exhibition for the diplomatic circle and the British Ambassador's wife presented her with a gold bracelet. Shortly thereafter this photograph was made.
When the photographer asked her to remove the bracelet, Little Miss said, "No bracelet, no picture!"
Singing and dancing her way through childhood and adolescence on various Vaudeville tours as a member of various groups, Mills moved to Chicago at 20 and joined the Panama Trio (Bricktop, who became a lifelong friend was also in the group). Already an extremely accomplished dancer, she received lessons in tap while there from none other than Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
The following year, she joined The Tennessee Ten and fell in love with fellow "Ten" dancer, Ulysses 'Slow Kid' Thompson. After touring the US and Canada, Florence and Kid move to New York and marry. Though a brilliant showman in his own right, Kid sees Mills' potential and quits performing to become her manager.
Fortune smiled when she replaces Gertrude Saunders in "Shuffle Along" and overnight she's a star.
At the Plantation Restaurant on Broadway an all black show is built around her. Billboard Magazine notes she has " her name in lights on Broadway . . . an even hundred of them" She becomes the first black to be featured in both Vogue and Vanity Fair. She will eventually also become the first black to play and headline The Palace.
The next three years are a dizzying string of smashes. She introduces what becomes her theme song "I'm Just A Little Blackbird Looking For A Bluebird" a melodic little ditty that is actually a subtle protest song. The message that people of any color or creed have the right to search for "the bluebird of happiness" was well understood by her audiences, and contains the line "Building fairy castles just like all the white folks do". Later the sanitized version "Just like all the other folks do" became the popular way to sing it. With the Cafe Society happily kneeling at her feet, she took her new show "Blackbirds" abroad and conquered London and Paris.
About her dancing, ballet critic Arnold Haskell wrote, "I would put Florence Mills, as a dancer, on a par with any of the admittedly great artists of the dance. She had much to express, and the power and the means technically to express it."
And a Daily Sketch review said, "It is notable how much the show attracts other dancers. Anton Dolin has not missed a Tuesday matinee since the start and Massine, who saw it for the first time last week said 'After this all other dancing is futile. Never before have I seen creative artists able to achieve all they imagined'".
By 1927, exhausted, depleted from her breakneck schedule and ill with Tuberculosis, she was back in New York in the hospital. But bed rest and even two surgeries don't help. Knowing she is dying, she sings songs to cheer her nurses & husband. At 4:00 am on November 1st, Florence Mills dies. Her last words were "I don't want anyone to cry when I die. I just want to make people happy, always"
Florence Mills funeral was the largest Harlem had ever seen. There is a legend that a flock of blackbirds flew over the funeral cortege.
Criminally, no recordings or film exist for us to discover the marvel of her performances for our selves. But had she lived today, I suspect some of our self proclaimed pop divas would opt for an early retirement program.
**If you would like to know more of dear Florence try going here. It is a website compiled by biographer Bill Egan. Of the many sources I went to in researching her this is a fine and complete one.