4 April 1896
Indiana, United States
23 April 1944 (aged 48)
Marion Harris (April 4 1896 — April 23, 1944) was an American popular singer, most successful in the 1920's. She was the first widely known white singer to sing jazz and blues songs.
Born Mary Ellen Harrison, probably in Indiana, she first played vaudeville and movie theaters in Chicago around 1914. Dancer Vernon Castle introduced her to the theater community in New York where she debuted in a 1915 Irving Berlin revue, Stop! Look! Listen!
In 1916, she began recording for Victor Records, singing a variety of songs, such as "Everybody's Crazy 'bout the Doggone Blues, But I'm Happy", "After You've Gone", "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (later recorded by Bessie Smith) and her biggest success, "I Ain't Got Nobody". In July of 1917 she recorded "When I Hear That Jazz Band Play" which can be considered the first rendition of a jazz song that was recorded by a woman or at least the first song recorded by a woman that included "Jazz" in the title. To the general public she must have seemed the epitome of a flapper with her blonde bobbed hair and Jazz themed songs such as "Jazz Baby", Take Me to the Land of Jazz" and "I'm A Jazz Vampire".
In 1918 she appeared in the Broadway musical "Listen Lester" at the Knickerbocker Theatre.
In 1920, after the Victor label would not allow her to record W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues", she joined Columbia Records where she recorded the song successfully. Sometimes billed as "The Queen of the Blues,"she tended to record blues- or jazz-flavored tunes throughout her career. Handy wrote of Harris that "she sang blues so well that people hearing her records sometimes thought that the singer was colored." Harris commented, "You usually do best what comes naturally, so I just naturally started singing Southern dialect songs and the modern blues songs."
In 1922 she moved to the Brunswick label. She continued to appear in Broadway theatres throughout the 1920s. She regularly played the Palace Theatre, appeared in Florenz Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic and toured the country with vaudeville shows. After a marriage which produced two children, and her subsequent divorce, she returned in 1927 to New York theater, made more recordings with Victor and appeared in an eight-minute promotional film, Marion Harris, Songbird of Jazz. After a Hollywood movie, the early musical Devil-May-Care (1929) with Ramon Navarro, she temporarily withdrew from performing because of an undisclosed illness.
In early 1931 she performed in London, returning for long engagements at the Café de Paris. In London she appeared in the musical Ever Green and broadcast on BBC radio. She also recorded in England in the early 1930s but retired soon afterwards and married an English theatrical agent. Their house was destroyed in a German rocket attack in 1941, and in 1944 she travelled to New York to seek treatment for a neurological disorder. Although she was discharged two months later, she died soon afterwards in a hotel fire that started when she fell asleep while smoking in bed.
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