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The Secret Diva of Louise Avenue
By Jack Neely

Ida Cox photo
Her gravestone in New Gray Cemetery on Western Avenue in Knoxville, Tenn. is so low and small you don't notice it unless you're looking carefully. Even when she was alive, it's safe to say most folks downtown about 1960 wouldn't have recognized this old black lady with cat's-eye glasses, her short graying hair parted on the side. She lived with her daughter in East Knoxville and never stepped out in front of an audience except on Sunday mornings at the Patton Street Church of God where she was a member of the choir. In that choir, she never stood out, never even soloed.

    She lived a modest life with her middle-aged daughter on Louise Avenue. Her daughter, Helen, had a good job as principal of the old Simpson School, a black elementary school in Vestal, Tenn. and they were better off than many. They had an upright piano and a television they looked at now and then. When Ida went out, no one stared or asked for her autograph. She'd lived there for over a decade, but according to one estimate, fewer than a dozen people in Knoxville knew who she was.

    Ida Cox was, simply, one of the most famous people who ever lived in Knoxville. Back in the '20s, at the height of the Jazz Age, she'd been known on thousands of record labels played on Victrolas coast to coast as "Ida Cox, Uncrowned Queen of the Blues."

    In her prime she had sung thousands of dates in nightclubs and tent shows across the nation and cut dozens and dozens of singles. Among them was a song she wrote herself and recorded in 1924: "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues." Years after her death, her song has taken on a career of its own, inspiring novels and bumper stickers; it appears on several modern CDs, including Lyle Lovett's latest, "Live In Texas," properly credited to songwriter Ida Cox.

    One apex of her career was when she appeared in John Hammond's 1938 revue, "From Spirituals to Swing." Cox was one of the headliners at the classic concert at Carnegie Hall which also featured Count Basie, Benny Goodman (with Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, and Fletcher Henderson), even Big Bill Broonzy. Ida herself sang with a band that included pianist James P. Johnson, saxophone legend Lester Young, and drummer Jo Jones. It became a classic recording on the Vanguard label, recently re-released on CD.

    Then she vanished. She dropped out of sight so completely that many of her old friends assumed she must have died. When the album version of "From Spirituals To Swing" was printed, Hammond wrote in the liner notes, "The whereabouts of Ida Cox, one of the very great blues singers of the '20s and '30s, is uncertain, and we can only hope that the rumors of her passing are false."

    Not only were those rumors false, but the old lady on Louise Avenue would make one more recording: the one she made in 1961 for Riverside Records. Named after an old song Ida used to sing about New Orleans, the album's called "Blues For Rampart Street." She made the record with the help of an unlikely ally, a white kid from West Knoxville who hadn't even been born when she last performed there.

***


    "Try to speak up loud as you can, Miss Cox," said a young man's voice in that recording. Her conversation surprises you, coming through over modern equipment she wouldn't have recognized. She sounds gracious, genteel, in the modest way of polite old Southern ladies.

    "I got millions of compliments," Ida Cox says of her early years. "But, you know, I didn't receive it. You see, I just thought I was hollering for no reason, and the man was paying me."

    The year was 1961, and she was speaking into the microphone of a reel-to-reel tape recorder brought to her house by a young white man. Tall, clean-shaven, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, the man was 24-year-old Lynn Westergaard, who lived in West Knoxville and worked as an announcer for local TV and radio stations. His last name was well known there. His father was local radio legend R.B. "Dick" Westergaard, longtime manager of WNOX, and the quiet force behind that station's country-music heyday.

    The younger Westergaard, a piano player himself, knew and respected several of the country stars who played on his dad's radio station. But his passion was jazz. At 24, he could talk about the old-time Jazz Age greats as easily as he could about the then-current bebop pioneers.

    In early '61 he'd heard some intriguing jazz news from his friend Harry Nides. A versatile musician, Nides (pronounced Nidus) was both a KSO violinist and a country fiddler. Nides had kept up with the music business better than most did. He had heard that John Hammond — probably the century's most influential popular-music impresario — had taken a break from promoting his latest find, a young Jewish kid from Minnesota who called himself Bob Dylan, to try to track down an old friend, the great Ida Cox. Many thought she had died young, like so many of her contemporaries — Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith. In 1960, Hammond ran an ad in Variety magazine seeking information about Ida Cox's whereabouts. He owed her some royalties for a recording she had made 20 years ago, and didn't want to believe the rumors that she was dead.

