Singer Georgia Gibbs, 87; Performed With Big Bands and on Radio Shows

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Georgia Gibbs, 87, a versatile, bold-voiced singer whose biggest hits were pop versions of songs first popularized by black rhythm and blues singers, died Dec. 9 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York. She had complications from leukemia.

Ms. Gibbs, along with Pat Boone, Patti Page and other white singers of the 1950s, won more airplay and television exposure than many of the black artists of the era who recorded the same songs.

The Jim Crow policies at media outlets and the marketing power of major record labels limited the careers of black performers unable to sell as many records as their white counterparts. Ms. Gibbs addressed this controversy in later decades, expressing some sympathy but mostly frustration at being unfairly singled out as an artistic thief.

Ms. Gibbs, often accompanied by a bright-sounding orchestra and bob-bopping male singers, covered LaVern Baker's "Tra La La," Ruth Brown's "Mambo Baby" and Etta James's risque "Roll With Me Henry (Wallflower)." Ms. Gibbs's version of the last was renamed "Dance With Me Henry."

Baker was particularly mad that Ms. Gibbs's identical arrangement of "Tweedle Dee" overshadowed Baker's version on the 1955 pop charts and went on to sell more than 1 million copies.

Baker considered legal action and consulted with her congressman, who called a federal hearing that led to nothing. Before flying off to an engagement in Australia, Baker said she would list Ms. Gibbs as the beneficiary of her travel insurance because "if anything happens to me, you're out of business."

For Ms. Gibbs, a veteran singer with big bands and radio shows, the quip stung decades later.

"It was a tragic thing that happened to black artists in the '50s," she told the Los Angeles Times, "but I don't think I should be personally held responsible for it, because I had nothing at all to do with it.

Georgia Gibbs hosted a TV program in 1957 on which she sang.
Georgia Gibbs hosted a TV program in 1957 on which she sang.( - General Artists Corporation)
"At that time, artists had no right to pick their own songs. I came into the studio and had no say at all about the background or the arrangement. To this day, I've never even heard her version of 'Tweedle Dee.' "

Ms. Gibbs, a daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was born Frieda Lipschitz in Worcester, Mass., on Aug. 17, 1919. After her father's death, she and three siblings went to live in a nearby home for Jewish orphans. She became active in variety shows at the foundlings' home and, after seven years, was reunited with her mother.

Addicted to pop music from the radio, she began singing at local ballrooms and by eighth grade was making $20 a week at the Raymor Ballroom in Boston. In 1936, she quit school to travel with the Hudson-DeLange Orchestra.

"I did about six months, and it was the most unbelievably hard work in my life," she told interviewer Karen Schoemer for a book about 1950s singers. "Every night was 200, 300 miles. We didn't have a bus. It was a broken-down car with the shift between my legs and bleeding, chapped thighs because there was no heater. . . . It was marvelously horrible."

Recording periodically as Fredda Gibbons or Gibson, Ms. Gibbs had changed her name by the early 1940s because a music industry executive had raped her and threatened to ban her from the airwaves, according to Rochelle Mancini, the executor of Ms. Gibbs's estate.

Ms. Gibbs freelanced with the big bands of Artie Shaw and Frankie Trumbauer; became the "girl singer" of the Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore "Camel Caravan" program, where she earned the nickname "her nibs, Miss Gibbs"; and toured with comic entertainer Danny Kaye, sometimes as his straight man.

Her first solo hit was a cover of Eileen Barton's novelty tune "If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked a Cake" (1950). Soon after, she was signed by Mercury and had several minor successes, including "While You Danced, Danced, Danced," before her breakthrough in 1952 with the No. 1 hit "Kiss of Fire," inspired by the tango standard "El Choclo."

She continued with a mixed repertoire of R&B, jazz, cha-cha, romantic ballads and novelty numbers, including "The Hula Hoop Song," which played into the national sporting craze. In the summer of 1957, she hosted an NBC-TV program, "Georgia Gibbs and Her Million Record Show," that showcased her singing the most popular songs of the day.

Approaching 40, and with rock-and-roll making her largely obsolete in sales, she began scaling back her career. She performed at clubs for several more years but was largely content to settle into marriage with journalist Frank Gervasi, the official biographer of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Her husband died in 1990.

Ms. Gibbs's survivors include a brother.

In recent years, Ms. Gibbs, who lived modestly in a rent-controlled apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue, worked successfully with entertainment lawyer Mark Sendroff to receive royalty payments from reissues of her master recordings.

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