I was lucky enough to spend a few days at the University of Mississippi, going through their blues archives when a photo of an elegant mixed race woman wearing a fur fell out of a manila folder. It had been taken sometime in the seventies, it had that orange look to it, in the wallpaper and how the image had faded. But she caught my eye. She looked directly at the camera, older, maybe in her sixties and confident. The blue ink on the back said Princess White. I went through the contents of the folder to find out more: it contained correspondence between Clyde Bernhardt, one of the top trombone players of his time, and Sandra Lieb, a researcher who was looking at Ma Rainey for her PhD thesis. He mentioned Princess White to her. Sandra didn’t know anything about her. He explained that she’s been one of the top female blues singers around back into the day, but had never been allowed to record because of her men. She’d had relationships with theatre owners and those working in the industry and they didn’t want to lose her audience. You see, if she had recorded then people could listen to her any time they wanted and then the people who went crazy for her (especially North Carolina) wouldn’t spend so much money on tickets. Those guys really didn’t understand records and marketing.
More digging since has found that Princess White was born in 1881 in Philadelphia, her mother was Native American, that she’d been performing since she was five years old, first with Salica Bryan and her Pickaninnies, going across Europe. Princess had everything, she was a dancer, a singer able manage complex tunes that some of the other top women (Ma and Bessie) were not able to manage, a comedian, a songwriter, a musician; Princess was a force to be reckoned with. She toured and performed with the top bands, the top singers and wrote the hit songs Hesitating Blues, Peepin’ in the Wrong Keyhole, and Every Woman’s Blues.
After the depression hit, Princess began to step away from performing and ran nightclubs in New Jersey. The church played a large part in her life, until Clyde discovered she was still alive.
He tracked her down and persuaded her to sing with his band, and even record three songs with Clyde’s Harlem Blues and Jazz Band in 1975. She was 92. NINETY TWO. Princess then went on tour until she came off stage one evening in 1976 and had a heart attack. She died right there in the wings. Clyde was devastated. He said back in the blues hey day people only threw money on stage for very few woman singers, maybe two or three, and Princess was one of them, he said the crowds would go wild for her, that she was the best blues female singer that ever was.
I’ve got the three recordings of Princess, her voice is amazing for 92, and I wish I could have heard her in her prime. I think it would have been something else. At least we can still hear now.