Saturday, 14 December 2013
Viola Wells born 14 December 1902
Viola Wells Evans, (b. Viola Gertrude Wells, Dec.14, 1902, Newark, NJ, USA. d. Dec. 22, 1984, Belleville, NJ, USA.) was a much admired jazz and blues singer during the mid-'30s to the mid-'40s although her professional career spanned 60 years.
Wells' career began with her first gig at the Minis Theater in Newark, NJ. In the 1920s, she worked in some traveling shows, and in the 1930s, she was a member of "Banjo Bernie's Band", subsequently touring with singer Ida Cox. She became known as ''Miss Rhapsody'' because she frequently sang the songs ''Rhapsody in Rhythm'' and ''Rhapsody in Song.'' In the late 1930s, Wells moved to Kansas City, where she ran a nightclub and led her own band. She also met and married guitarist Harold Underhill.
She was a much-admired jazz and blues singer in her day, winning substantial respect, and envy, from her fellow singers and musicians. She replaced Helen Humes in Count Basie's Orchestra in 1940 when it played at President Roosevelt's inaugural ball. In the early to mid-40s, billed as ‘The Ebony Stick Of Dynamite’, she became a huge success at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre on 125th Street, and had her own radio shows as both performer and disc jockey. Despite such exposure she recorded only three times in her heyday (for Savoy Records in 1944-45) and retired from music in 1946 as a result of diabetes.
In the 1940s, she moved back to Newark and was soon working in various New York city venues, including appearances at 'Kelly's Stables' on New York's famed 52nd Street, and at Harlem's Apollo Theatre (occasionally as 'Viola Underhill'). Out of the public's eye for most of the 1950s and early 1960s, her career revived in the mid-1960s when she was rediscovered by blues historian Sheldon Harris, who persuaded her to test for Columbia Records and reunited her with Victoria Spivey, who recorded a handful of sides by ‘Miss Rhapsody’.
She remained in obscurity until April 1972 when she was again brought out of retirement to record a jazz blues album for the Saydisc-Matchbox label in New York City.
Her last years were, happily, employed touring as singer with Clyde Bernhardt’s Harlem Blues And Jazz Band, a group of black big band veterans in the 1970's, and toured Europe and the United States with them. Six half-hour television shows covering her life were filmed in Paris in 1975 and shown throughout Europe.
"Miss Rhapsody" passed away at the Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, N.J., after a short illness. She was 82 years old. (Info from various sources mainly All Music)