Marion Harris (April 4, 1896? – April 23, 1944) became famous as a white vaudeville singer and recording artist who was influenced by contemporary black jazz and often did numbers in a certain “Negro Style” as it was termed which helped to usher in the Jazz Age across America. For several decades beginning around 1915 and continuing well into the 1920s she was a seminal force in American popular music.
Her birth year and place are unknown, variously reported as Kentucky or Indiana, and that her family name was Harrison and her name may have been Mary Ellen. Also mysterious is a report that she ran away from a convent at age 14 to pursue a singing career as an Illustrated Singer. This was a vogue ca. 1900 to have singers in early vaudeville perform a story song to the visual accompaniment of color lantern slides which could be purchased from various mail-order companies around the country. The slides were changed as the performer sang different parts of the story song.
She was seen and recommended by the noted society dancer Vernon Castle, who together with his wife Irene, was among the great elegant dancers of their era and who were among the first to innovate traditional coupled ballroom dancing with new and unusual footwork such as the Castle Walk. Vernon died in an airplane crash while instructing new recruits during World War I. He recommended Marion to record producers at Victor.
She began to appear at this time, 1915, in the Charles Dillingham and Irving Berlin produced show Stop, Look and Listen, along with French star Gaby Deslys. She was also a regular visitor to Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic where her powerful voice à la Blossom Seeley, a huge star of the time, thrilled listeners.
Her popular songs for Victor Records 1916 through 1919 made her anational star and a foremost singer of the new jazz idiom, heavily influenced by black music and black composers, especially Henry Creamer and J. Turner Layton. During the teens and twenties they produced hit after hit for black and white artists. They gave her one of her biggest hits, After You’ve Gone, which had been introduced by Sophie Tucker. Another very sad black tune, although the composers of it are still disputed, was introduced by black comedian Bert Williams and became an enormous hit for Marion. Her recording in 1919 of A Good Man is Hard to Find, was essentially hard black jazz and was later a mainstay song for Bessie Smith ca. 1927.
There were battles over what Victor wanted her to record and in 1920 she joined many other celebrities at Columbia Records, among them Al Jolson and Bert Williams. With Columbia Harris’ work got more blues-infiltrated and more black-influenced. She was often mistaken for a black blues singer by those who only heard her records and never saw her in a show. And she had a great number of hits, some having become jazz and pop standards such as There’ll Be Some Changes Made. In 1921 she married an actor, Robert Williams, but it was a stormy union that was over within a year. Williams would marry twice more and have numerous separations before his death from peritonitis at age 36. There was a little girl from the union, who later sang and billed herself as Marion Harris Jr. By the mid twenties after recording with Brunswick for a time she married the nephew of millionaire Howard Hughes and took a hiatus from performing to have, it is believed, two more children…and a second divorce.
In 1927 she returned in a highly successful show called A Night in Spain, along with another major recording female star named
Aileen Stanley and Helen Kane, the inspiration for the cartoon character Betty Boop and a quintessential flapper. The show ran for an outstanding 174 performances. She went back to recording now, with a style more pop than black, and she became a major influence on the next generation which sounded more and more like her: Ruth Etting and Annette Hanshaw. Her singing seemed to develop less intense throbbing emotion and became less filled with “darky dialect” as it was called.
After embarking on a film career singing in the 1929 early talkie and musical film Devil May Care with former silent film idol Ramon Novarro, she became seriously ill and briefly retired but then returned as a popular radio vocalist on major shows of the early 1930s. She became a notable star in England too and did extensive touring and recording there to great acclaim, marrying English theatrical agent Leonard Urry.
After their home was destroyed in a German rocket attack, she became terrified and unsettled throughout World War II, eventually coming back to America for treatment of a neurological disorder. Medically discharged, she was still unstable and fell asleep with a lit cigarette while sleeping in a hotel bed and was burned to death. She had just turned 48.
Marion Harris was a real personality girl on-stage. She normally sang the melody of songs and didn’t improvise but she used strong facial expressions and hand gestures to convey the lyrics of her songs. Although she chose a great deal of black material to record, she was never a black scat singer like Ella Fitzgerald or a wailing blues singer such as Bessie Smith so that her songs had intensity but just enough for white audiences. Marion had a lot of stage presence and personality and often did recitations to music that were carefully timed with her accompanist. Here’s a good sample of her 1920s style which had become more pop-flavored:
The University of Arizona is proud to have an extensive collection of Marion Harris sheet music including the following pieces:
Sweet Daddy 1917 – by Howard Patrick. The cover features our star as Marian Harris, which was how she first spelled her name before deciding on Marion. The song is described as “The Only Real Jazz Song” and reflects the hot lyric, upbeat sound that would usher in the jazz age songs of the 1920s.
You Can’t Get Lovin’ Where There Ain’t Any Love 1919 – by Will E. Skidmore and Jack Baxley. Skidmore specialized in songs with “Negro Dialect” and blues, often with tough-sounding titles that might be suited to black female singers or to someone like Sophie Tucker. He did several songs for Marion Harris to whom the music was dedicated.
Never Let No One Man Worry Your Mind 1920 – Will E. Skidmore, Jack Baxley. Skidmore was getting so successful now he opened his own music publishing company which produced hits like Yes, We Have No Bananas. Here he has again dedicated his song to Marion Harris on the cover.
Saint Louis Blues 1921 – W. C. Handy. First published in 1914 as a ragtime composition, it became one of Marion’s biggest numbers and her performance was greatly admired by Handy, who considered her singing of it equal to or superior to a black artist’s interpretation. He featured her prominently on the cover of his publishing house’s reissue of the music to coincide with her Columbia Records version of the song, which was a smash hit for white audiences now. It was her version of this song that really opened up major markets for Handy and insured that this would be remembered as “The Most Widely Known Ragtime Composition”.
I’ve Got a Cross-Eyed Papa But He Looks Straight To Me 1923 – King Zany, Billy Du Val, Roy Ingraham. Real jazz age material complete with ukulele accompaniment, this was a minor hit for Marion Harris but was also recorded by Sophie Tucker. The two women often did songs with crazy flapper era titles.
Who’s Sorry Now 1923 – Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Ted Snyder. This was a big hit for bandleader Isham Jones at the time but the vocal by Marion Harris also helped push it into great popularity. In 1958 it was redone with a light rock beat by Connie Francis and became a huge hit all over again.
Was It Best to Have Loved At All? 1926 – Leonard Stevens, O. M. Watson. More typical of the pop style of Marion was this later song, less influenced by blues and jazz and more of the style developed by Ruth Etting and Annette Hanshaw.
Did You Mean It? and Nothin’ 1927 – The first tune was by Phil Baker, Sid Silvers and bandleader Abe Lyman and the scond was by veteran composers Roy Turk and Lou Handman. Marion never looked lovelier than on this magnificent color cover for her Lee and J. J. Shubert show A Night in Spain. She wasn’t in the original cast but joined soon after the revue was transferred to the Winter Garden Theater from the 44th Street Theater and she was a big hit after being added in the show.