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