Best remembered today as Georgia Gibbs, the professional name which she adopted in 1942, singer Fredda Gibson started her career in the 1930s as a band vocalist. Narratives on Gibbs often paint a picture of her earlier career as one of little success, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. While she did eventually achieve greater fame as Georgia Gibbs, as Fredda Gibson she was a well-known radio singer whose name and picture regularly appeared in newspapers across the country during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Often called “the Gibson girl,” her swift rise to fame in 1937 earned her the nickname “Cinderella girl of radio.”
Much of Gibbs’ early history has been distorted or glossed over by later retellings of her story, often by Gibbs herself who downplayed her career as Fredda Gibson and left out events that didn’t fit her official history. As both Gibbs and Gibson, however, she told a common origin story of having lived in an orphanage in Worcester, Massachusetts, for much of her early life. The youngest of four children, her mother had been unable to take care of her and her siblings after their father died. When she was nine, her mother finally was able to remove them from the orphanage. It was during this period of her life when she began singing.
In a 1937 interview, Gibson claimed to have dropped out of school when she was 14 years old to begin singing with orchestras. She gave no indication what bands those might have been, but in 1932 she was on Boston radio sharing the mike with Buddy Clark on a program sponsored by a furrier, and in late 1936 she became vocalist for the Hudson-DeLange Orchestra, where she replaced Ruth Gaylor. A newspaper article at the time said she had “made a very favorable reputation before coming to the Hudson-DeLange combine.”
Gibson made her first recording with Hudson-DeLange on the Brunswick label, and it was that recording which CBS radio orchestra leader Richard Himber heard in early 1937. After some initial confusion over the fact that Brunswick, who were notorious for butchering the names of vocalists, had billed her as “Freddy” Gibson, Himber managed to track her down while Hudson-DeLange were playing at Cornell University, and he offered her a job. Gibson at first thought it was a joke but soon discovered otherwise and headed to New York, where she sang on Himber’s Studebaker Champions show twice before being given a three-year contact with the network and a Warner Bros. screen test.
1938 proved to be a banner year for Gibson. She reunited with Clark on Your Hit Parade and also joined the NBC Blue Royal Crown Revue program starring Tim and Irene Ryan, where she not only sang but also took part in comedy sketches. In early 1939, she worked with Hal Kemp’s orchestra on CBS. When vocalist Judy Starr left Kemp’s band, Gibson was assigned by CBS to take her place. She recorded with Kemp but remained with the band for only a short time until Maxine Gray returned after a year’s absence due to injuries. Gibson then worked on the CBS Summer Colony/Summer Hour radio program.
Gibson continued appearing on various CBS programs over the next two years, including The Battle of Music and Music Americana in 1940. In early 1940, she recorded with Frankie Trumbauer’s band, which had largely been organized for studio work. 1941 saw her on Meet the Music, also known as Composer’s Corner, with Jack Leonard and on Percy Faith’s Summer Concert. She was also heard twice weekly on a sustainer with singer Bob Hannon and made an appearance on an early New York television program. Her career began to flag, however, when her CBS contract wasn’t renewed.
In January 1942, bandleader Artie Shaw heard Gibson sing and hired her for a recording session with his orchestra. A day after the session was finished, the bandleader entered the hospital for an operation and put his orchestra on notice. Gibson worked on NBC Red’s Battle of the Sexes in early 1942, but by mid-year, though, Shaw had joined the Navy and was making a farewell tour using Lee Castle’s band. As a vocalist, he hired Gibson.
Shaw called Gibson “the greatest singer of American songs today” and took such an interest in her that he instructed his personal manager, Dick Dorso, to help her out. Dorso, working with Bill Murray at the William Morris agency, began a total makeover of Gibson, changing her hair, her costuming and her name. They also turned her over to bandleader Paul Baron for vocal coaching. The end result was Georgia Gibbs, a “new” singer who quickly caught the public’s attention.
As Georgia Gibbs
Gibbs soon ended up back on CBS, where she signed a thirteen-week contract for the Camel Caravan radio series, taking over for Connee Boswell. In early 1943, she recorded V-Discs and appeared on Command Performance radio broadcasts for the AFRS. She also opened at New York’s famous Cafe Society night club, where she became a regular over the next two years, and secured a spot on the Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore radio program Everything Goes, where she was dubbed “Her Nibs” by Moore, a nickname she used for the rest of her career. She remained with Durante’s show into 1945, traveling to the West Coast with it in 1944 while Durante made a film. In late 1944, she recorded two sides for the Maestro Music label.
