Considered one of the finest singers of the big band era, Ivie Anderson was a fluent vocalist who impressed many with her blues and scat phrasings. Most impressed was Duke Ellington, who kept her on as vocalist for eleven years until she retired due to health issues.
Anderson’s birthplace is disputed. Throughout her life, she insisted that she was born in Gilroy, California, but later research questions this. Some historians believe she was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, while others say Bossier Parish, Louisiana. Records exist to support all three locations. Whatever her birthplace, Anderson was in Gilroy by 1913. As a young girl she received vocal training at the local St. Mary’s Convent and later spent two years studying with Sara Ritt in Washington, D.C. Returning home in 1923, she began singing at local clubs, working with such artists as Curtis Mosby, Paul Howard, Sonny Clay, Les Hite, and briefly with Anson Weeks at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco.
Anderson also made a name for herself in vaudeville, touring the country as a dancer and vocalist in a Fanchon and Marco revue starring Mamie Smith and later in Shuffle Along. She was featured vocalist at the Culver City Cotton Club before leaving for Australia in 1928 with another Fanchon and Marco revue. Returning after five months down under, she organized her own show and toured the West Coast for twenty weeks. In mid-1930, she began what would become a twenty-week engagement at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, working with Earl Hines.
It was at the Grand Terrace where Ellington first heard her sing. When her engagement ended in February 1931, theater chain owners Balaban and Katz asked her to audition for a four-week Ellington tour. At first, Anderson had no interest, but Hines talked her into it, knowing it was the chance of a lifetime. Ellington hired her, and she ended up staying beyond her initial contract, becoming the first singer to join a black orchestra as a regular member.
Under Ellington’s guidance, Anderson soon earned a reputation as one of the top singers in the country, though she never achieved the same level of recognition as many of her later contemporaries, such as Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. Part of the reason was that Anderson didn’t employ a press agent. She was content to simply be a part of Ellington’s band, and her name was rarely thrust into the headlines unless she sang on a hit recording.
Anderson credits Ellington for helping her create her own unique style and personality. Ellington suggested she wear only white dresses and encouraged her to create a stage character. He also took the effort to supply her with the right musical accompaniment. She quickly became a fixture of the orchestra’s sound at a time when Ellington was defining the emerging swing genre that would soon sweep the nation. She gave voice to some of the band’s most memorable tunes of the era, including “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Stormy Weather,” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” often considered her greatest recording. In 1937, she also cut sides with the Gotham Stompers and the Boys of Dixie, also called the Dixie Boys, and in 1939 she was featured in the Marx Brothers’ film A Day at the Races, singing “All God’s Chillun’ Got Rhythm.”
In 1934, Anderson married trumpet player Louis Bacon, who had recently joined Ellington’s band. Bacon played with many of the best during the 1930s, including Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter. In July 1939, he went to Europe, where he worked with Willie Lewis’ band in the Netherlands. He was there when Germany invaded in May 1940, and Anderson received no word from her husband for months until two letters reached her in September, saying that he was safe and trying to find a way to get home. Bacon and his bandmates eventually made it to Switzerland in July 1941, from where they finally managed to return to the United States. According to Lewis, Dutch fascists had burst into the club where the band was performing and had announced that no Jews or foreigners were allowed to play.
Anderson left Ellington and semi-retired in August 1942 due to chronic asthma, settling in Los Angeles where she ran her own Chicken Shack restaurant. She made her debut as a single at the Swanee Inn in Los Angeles on September 15. Throughout the 1940s, she continued to sing regularly in West Coast nightclubs and make occasional recordings, including with Ceelle Burke’s orchestra in 1944 on the Exclusive label and on the Black and White label with Phil Moore’s orchestra in 1946. She also recorded as Ivie Anderson and Her All-Stars that year as well.
Anderson’s asthma kept her from touring extensively, though she did travel from time to time. In early 1944, she spent eight weeks at the El Patio in Mexico City, and in summer 1945 she spent a month at the El Grotto in Chicago, backed by Sonny Thompson’s new band. In March 1946, she appeared at the Club Barone in New York, her first time in Manhattan since she had left Ellington. Her medical condition ultimately led to her early death. Anderson entered the hospital in mid-December 1949 but on the day after Christmas had been deemed on the road to recovery and allowed to return home. She passed away on December 28 after a severe asthma attack.
After her death, a dispute arose over Anderson’s estate. She had divorced Bacon by 1948 and married Mark “Marques” Neal, a restaurant operator, though unknown to all but her closest friends she had annulled that marriage after a few months. She then had quietly married Los Angeles businessman Walter Collins on December 15, 1949, a few days before her admission to the hospital. Many still believed she was married to Neal at the time of her death. Anderson left an estate worth over $50,000 and died without a will. Neal claimed a share in the estate.