    Nides told Westergaard he'd heard that Ida Cox was living quietly in East Knoxville. According to some reports, she had turned down Hammond's entreaties, but Westergaard just had to go and talk to her. He looked Ida Cox up in the phone book, and gave her a call. He thinks it was in February, 1961, that he found her house on Louise Avenue. He introduced himself and befriended a legend.

    Lynn Westergaard today is a balding man in his 60s, but he seems younger. He has lived in Atlanta for almost 40 years, and now heads up a charity there. He comes back now and then for extended visits with friends. He was in Knoxville just a few weeks ago, and gave me a call. Modest in the way of tall, thin men, Westergaard's disarming manner of talking about the old buff leather valise he had brought up with him led me to expect something much less astonishing.

    Inside it there was a vinyl copy of the LP, "From Spirituals To Swing," and some recent CD translations of Ida Cox's work in the '20s, plus "Blues For Rampart Street." There were several photographs of the session, plus a big glossy photo of Ida Cox in her prime, autographed to "Mr. Westergaard," as well as the sometimes-contentious correspondence between Westergaard and Riverside Records. And a Chicago postcard signed "Ida." Plus: a full-page essay from the New Yorker in 1961; Ida Cox's recording contract; and a cassette-tape copy of part of Westergaard's 1961 interview with Ida Cox herself.

    He had opened their conversation by asking her when and where she was born; published reports disagreed about that. She seemed surprised by the question, as if she'd never thought about it.

    "Eighteen and sixty-eight?" she offered, though puzzled, perhaps by her stroke. Westergaard suggests 1896. Some sources said1894, or even 1889. She agreed that 1896 was close enough. She was more certain of the fact that she was born in the tiny community of Toccoa, Ga.

    "We lived on a farm, but we had everything that anyone else could want: hogs, cows, chickens. No doubt about it, we lived real well." They moved from one small town to another, Toccoa to Lawrenceville to Cedartown. Most of her singing in those days was in the Baptist Church: not quick-paced modern gospel, exactly, but old-time, slow spirituals.

    "I liked to sing, period," she said. "I liked to sing anything. I just liked to sing. I loved church songs, which I do today. I love to listen to a record of good church. Don't you?" she asked, in a way that didn't allow for a less-than-enthusiastic response.

    Sometime well before World War I, a traveling show called the Georgia Black & Tan Minstrels came through town. The manager was one Ed Grizzard, of Columbus, Ga., who told her she sounded like she'd been singing all her life. "He couldn't believe I had just started singing." Maybe it was the flattery that pulled her.

    "I ran away when I was 16 years old, to go on stage," she told Westergaard. (She had told other interviewers that she was just 14.) "I ran away with a minstrel show. There was a couple with the show that I got acquainted with, Charles and Lily White. They told me how I could get away, and they'd help me. So I told them what they would have to do was to come to my house one night after the show. I told them what night to come. I'd leave my clothes packed sitting outside the window — and for them to just take the bag with my clothes in it back to the car. And later on, I'd be on out. Oh, dear, that's how I got away."

    Westergaard asked her what her mother had thought about it. "Of course, she didn't want to hear about it," Cox responded. "Anyway, I had just gone." She said she never returned to her hometown except once, rolling through on a train.

    She stayed with that show for a year, then joined another. She sang mainly ragtime tunes, ballads mostly. "Ragtime songs was what we called them in those days. Latter years, of course, they started calling them blues."

    She mentioned a couple she remembered: "Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey, Hold Me Tight" and "Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland." Westergaard asked her if she sang these ballads with a blues feel, even at the beginning.

    "I imagine I did," she answered. "I guess I did. It's all I knew."

    Then she joined the faster lanes of Vaudeville: "To my recollection, I played so many, I played every state in this union."

    Approaching 20, she settled down for a while in Chicago, working at the Monogram Theater, and the Grand. It was there that she became acquainted with Louis Armstrong, a young trumpeter who accompanied her in a speakeasy, and King Oliver. She knew all the greats, even sang with Jelly Roll Morton on occasion.

    "I met Ma Rainey when I was playing an old Airdome Theater," she recalled on Westergaard's tape. "She was much more popular than I. She had been in show business for quite some time. Ma Rainey was just like a mother, not to one but to all who knew her. She was a lovely person. I was even in her home in Columbus, Ga. I was playing there, and I remember her coming down to the theater and sitting (in) I think the second or third row from the front. Her health had begun failing her then. And she never lived to overcome this devil sickness." Ma Rainey died of heart disease in 1939.

    "Ethel Waters was a fine fellow, a wonderful person to know. We were very, very friendly. She always liked the style of hats I wore. She always paid me for them, gave me more than I paid for them. I guess I haven't seen Ethel in 20 years. I see her quite often on TV. I always admired her. She was a wonderful singer. And still is — what she'd sing, she does only church songs now.

