Big talent trumpet player Tiny Davis: from Sweetheart to Hell Diver

This week’s post was written by guest writer JD Doyle, an expert in LGBT music.

*********tiny davisYa gotta love a woman who names her band the Hell Divers. But that’s just a delicious morsel of her musical history. That was Ernestine “Tiny” Davis. She was popular as both a trumpet player and vocalist, beginning in the early 1940s, when she joined The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Big bands were popular during the war years and since a lot of male musicians were overseas, many all-women bands were formed, including this one. And it was extremely successful, packing houses until it chose to disband in 1948. At one point, Louis Armstrong tried to hire Tiny Davis away from the Sweethearts, offering her ten times the pay, but she just wouldn’t leave her girls. One of her girls was the drummer, Ruby Lucas, and they were partners for 40 years.

But that glossed over a lot. For example, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were formed out of a school for black foster kids in Mississippi, the Piney Woods School, training their girls to play instruments in an effort to help financially support the school. After achieving some national attention, the band cut ties with the school and moved to Virginia, and began recruiting some more seasoned professional musicians, including Tiny. An interesting angle is that not only was this an all-female band, quite unusual in the early 1940’s, but the members were diverse racially (black, Asian, Latina, Indian, etc) which certainly lived up to the “International” in their name. Another interesting aspect was when they performed in the deep south, the Caucasian members would have to apply dark make-up when performing to avoid violent racism or being arrested by the police.

international sweethearts of rhythm

International Sweethearts of Rhythm, circa 1946. Tiny had already joined the band, but she may not be in this photo.

Back to the early 1940’s, when the Sweethearts were at their peak, a film was even made about them. And they could swing!  Tiny Davis shows up prominently at the 7:20 mark.

After the war, with the male musicians back home, bookings got harder for the Sweethearts, and they disbanded in 1948. Tiny then went on to form her own band, Tiny Davis & the Hell Divers, though the three 78 rpm records she released on Decca, in 1949, were all billed as Tiny Davis & Her Orchestra. Whatever the name, she got many national bookings. Still, in post-war times, work was harder to find for women jazz musicians, so she and Ruby opened their own club in Chicago, Tiny & Ruby’s Gay Spot, guaranteeing them permanent gigs. In 1958 the city took over the property to build an expressway and she played other Chicago clubs for awhile, until arthritis sidelined her.

tiny davis hell divers

Tiny Davis on trumpet. That’s probably Ruby Lucas at the piano.

We are fortunate that in 1987 Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss produced a 28 minute documentary on Tiny Davis, and you can see about seven minutes of it here. Tiny and Ruby were both interviewed, and Tiny died in 1994.

Click here to see my own Tiny Davis tribute section set up for her, on my site.

And please visit the blog that accompanies my radio shows and website. Find it here. My site has a lot more about other artists and music. It’s here.


From Jamie: I highly recommend visiting his site. He probably has the largest collection of LGBT music found anywhere. A lot of what’s there comes from his personal collection. Make a pot of coffee and plan to spend some time.

About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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1 Response to Big talent trumpet player Tiny Davis: from Sweetheart to Hell Diver

  1. Maureen Cullingham says:

    Jamie, hi, I live in Ottawa, have seen you play, but we haven’t met. We have some friends in common on Facebook. Anyway, if you look for me on Facebook, you can see my recently discovered photo signed to my mother from Tiny Davis and her band! Trying to date it. Anyway, please have a look. Thanks Maureen Cullingham

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