Thursday, October 11, 2007

Florence Mills (1896-1927): Harlem Jazz Queen

Florence Mills

Florence Mills, (January 25, 1896- November 1, 1927) with her trademark soprano voice has been called the Jazz Queen. She was an influential member of the Harlem Renaissance. Florence Mills lived for the stage starting at a young age and she performed until her untimely death. In the short period she was alive she did many things, in developing black theatre. Not only was she naturally talented she was committed to her goal that black theatre be unified.

Child Star

Florence Mills was born January 25, 1896 to Nellie and John Winfrey. She was the seventh of eight children (five died). She started her career singing outside for money to get into the Black Patti Troubadours, a comedy show; at the age there she was winning contest for cakewalks and buck dances. Her family gave her the stage name of Mills, in tribute to R. N. Mills MD, the doctor at her birth.

Baby Florence was a guest star for her first professional show, "The Sons of Ham" in 1903. In 1904 she became a pick for Bonita, a vaudeville actress. The Gerry Society or the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) took Florence from ‘s show and held her in custody and place her in an institution with nuns. For some time Florence took a break from show business.

Florence On the Road

Her family moved to New York in 1906. During this time her mother changed Florence’s birth date so she could still work. Florence and her sisters made their debut together at an Opportunity Night talent contest to raise money for treatment for their father’s tuberculosis in 1910. The Mills sisters performed in many places and toured. Their group broke up in 1916. Within that year, Florence move to Chicago and began work at a cabaret the Panama CafĂ© on State Street. She, Bricktop, and Cora Green formed the Panama Trio.

However, in 1917 Florence left Chicago and joined the Tennessee Ten , a group that played at better burlesque theatres on the Keith circuit. During this time, Florence played the prima donna. She later returned to Chicago the next year and toured with the Bob Russell Stock Company, the Panama Trio was reunited and did a tour of the Midwest, West Coast, and Canada. They toured twenty five cities and eleven states or provinces. Their act consisted of six songs, a duet, and a solo by Florence. In 1919 she rejoined the Tennessee Ten in New York for a mixed-race burlesque show called Folly Town which was so successful it ran until 1921.

Florence on Broadway

She married Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson, also a member of the Tennessee Ten. Kid became her manger and urged Florence to audition for Shuffle Along. Florence auditioned to replace Gertrude Saunders as the lead of Shuffle Along. Initially Noble Sissle wasn’t sure about Florence until after her audition where he was blown away by her. The show opened and she became an instant success and star.

Lew Leslie, a white promoter, hired Florence and Kid Thompson to appear nightly at the Plantation Club. The Plantation Revue, subtitled “Night Time Frolics in Dixieland”, opened February 15, 1922. It featured Florence and a wide range of other black entertainers, including visiting performers like Paul Robeson.

At this point, Shuffle Along wanted to tour, and Florence handed in her two week notice so that she could stay at the Plantation club. A newer version of The Plantation Revue opened at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre on July 22. Later the show opened for the 1922-1923 season on October 4.

Florence Goes Overseas

At this time, Sir Charles B. Cochran was looking for attractions for the London stage. He took the Plantation Company to the Pavilion in the spring of 1923 even though there were racial oppositions. The show was called Dover Street to Dixie and had an all English cast in the first half (Dover), and the Plantation cast in a variation of their standard routine in the second half (Dixie). Dover Street was based on the Beggar’s Opera by John Gay. Florence was a hit in the show and overcame some of the racism of the country.

The Plantation cast returned in the same year, and upon her return to New York, Florence was offered and accepted a role in the Greenwich Village Follies. This was the first time a black woman was offered a part in a major white production. After her Ziegfeld Follies run, Florence returned to the Plantation Revue. Her next anticipated show was Dixie to Broadway; it opened on October 29,1924 in New York where it ran for a year.

In 1926 Lew Leslie produced Blackbirds, an all-black revue starring Florence Mills (an all-black revue was one of Florence’s goals). The musical earned her the nickname Blackbird because it showcased her signature tune, "I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird." It opened in Harlem at the Alhambra Theatre where it ran over its three week run till May 3.

The company left America on May 15 to perform in France. The show then moved to London’s Pavilion Theatre where it ran 276 performances. Florence Mills became so popular in London her success could be compared to Josephine Baker’s success in Paris. The Prince of Wales was said to have seen the show more than twenty times.

End of the Road

In 1927 while still touring with Blackbirds, Florence was told by doctors that she was visibly exhausted and must stop performing. She went to Germany to rest but her condition did not improve. She returned to New York and decided to have an appendectomy that she had put off for too long. On October 24, she entered the hospital for the operation. One week later on November 1, 1927, Florence died at the age of 31. Her funeral in Harlem drew more than 150,000 people to see her put to rest.


“Agrravatin Pappa” from the Plantation Revue became one of radios most popular songs from 1923-1930s
"I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird." From Blackbirds
"I'm Cravin' for that Kind of Love." From Shuffle Along
"Black Beauty." A Duke Ellington song about Florence Mills


1896- Born January 5
1899-First stage appearance, wins talent contest for Buck and Wing dancing
1903- professional debut in The Sons of Ham
1904/05- joins vaudeville as a pick for Bonita
1905-10 Family moves to New York
1910-15 Joins her two older sisters playing vaudeville as "The Mills Sisters" 1912 short marriage to James Randolph
1916-17 Moves to Chicago, forms Panama Trio, with Bricktop and Cora Green
1917-18-joins the Tennessee Ten, marries Kid Thompson
1918-19-panama trio reunites tour of Canada, Midwest, and West coast
1919-20 rejoins Tennessee Ten, Folly Town
1921- Shuffle Along
1922- The Plantation Revue
1923- goes to London for Dover Street to Dixie
1924-1925- Dixie to Broadway
1926- Blackbirds
1927- dies November 1


“I belong to a race that sings and dances as it breathes. I don’t care where I am so long as I can sing and dance. The wide world is my stage and I am my audience. If I didn’t feel like that I wouldn’t be an artist. The things you do best for other people are the things you would do just as well for yourself.”
“My greatest ambition is to see the white people ignore the colored question”
“There is something in Florence Mills which made her unforgettable, and the queer little break in her voice, and her soft, lisping accent, will haunt us poignantly now that we know we shall never her them again” London Daily Telegraph
“She proved that merit triumphs as it should. Color cannot conquer courage!”-New York Evening Journal References

Egan, Bill. "Florence Mills: a Lost Treasure." ChickenBones: a Journal. .
Egan, Bill. Florence Mills Harlem Jazz Queen. Lanham: The Scarecrow P, 2004

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