    "Bessie Smith, Bessie too, Bessie was a wonderful girl and we were very friendly. Bessie, Clara, Ethel. . . ."

    She coughed, and that was the end of the tape. She hadn't yet gotten to her own career. Westergaard recorded much more, but doesn't know what happened to the rest.

    Ida spent 30 years in show business, witnessing what may have been the most fertile era in the history of American popular music. She grew up on spirituals and learned ragtime. When jazz and the blues arrived, she was right there.

    Her music didn't make much of a distinction between the two. In 1923, at the very dawn of jazz recording, she cut her first commercial 78s. Most of her songs are blues in their basic lyric form. But her accompaniment in the early days was not a guitar, but a small jazz band. The piano, clarinet and cornet, sometimes with a banjo or drums thrown in for percussion, had a wild sound like a particularly uninhibited klezmer band. Ida Cox was from the country, sure enough, but she didn't live there anymore.

    In her personal life, it's fair to say she paid her dues. She had a baby she named Helen, apparently before she was 20. Somewhere in there, she married. First, a showman named Adler Cox. Then her favorite pianist, Jesse Crump. There are stories that she married a third time.

    In her 1924 song, "Confidential Blues," you get the feeling she knows what she's singing about:
Lord, I went to Europe, was about to be a good man's wife
But along came somebody and told him all of my past life.
Goodbye, people, please don't spread the news
Because anything I've told you is strictly confidential blues.
    She didn't have the experience of Ma Rainey, and she wasn't nearly as beautiful as Bessie Smith. Ida Cox had something else altogether. A big part of it was the fact that she wrote many of her own songs, a habit very unusual for vocalists of her day.

    Between 1923 and 1940, she would cut at least 65 records. Many are mournful dirges from the point of view of a woman heartbroken because her man's gone, either because he left her or because she shot him. Like "Graveyard Bound Blues":
When they carried him to the graveyard, Lord, how I did rave
And when they lowered his coffin, I jumped right down in his grave.
    Paramount often billed her as the Uncrowned Queen of the Blues, but she went by other nicknames, as well. One of the most telling was a billing she got at the Apollo in 1934: "The Sepia Mae West." Like her contemporary, Ida Cox was buxom, and proud of it, favoring low-cut dresses. And like Mae West she sang frankly about sex, sometimes in a tough, bawdy, saloon-tempered style. But some of Ida's lyrics might have made Mae blush: "Handy Man," for example, one of the songs she sang for Westergaard's tape.
He greases my griddle, creams my wheat, churns my butter, chops my meat
Oh, that man is such a handy man....
You ought to see that brand-new stopper he uses in my machine . . . .
    Even more risque was a later song, her own "One Hour Mama":
I'm a one-hour Mama
So no one-minute Papa
Ain't the kind of man for me . . .
I don't want no lame excuses
About my loving being so good
That you couldn't wait no longer
Now I hope I'm understood . . . .
    Sometimes she'd illustrate her lyrics with a "shimmy dance." Men would come see her shows and enjoy them in the same way they might have enjoyed a strip-tease show. But they'd also get a stern lesson about one woman's will. Several of her songs refer to "monkey men," whom Ida, or her persona, defined as men who were good only for sex — and not very good for that. Listen to her early classic, "Chicago Monkey Man Blues":
I've got a monkey man here, and a monkey man over there
If monkey men were money, I'd be Chicago's millionaire. . .
I've got 14 men now and only want one more
And as soon as I get that one I'll let the 14 go.
    "Bear-Mash Blues" (1924) is more mournful, but with a similar situation:
I got two men, can't tell them apart
Only one's my living, the other one's my heart.
The one's my living, he won't let me be
But the one that's my heart don't care for me.
    Among her early sidemen were some of the greats of the day. Tommy Ladnier on trombone. The great Johnny Dodds, the New Orleans clarinet master. Even Fletcher Henderson, just before his greatest fame as the effective inventor of the big-band sound, played piano on several Ida Cox releases in 1924. He was billed as one of her "Blue Spells."

    That was the year she recorded the first version of what's now her most famous song, and one of her best. She had written it herself:
I never was known to treat no one man right
I keep 'em working hard both day and night. . .
You won't get nothing by being an angel child
You better change your ways and get real wild
Because wild women don't worry
Wild women don't have the blues. . . .
    She's known to have performed in Knoxville at least once during her prime, in 1930 at the Gem Theater, on old Vine Street. (Torn down in the '70s, the Gem was near what's now the intersection of Summit Hill and Central.) She likely performed here other times as well.

