American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2010 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 27

Florence Mills

The prevailing image of African American performers from the early Twentieth Century is of hearty Blues Queens, dapper male dancers, blackfaced clowns and jovial, jivey music makers: Bessie Smith, Bill Robinson, Bert Williams, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway among them.  There was, however, greater variety.  Composers/performers Nobel Sissle & Eubie Blake never corked up and always appeared elegantly groomed and attired.  Powerful and subtle dramatic actors like Rose McClendon and Charles Gilpin were regarded as among the finest actors of any race.  Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson were emerging as opera and art song singers, and Florence Mills was emblematic of the new breed of popular singers who would supplant the Blues Queens.

Ms. Mills life and brilliant career was stopped short by serious illness.  But in her few years as a headliner in vaudeville and revue, she won over mainstream critics with her impish manner, clever dancing and her clear, high soprano.  She starred in some of the best remembered “black and tan” revues of the 1920s: Shuffle Along, Dixie to Broadway and Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1926.  Her poignant rendition of “I’m Just a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” is forever associated with her.