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Florence Mills
 

Florence Mills


Florence Mills, a cabaret singer, dancer and comedian, entertained audiences for most of her life. She was born Florence Winfrey on Jan. 25, 1896, in Washington, D.C., the youngest of three daughters. Her parents were both former slaves, John and Nellie Winfrey. Her father was a day laborer and her mother was a laundress.

At 6, “Baby Florence,” as she was known, was the youngest member of a vaudeville act that included her sisters. By age 14, she was singing and dancing in New York with her mother and sisters, performing as the Mills Sisters. The sister act performed on the East Coast. Her sisters eventually quit performing but Mills was committed to a career in show business. She teamed up with three new performers as the Panama Four, which was moderately successful.

Looking for a bluebird

Mills’ fame came with the off-Broadway musical “Shuffle Along,” by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, which is credited as the genesis of the Harlem Renaissance. With her soft, gentle voice and her bubbly stage presence, Mills became known as the “Queen of Happiness.”

Despite the years spent in vaudeville, Mills acknowledged the musical as the true launching point of her career. At age 29, she became an international star in the hit show “Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds,” touring Europe. Her signature song from the show was “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird.”

She married Ulysses “Slow Kid” Thompson, a dance conductor in a jazz band, in 1921. British theater impresario C.B. Cochran took Mills’ show to London in 1923, where she becomes a huge star. Mills returned to the United States and built on her popularity with such successful shows as “Dixie to Broadway,” heading the bill at the famed Palace Theatre, and opening a new show, “Blackbirds,” which she took to France and England from 1924-1925. Although the strain of back-to-back performances and charity benefits exhausted her and made her ill, she continued to perform in Germany and the United States and postponed medical treatment.

She died at age 31 of tuberculosis aggravated by exhaustion on Nov. 1, 1927.

 

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