    By most sources, it was in 1945 — the date was April 12, the same day that President Roosevelt died — that Ida Cox was performing at the Moonglow nightclub in Buffalo, N.Y., when she grew dizzy, then blacked out. She'd suffered a serious stroke that left her face partially paralyzed.

    She eventually moved to Knoxville to live with her daughter. Helen Goode was a Knoxville College grad who had married a local man. She'd been working here as a schoolteacher since the '30s. Ida herself had never lived here, but, as she said, "I knew Knoxville all right" from her appearances at the Gem.

    Shaken by her illness, she reassessed her life and returned to the religion she was raised with. Over the next decade, she fell out of touch with all her old show-biz acquaintances. She claimed she never even thought about the life she'd left behind. "There wasn't anything I could do about it," she told one reporter.

    Re-enter John Hammond, the blues impresario. After he wrote his essay wondering about Ida Cox's fate, he ran the ad in Variety. Through a grapevine that included the manager of Knoxville's Gem Theater, word came to Cox, and to an ambitious young radio reporter.

    They made an unusual pair, especially in 1961, when many Knoxville restaurants and schools and movie theaters were still segregated: the clean-cut white man from West Knoxville and the black blues legend at least 40 years his senior. The first desegregationist sit-ins in Knoxville had been less than a year before. He might have been mistaken for a civil-rights volunteer.

    "She was kind of like a grandmother," Westergaard recalls. "She had a sweet, soft side. But you could see under her grandmotherly demeanor that she had had a difficult life."

    He admits he saw opportunities for his own radio career in Ida's return to recording. But as a radio man, he saw the job at hand was to get some demo tapes to New York. "My main purpose was to see if she could sing well enough to record," he says. Along the way, he says, he became her de facto manager. (According to some written accounts, John Hammond himself came to Knoxville to visit Ida Cox and make some tapes; by others, Chris Albertson of Riverside Records came to town to make the tapes. Westergaard never heard about those visits, and doubts they ever happened.)

    For Westergaard's tape, she needed an accompanist, of course. Westergaard himself played piano with her some, as did a woman friend of Ida's. Part of his tape had Cox singing a couple of old blues numbers, getting frustrated with a piano player who wasn't playing like she was used to. "Looky, looky," she said. "You know the blues, don't you? The down-home blues, the good ole, everyday blues."

    She finally settled on a more tested performer, a nightclub piano player well-known around town, Charlie Boyd. He lived next door.

    Westergaard recalls that Cox seemed insecure, as if she wasn't sure it was going to work. "She felt that she was out of the loop," he recalls, "after so many years out of the mainstream."

    She had reason to be uncertain, and Westergaard knew it. She was about 65 — maybe a few years older than that — and, of course, she'd had a stroke from which she hadn't fully recovered. When she spoke, part of her face didn't move.

    As Boyd played her upright, Ida Cox sang into Westergaard's reel-to-reel, rowdy old blues songs. Westergaard witnessed a transformation come over the shy old lady. "She could stand up and belt it out like nobody's business," he says. He knew then it was going to work.

    He sent the tapes to Riverside to bolster Hammond's assertion Ida Cox should make another record. Westergaard wanted to convince Riverside that an Ida Cox recording would be feasible and worthwhile. He also needed to convince Ida Cox herself.

    Her reluctance wasn't based entirely on her concerns about her vocal quality. She may have viewed her 1945 stroke as an act of God; as she had recovered, she had mended her ways and given up the blues altogether.

    They went to New York in April, to a studio on the fourth floor of Radio City Music Hall. It was a memorable day, by coincidence 16 years to the day since Ida Cox had suffered the stroke that might have ended her career.

    Of course, Jazz-Age blues weren't trendy in April of '61. The two big songs on the radio that month were the Marcels' doo-wop version of "Blue Moon" and Del Shannon's "Runaway." Jazz itself had changed radically, from the dance music it had been in the '20s and '30s, to the deeper, more contemplative strains of bebop. Older folks remembered who Ida Cox was, though, and crowded in to see her.

    Westergaard was impressed by the hubbub: John Hammond himself was there; Rockettes came and went through the studio. It was an unusual session in that it had attracted several music critics, the sort who would ordinarily wait until the record came out before paying it any mind. Some in the studio described it as the best-attended recording session in memory.

    Trumpeter Roy Eldridge, saxman Coleman Hawkins and bassist Milt Hinton were her band — along with drummer Jo Jones, who had backed her up in that big Carnegie Hall show back in '38. "I heard her call them boys," Westergaard recalled. The men were all in their 50s, all jazz legends.