Little was said of Gibbs’ previous career after the name change. In 1943, Down Beat magazine indicated that they weren’t allowed to publish her old name in articles. Her early history also began to be rewritten, especially after she achieved major success in 1952. In an article written for Down Beat by Gibbs that year, she lists her total recording output but fails to mention her time in the studio as Fredda Gibson for Hudson-DeLange, Trumbauer, and Kemp though does include her work with Shaw. She also doesn’t include her two sides for Maestro. In a 1955 interview, she leaves Shaw completely out of the picture, stating that she’d never sang with a name band and that all her early experience was with local Boston bands. She claimed that her big break came when she auditioned for Jimmy Durante’s radio show.
In late 1945, Gibbs caused controversy during a tour with Hal McIntyre’s orchestra on which she was the headliner. During a show at the Earle in Philadelphia, a situation arose between Gibbs and McIntyre’s vocalist, Ruth Gaylor, the same singer Gibbs had replaced in the Hudson-DeLange Orchestra in 1936. Gaylor’s only song on the tour was “I’m Gonna Love That Guy.” Gibbs also decided to sing the same song, which meant that Gaylor, who had no time to prepare other arrangements, had to sit out the show, which also meant not getting paid. According to Gaylor, Gibbs had agreed not to do the song during the tour’s show in New York but then suddenly changed her mind in Philadelphia. McIntyre’s band reacted by refusing to play the song for Gibbs during rehearsal. Gibbs, who said she didn’t recall ever agreeing not to do the number, left the tour at the end of the Philadelphia engagement. She claims that booking agent William Morris, who handled both her and the band, had okayed their songlists. The incident made the trade press and the gossip columns, with Gibbs being played as the villain.
Gibbs’ career began to decline post-war. In 1946, she signed with the Majestic label. Reviews of her early Majestic recordings, which were mostly standards, were generally unfavorable, and by mid-1947 she began to focus on jazzier numbers and novelty songs. When Majestic went out of business in late 1947, it left her without a recording contract. Also in 1947, she recorded a V-Disc, and that June she began her own summer replacement series on NBC radio, taking over for Eddie Cantor’s program during its seasonal break. David Rose provided the orchestra.
Gold Records and Later Years
Despite not having a recording contract or major radio presence after 1947, Gibbs still continued to attract crowds on the night club circuit. A 1950 review of Gibbs live finds the reviewer complimenting her voice but lamenting the use of gimmicks in her performance. 1950 also found Gibbs signing with Coral records, leaving in 1951 for Mercury. Her Coral releases garnered little interest, and her earliest sides for Mercury received less than stellar reviews, but that quickly changed in 1952 with “Kiss of Fire.” With its faux Spanish guitar and Gibbs’ earnest vocals, “Kiss of Fire” caught the public’s attention and became her first gold record, putting her name into the spotlight. Overnight, she went from singing in mid-tier night clubs to performing in world-class venues alongside major stars.
Despite her sudden international stardom, Gibbs had a difficult time replicating the success of “Kiss of Fire.” She eventually turned to covering hit rhythm and blues songs and watering them down for white audiences, and it was this controversial formula which finally put her back into the top of the charts again in 1955. That year, she scored simultaneous Top 10 hits with covers of LaVern Baker’s “Tweedle Dee” and Etta James’ “Dance With Me Henry,” both of which eclipsed their original versions in sales and popularity.
White artists appropriating black music was a contentious issue during the 1950s, with many in the music industry and the black community feeling that it robbed black artists of any chance for crossover success, as radio stations would invariably play the white artists’ cover of the song over the original black version. Gibbs, as one of the prime offenders of this practice, has received much criticism over the years. Baker was furious about Gibbs’ version of “Tweedlee Dee” and another of her songs, “Tra La La,” publicly accusing Gibbs of copying her style. Most famously, when Baker went on a tour of Australia, she took out an insurance policy worth $125,000 and made Gibbs the beneficiary. In a note to Gibbs, Baker wrote “this should be at least partial compensation for you if I should be killed or injured and thereby deprive you of the opportunity of copying my songs and arrangements in the future.”
Gibbs continued to sing for Mercury into early 1957 but failed to chart another hit. The rise of Rock and Roll effectively killed her career, though she continued singing and recording through the 1960s. She released material on the Imperial and Roulette labels in 1960, Epic in 1963, and Bell in 1965. She appeared as a guest on multiple television variety and interview shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Georgia Gibbs passed away in 2006 at age 88.
The Irene Ryan of the Tim and Irene Ryan comedy team was the same Irene Ryan who would later cement her place in pop culture history as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies. The Royal Crown Revue also featuring George Olsen’s band and Eddy Howard. ↩︎
Gibson’s recordings with Trumbauer were re-released on the Juke Box label in 1945 billed as “Frankie and Her Boys.” ↩︎
Lee Castle had been part of Artie Shaw’s band prior to its January 1942 break-up and had just formed his own outfit. ↩︎
When Majestic went out of business in late 1947, its masters were bought at auction by Mercury Records, who then sold them to the Varsity label. Varsity re-released Gibbs’ sides and later sold the masters to Royale, who then also released them under their own name. ↩︎