Spectropop remembers

GEORGIA GIBBS (1919 - 2006)


Georgia Gibbs, 87, the versatile, bold-voiced singer whose biggest hits were pop versions of songs first recorded by black rhythm and blues singers, died on December 9th at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York. The Worcester, Massachusetts native had complications from leukemia.

Gibbs, who starred on radio and television's popular Hit Parade in the 1950s, was perhaps best known for the song 'Kiss Of Fire'. Given her versatility, she was well-suited for the post-World War II era of transition from radio to television and from big band music to R&B-influenced pop and early rock'n'roll.

A daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she was born Fredda Lipschitz. After her father's death, she and three siblings lived in a nearby home for Jewish orphans. She became active in variety shows at the foundlings' home and, after seven years, was reunited with her mother.

She began singing at local ballrooms and by eighth grade was making $20 a week at the Raymor Ballroom in Boston. In 1936, she quit school to travel with the Hudson-DeLange Orchestra. "I did about six months, and it was the most unbelievably hard work in my life," she told interviewer Karen Schoemer for a book about 1950s singers. "Every night was 200, 300 miles. We didn't have a bus. It was a broken-down car … It was marvellously horrible." She also sang on the Lucky Strike radio show and with the bands of Frankie Trumbauer, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. Recording periodically as Fredda Gibbons or Gibson, she had changed her name by the early 1940s to Gibbs. She became the "girl singer" of the Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore Camel Caravan program, where she earned the nickname "her nibs, Miss Gibbs", and toured with comic entertainer Danny Kaye, sometimes as his straight man.

Her first solo hit was a cover in 1950 of Eileen Barton's novelty tune 'If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked A Cake'. She was signed by Mercury and had several minor successes, including 'While You Danced, Danced, Danced', before her breakthrough in 1952 with the #1 'Kiss Of Fire', inspired by the tango standard 'El Choclo'. She continued with a mixed repertoire of R&B, jazz, cha-cha, ballads and novelty numbers, including 'The Hula Hoop Song', which played into the national craze, registering a total of 25 hits between 1950 and 1958. In 1957, a TV show, Georgia Gibbs and Her Million Record Show, showcased her singing of the most popular songs of the day.

Gibbs, along with Pat Boone, Patti Page, and other white singers of the 1950s, won more airplay and TV exposure than many of their black counterparts. The Jim Crow policies at media outlets and the marketing power of major record labels limited the careers of black performers. She addressed this controversy in later decades, expressing some sympathy but mostly frustration at being unfairly singled out as an artistic thief. Often accompanied by a bright-sounding orchestra and bob-bopping male singers, she covered LaVern Baker's 'Tra La La', Ruth Brown's 'Mambo Baby' and Etta James & the Peaches' risque 'Roll With Me Henry' (aka 'The Wallflower') - her version was renamed 'Dance With Me Henry'. "The Peaches were pissed because I was getting the glory," Etta James wrote in her autobiography. "But I was even more pissed than the Peaches because Georgia Gibbs came out with her Suzy Creamcheese version. I was happy to have any success, but I was enraged to see Her Nibs singing the song on The Ed Sullivan Show while I was singing it in some funky dive in Watts." LaVern Baker was particularly mad that Gibbs' identical arrangement of 'Tweedle Dee' overshadowed her version on the 1955 pop charts and went on to sell more than a million copies. Baker considered legal action and consulted with her congressman, who called a federal hearing that led to nothing. Before flying to an engagement in Australia, Baker said she would list Gibbs as the beneficiary of her travel insurance because "if anything happens to me, you're out of business." For Gibbs, the quip stung decades later. "It was a tragic thing that happened to black artists in the '50s," she told the Los Angeles Times. "But I don't think I should be personally held responsible for it, because I had nothing at all to do with it. At that time, artists had no right to pick their own songs. I came into the studio and had no say at all about the background or the arrangement. To this day, I've never even heard her version of 'Tweedle Dee'."

Gibbs' husband, Frank Gervasi (the official biographer of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin) died in 1990. She leaves a grandson, Sasha Gervasi and a brother, Robert Gibson.

(Adam Bernstein, The Washington Post, with additional information by Mick Patrick)

Fredda Lipschitz (Georgia Gibbs), singer: born August 17th, 1919 - died December 9th, 2006