    Westergaard recalled that Hawkins was late. Ida Cox's old pianist and former husband, Jesse Crump, had also been unable to make it, and that was a disappointment to Cox. Boogie-woogie stylist Sammy Price filled in on piano. Westergaard says he was in awe of being in the same studio with some of his jazz heroes. He took pictures of everything he saw.

    When Coleman Hawkins arrived, having overslept, he and Eldridge sat in folding chairs and blew, and during breaks, shared a bottle of Beefeaters gin. But they played so well the album would become almost as well known for its instrumental breaks as for Ida's singing. They decided they wouldn't try to imitate the sound of 30 or 40 years ago, but do a modern-jazz accompaniment to the same music.

    Ida Cox wore a white sweater as she sang; she said it was chilly in the studio. On the recording, her voice sounded aged, sometimes a little off-key, but still had her trademark get-out-of-the-way muscle to it; she didn't put up with any monkey men's tricks in her youth, and she wasn't about to start at this stage of her life. She sang several songs, including "Graveyard Dream Blues," "Moanin' Groanin' Blues," "'Fore Day Creep," and her classic:
Wild women don't worry
Wild women don't have the blues. . . .
    In the album's title tune, she made a subtle change in the lyrics she'd recorded in 1924: "I'm going down to some cafe / I wanna hear that colored jazz band play." In 1961, during the Civil Rights era, some had objected to the word "colored"; this time she substituted the word "creole".

    The session was over in six hours.

    Ida Cox was a celebrity in New York that week. She appeared on Merv Griffin's quiz show called "Play Your Hunch," in which blindfolded panelists were expected to guess who they were talking to as Ida Cox wailed, "Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey, Hold Me Tight." They failed.

    Whitney Bailliet of the New Yorker interviewed her at length in her room at the Paramount Hotel. "Guess who was in and out of town last week, and after a 20-year absence, at that!" went the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column. "Ida Cox, the legendary blues singer. . . ." The long article described Cox as "tallish, straight-backed, gray-haired, and handsomely proportioned" looking "several decades younger than her age." Bailliet marveled that Cox had been "living in total obscurity in Knoxville, Tenn."

    Riverside paid Cox $250 for her work. Westergaard complained that she'd signed a contract for $500, plus five percent royalties. Today he doesn't know whether she ever received the balance.

    Westergaard himself was never cut into the deal. He says his preoccupation with Ida Cox that Spring cost him his job at WATE; he found a job with an Atlanta radio station and has lived there ever since. It also cost him on a more personal level. His first child, Mark, was born the day he was in the studio with Cox. It seemed to be his only regret about the experience.

    "Blues For Rampart Street" was released nationally a few weeks later, and got rave reviews from High Fidelity and other music magazines. It might have seemed like a comeback. Cox would have none of it. "I don't want to ever make a record again," she told a reporter. "I just did this one because the people wanted me to. I hope God doesn't think it was a sin. I've prayed for Him to forgive me if He thinks it was."

    Then Ida Cox was content to disappear again, to her cloistered life on Louise Ave. She made no more records. In Atlanta, Westergaard occasionally got a scrawled postcard from her, usually asking about the health of his family, especially the son who was born the day she made her last recording. (Mark Westergaard is raising a family of his own in Montana, where he prospects for natural resources.)

    Ida Cox lived to see the removal of her old church, Patton Street Church of God, through urban renewal, which soon claimed the Gem Theater, as well.

    Suffering from cancer in 1967, Cox was admitted to Knoxville's Baptist Hospital. Westergaard visited her only days before she died. She had spent her last 18 years living in Knoxville; it was longer than she had ever spent anywhere else. Originally buried at Longview Cemetery, her grave was apparently moved to New Gray, where it is now, near the grave of her daughter Helen Goode, who died in 1992.

    Cox wrote and sang several songs about graveyards and, as it happens, these two gravestones add another facet to the mystery of Ida Cox. If the inscribed birthdates are correct, Helen was born when her mother was only 14. According to the newspaper obituary, Ida Cox's daughter was born in Cedartown, Ga., the hometown Ida Cox said she fled forever when she was 16.

    When Cox told Westergaard about running away from home, she didn't say anything about running away with a small child in tow. Her gravestone, flush with the mown grass, is unremarkable except for the addition of one word: Mother.

    The one-story frame house she and her daughter shared still stands on Louise Avenue. Whether she would have been 104 or 106 or maybe 111 doesn't really matter.

Jack Neely writes for Metropulse, Knoxville's alternative weekly newspaper, where this article first appeared.
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