GIBBS (1919 - 2006)
Georgia Gibbs, 87, the versatile, bold-voiced singer whose biggest
hits were pop versions of songs first recorded by black rhythm and
blues singers, died on December 9th at Memorial Sloan-Kettering
hospital in New York. The Worcester, Massachusetts native had complications
Gibbs, who starred on radio and television's popular Hit Parade
in the 1950s, was perhaps best known for the song 'Kiss Of Fire'.
Given her versatility, she was well-suited for the post-World War
II era of transition from radio to television and from big band
music to R&B-influenced pop and early rock'n'roll.
A daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she was born Fredda Lipschitz.
After her father's death, she and three siblings lived 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.
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
It was marvellously horrible." She
also sang on the Lucky Strike radio show and with the bands of Frankie
Trumbauer, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. Recording periodically as
Fredda Gibbons or Gibson, she had changed her name by the early
1940s to Gibbs. She 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 in 1950 of Eileen Barton's novelty
tune 'If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked A Cake'. She was signed
by Mercury and had several minor successes, including 'While You
Danced, Danced, Danced', before her breakthrough in 1952 with the
#1 'Kiss Of Fire', inspired by the tango standard 'El Choclo'. She
continued with a mixed repertoire of R&B, jazz, cha-cha, ballads
and novelty numbers, including 'The Hula Hoop Song', which played
into the national craze, registering a total of 25 hits between
1950 and 1958. In 1957, a TV show, Georgia Gibbs and Her Million
Record Show, showcased her singing of the most popular songs of
Gibbs, along with Pat Boone, Patti Page, and other white singers
of the 1950s, won more airplay and TV exposure than many of their
black counterparts. The Jim Crow policies at media outlets and the
marketing power of major record labels limited the careers of black
performers. She addressed this controversy in later decades, expressing
some sympathy but mostly frustration at being unfairly singled out
as an artistic thief. Often accompanied by a bright-sounding orchestra
and bob-bopping male singers, she covered LaVern Baker's 'Tra La
La', Ruth Brown's 'Mambo Baby' and Etta James & the Peaches'
risque 'Roll With Me Henry' (aka 'The Wallflower') - her version
was renamed 'Dance With Me Henry'. "The Peaches were pissed
because I was getting the glory," Etta James wrote in her autobiography.
"But I was even more pissed than the Peaches because Georgia
Gibbs came out with her Suzy Creamcheese version. I was happy to
have any success, but I was enraged to see Her Nibs singing the
song on The Ed Sullivan Show while I was singing it in some funky
dive in Watts." LaVern Baker was particularly mad that Gibbs'
identical arrangement of 'Tweedle Dee' overshadowed her version
on the 1955 pop charts and went on to sell more than a million copies.
Baker considered legal action and consulted with her congressman,
who called a federal hearing that led to nothing. Before flying
to an engagement in Australia, Baker said she would list Gibbs as
the beneficiary of her travel insurance because "if anything
happens to me, you're out of business." For Gibbs, 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. 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'."
Gibbs' husband, Frank Gervasi (the official biographer of Israeli
prime minister Menachem Begin) died in 1990. She leaves a grandson,
Sasha Gervasi and a brother, Robert Gibson.
Bernstein, The Washington Post, with additional information by Mick