Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lonnie Johnson and Baby Cox with Duke Ellington

In 1928, St. Louis blues guitar legend Lonnie Johnson recorded a batch of songs with Duke Ellington and on a couple of the cuts a singer credited as Baby Cox made a terrific vocal scat to Lonnie's solo guitar work.

Over the years, Lonnie was certainly under-credited for his influential and important work and it seems that the performer listed as Baby Cox was also forgotten because today there is hardly anything known about the singer other than the name.

Devil At The Confluence is all about crediting the uncredited St. Louis musicians such as Lonnie Johnson, and although the research shows that Baby Cox was not a St. Louisan, she deserves better than history has treated her, so here is what we found about the forgotten Jazz-age entertainer:

Gertrude Cox was born to the vaudeville family of Jimmy Cox and his wife, Anna Mae Cox in Memphis, TN around 1907. Jimmy, known as the Black Charlie Chaplin, had his own touring revue, the Georgia Red Hots, and was composer of the popular standard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” that was a hit for Bessie Smith.

Working as soon as she could, Gertrude was billed as Baby Cox and was a very popular part of her parent's act. A newspaper reported that the Cox Trio was getting six encores every night in Atlanta, Georgia, with Baby Cox on the bill in 1910. The next decade of reviews consistently cheer Baby Cox's act in the Theater Owners Booking Association touring circuit.

Still very popular and no longer a child in 1923, she had married and had a baby. The family tried to work Gerturde's child into the act as "Baby I Love Cox," but it seems that he didn't have what it takes to be on the stage.

Her talents as a singer, dancer, and comedienne brought her the opportunity to join a touring gig with a hugely successful Butterbeans and Susie show in 1927. And within a couple of years she was offered a role in another famous show, Fats Waller's "Hot Chocolates" on Broadway.

In the summer of 1928 she was listed with multiple shows and getting rave reviews frequently. This seems to be the height of her career and it was at this point, in the fall of 1928, that Duke Ellington asked her to record.

The 1920s ended with Baby Cox on top of Broadway and being sued by one of her minor show producers to keep her from appearing in other shows.

In the 1930s, Baby Cox, (married name, Gertrude Jordan Davis,) was living in New York with two children and performing at the famous Connie's Inn. There were rumors of her suffering from "nervous strain" but she assured reporters that it was possible to raise children and have a show-biz career as a single mother.

But after a musical theater flop titled "Hummin’ Sam" opened and closed in a single performance on April 8, 1933, the press wrote less and less about Baby Cox.

So why aren't Baby Cox and Lonnie Johnson very well-known having been superior performers and innovators? That's a hard question to answer. Cox and Johnson were driven, professional artists who succeeded using their talent in a tough business. 
What more is needed for them to be counted among the Robert Johnsons and Louis Armstrongs?
Sometimes it seems that many of the true creative artists in the past are forgotten simply because no one kept a biography of their work for others to learn about them. Maybe we can fix that.

Check out the link to YouTube. The Mooche was one of the cuts made by Baby Cox with Lonnie Johnson for Duke Ellington and a wonderful example of two early jazz creatives improvising with guitar and voice.

Duke Ellington's - The Mooche.
Lonnie Johnson and Baby Cox solo at 1:32