Born: February 25, 1896 in Toccoa, Georgia
Died: November 10, 1967 in Knoxville, Tennessee
One of the most underrated female vocalists in blues history, at her commercial peak during the 1920s, Ida Cox was as popular a performer as better-known singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Cox's career only slowed down during the 1930s, rather than derailing entirely, and only health problems would force her off the road during the mid-40s. Cox's urban blues style, extravagant stage shows, and lyrics which spoke to the hard lives of her predominantly Southern female audience made her a popular and commercially successful artist.
From Vaudeville To The Theater
Cox was born as Ida Prather in Toccoa, a city in rural northeast Georgia. Learning to sing in the local church choir, Cox left home as a teen to work the vaudeville and minstrel show circuit as a singer and comedienne. Sometime during the 1910s she married minstrel performer Adler Cox.
Cox performed for a while with notable pianist Jelly Roll Morton, and by 1920 her popularity in the South was such that she was headlining the 81 Theater in Atlanta. Cox signed with Paramount Records in 1923, and would record 78 sides for the label over the next six years. During this time, several of Cox's songs would become hits, her original material like "Wild Women Don't Have The Blues" speaking loudly to Southern black women mired in poverty and struggling with racial inequality. Other Cox songs, like "Death Letter Blues," would become blues standards.
From Spirituals To Swing
While signed with Paramount, Cox also recorded with a number of other labels under pseudonyms like Kate Lewis and Velma Bradley. Her star shone bright during the 1920s, as Cox represented the epitome of the urban blueswoman, producing her own stage shows and managing her own tour company, Raisin' Cain, which yielded a star in youthful tap-dancer "Baby" Earl Palmer.
Like many female blues singers, Cox's career took a downswing during the 1930s, and she recorded only sporadically throughout the decade. Cox continued to perform regularly, however, and appeared at John Hammond's From Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1939. Cox's unique vocal style appealed to jazz fans, and she would later record with musicians like Charlie Christian, Fletcher Henderson, and Lionel Hampton during the early-1940s.
Retirement From Music
Cox continued to tour with different shows during the early-1940s, but would be sidelined by a stroke in 1944, which led to her retirement. Cox would be convinced to return to the studio in 1960, where she recorded what she called her "final statement" with a jazz band that included saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Cox returned to Knoxville, Tennessee to live with her daughter until her death from cancer in 1967.
Recommended Albums: Unfortunately, there is no single-disc compilation with the best of Ida Cox's recordings from the 1920s, but Black Swan's The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues probably comes the closest. Blues For Rampart Street is the album that Cox recorded with the all-star jazz band in 1961, and although her voice is a bit rust-covered from lack of use, she still imparts emotion and power to the material.
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