MILLS, FLORENCE (Florence Winfree) (1896–1927) Singer
One of most popular singers of the Jazz Age, Florence Mills was born Florence Winfree in Washington, D.C., on January 25, 1896. Entered in dance contests while still a toddler, she made her professional debut at seven, billed as Baby Florence Mills in the touring revue Sons of Ham. She was taken under the wing of the star Aida Overton Walker, who taught her to sing her own song, “Miss Hannah from Savannah.” Mills quickly became a staple of the African-American vaudeville circuit.
As a teenager, Mills began touring with her sisters Olivia and Maude as the Mills Sisters. After the group broke up, she moved to Chicago and started singing at nightclubs. Mills formed a trio with Ada Smith and Cora Green to play the Panama Club, where disregarding the mores of the day, African Americans and whites danced together. Mills briefiy returned to vaudeville as a singer and dancer with the Tennessee Ten. In 1923, she married another member of the group, Ulysses S. “Slow Kid” Thompson.
In 1921, Mills was asked to star in Shuffle Along, a musical comedy by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show was the first African-American revue to attract a large white audience. It is credited with introducing to jazz rhythms and dance into the mainstream of American culture. With the musical’s success, Mills became a star among African Americans and whites. With a petite frame and a high, birdlike voice, she consistently stole the show with her rendition of “I’m Craving for That Kind of Love.”
In 1922, white showman Lew Leslie hired Mills to perform at his Plantation Club. He also made her the star of the Plantation Revue, which opened on Broadway. The next year, Mills took her act to London and appeared in the stage show From Dover Street to Dixie. Renamed From Dixie to Broadway, the revue was relocated to New York, where it became the first African-American musical comedy performed in a Broadway theater. The show gave Mills her signature song, “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Blue Bird.”
Leslie built his next musical, Blackbirds of 1926, around his star. After playing six weeks in Harlem, the revue traveled to Paris and London. The show was sensation among the British elite. The Prince of Wales claimed to have seen it more than 20 times. The fashionable widely imitated Mills’s personal style, particularly her slick bobbed haircut. Mills withdrew from the show due to ill health and returned to New York in September 1927. The next month, she had two emergency operations for appendicitis. Mills died of paralytic ileus resulting from her illness on November 1, 1927. The fans of her short career were stunned by her sudden death. More than 5,000 people attended her funeral, while some 150,000 mourners crowded the streets of Harlem to pay their respects.
Moore, James Ross. “Mills, Florence.” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 15, pp. 547–548. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1980.
Woll, Allen L. Black Musical Theater. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.