I was probably eighteen or nineteen when I first became completely enthralled with the great black female blues, jazz, and gospel singers of the past.
Thanks to local Los Angeles radio stations such as KPFK, I got a solid introduction to singers I'd never heard before - such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainy, Sippie Wallace, and Alberta Hunter.
I especially loved Billie Holiday and had quite a collection of her recordings (thanks to the movers losing half of my stuff, all of these records are now gone). I used to scan old record shops in downtown L.A. and Hollywood to look for rarities.
I never missed the Prince Dixon Gospel Hour early Sunday mornings on KPFK - and I remember being completely blown away the first time I ever heard Mahalia Jackson sing Lord, Don't Move the Mountain.
It wasn't until many years later that I discovered actress Hattie McDaniel was a fantastic blues singer.
Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1940
Mostly remembered for her Oscar-winning role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, McDaniel's earlier work as a song writer, vaudeville comedian, and recording artist is largely forgotten.
Born in Wichita, Kansas in 1893, Hattie was the youngest of thirteen children.
(most sources list the year of her birth as 1895, but according to census records, the correct year is 1893).
She started singing at an early age and later joined her brother Otis in his minstrel show (Otis died in 1916). In 1915, Hattie was the first black woman to sing on the radio, on KOA in Denver, CO with George Morrison's Negro Orchestra. From 1920-25 she toured with a group called the Melody Hounds, and from 1926-29 she recorded for Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago (Okeh is still in existence today).
Hattie moved to Los Angeles in 1931 to be with her brother Sam and sisters Etta and Orlena. It was Sam who got Hattie a job on KNX Radio, where she played an "uppity" maid called Hi-Hat Hattie. The show was extremely popular, but the pay was so low that Hattie supplemented her income by being a maid in real life.
Her first break into films was the role of a maid in The Golden West (1932), and she had steady work in films ever since.
Hattie McDaniel appeared in over 300 films (but was only credited in about 80 of them). She worked with nearly every luminary in Hollywood, and among her personal friends were Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Joan Crawford, and Shirley Temple.
Hattie McDaniel received a lot of flack (including from the NAACP) for "demeaning" herself by playing a maid, but she proudly retorted "I'd rather play a maid than be one."
Although - being black and a woman - McDaniel's salary for films was low, she still averaged about $700 a week (she was paid $1,000 a week for Gone With the Wind).
Note: at that time, even top-billed actresses received far less pay than their male counterparts. Vivian Leigh was paid only about $28,000 for her Academy Award winning role as Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, while Clark Gable got $125,000.
In her private life, Hattie was married four times. It was rumored that she had lesbian affairs with Claudette Colbert and/or Tallulah Bankhead - but this can't be confirmed. All I know is that Tallulah had sex with just about everybody in Hollywood.
Hattie McDaniel died of breast cancer in 1952. She was the first black woman to be buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.
I have very high regard for Hattie McDaniel's work - not only as an actress - but especially as a blues singer. I personally feel that she sang as good as Bessie Smith.
Here's a great example that I found on YouTube, recorded by Hattie in 1926. The song is titled I Thought I'd Do It.