“Last Mile Blues” b/w “I Can’t Quit That Man” by Ida Cox and her All-Star Orchestra. Okeh 6405. Recorded in New York City, 12/20/40.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

 

Ida Cox didn’t run away and join the circus as a teenager. Instead, the small-town Georgia girl ran away and joined a traveling minstrel tent show at the age of fourteen. Experience in that field lead to the better-paying vaudeville circuit as a singer and comedienne. She had her Paramount Records debut in 1923, with fellow female musician Lovie Austin accompanying her on piano. This is her very first record, “Graveyard Dream Blues.”

 

Ida was especially good at bringing songs about death to life. 1925’s “Coffin Blues” is an excellent example. This song features future husband Jesse Crump on harmonium, adding an especially funereal element to the sound.

 

 

Ida was able to parlay her touring experience into managing her own road show, which was pretty unusual for a woman at that time. And she either wrote or co-wrote most of the songs she recorded, including this number that, had she lived long enough, would have earned her a fortune in bumper sticker royalties. This is “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.”

So clearly Ms. Cox was adept at writing songs that celebrated life and love as well as songs that dealt with mourning. “Kentucky Man Blues” was recorded in 1924, in the same Chicago session that yielded “Wild Women…” but this version from 1939 better shows the exuberance Ida could convey even when singing about her man leaving her behind.

 

 

Despite having dubbed her “The Uncrowned Queen of the Blues,” Paramount dropped her after the stock market crash of 1929, as so many labels did to so many worthy artists. But Ida continued to make a living as a live performer. 1939 saw her back in the studio, this time for Vocalion. In “One Hour Mama,” Ida makes it plain that she has no time for some triflin’ fool man who takes one minute and splits. Featuring the great Lionel Hampton on drums.

 

 

I can’t help but wonder if that recording was the inspiration for Billy Ward and the Dominoes’ 1951 hit “Sixty Minute Man.”

That 1939 session also yielded this re-recording of Ida’s 1927 hit, “’Fore Day Creep.” As in the clip for “Kentucky Man Blues,” husband Jesse Crump is featured on piano. Also of note: this song also mistakenly goes by the names “Four Day Creep” and, apparently, “Woman’s No Fool.” Youtube is a wonderful resource, but sometimes finding the best quality version of a particular recording means choosing the clip that has the worst metadata. Such is life in the internet age.

 

 

Which brings us to 1940, and the disc in question. Ida only had one session for Okeh, which yielded four songs. Two of them were never released, which makes this 78 the only Ida Cox music released by Okeh. That is a shame, because this is beautiful stuff.

“Last Mile Blues” was written by Ida and her husband. In it, a woman tells the listener why she’s so down—her man was just executed by the State. There’s a lightness and control to her delivery that wasn’t there in songs like “Coffin Blues,” and Red Allen’s direction maintains an appropriately somber tone while still getting the band to swing. Not an easy feat. Click here for the lyrics.

 

”I Can’t Quit That Man” is less remarkable, but still a fun number. No mention of his ability to reach the one hour mark, but “…his modernistic techniques make love complete,” so now you understand why she can’t quit that man.

 

 

The next few years were spent on the road, rather than in the studio. Then, in 1945, Ida suffered a stroke while on stage in New York City. Live shows were a rare, sporadic treat after that. In 1960, Ida was convinced to record one last album, which she called her “final statement.” She had an all-star band, including Coleman Hawkins on saxophone, Jo Jones on Drums and Milt Hinton on bass. The resulting album, “Blues For Rampart Street,” introduced her to a whole new audience, though to these ears the music was a little syrupy—as if Ida was relying more on her vaudeville experience than her blues experience. Listen for yourself: here’s “Death Letter Blues.”

 

 

Ida retired for good after that album’s release, moving to Knoxville, Tennessee to be with her daughter. She died of cancer in 1967, leaving us with a number of great songs dealing with death and love—just in time for a whole new generation of young people dealing with being sent off to war and the thrilling confusion of a new sexual freedom.

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