Bessie McCoy (1888-1931) is best known today (if at all) for her hit 1908 song “Yama Yama Man”. It was Irene Castle’s childhood impersonation of McCoy singing this tune in front of McCoy’s mother at a country club party (and the subsequent encouragement by her) that inspired Castle to go into show business, and her mother to allow her to take dancing lessons.
McCoy’s mother was a vaudevillian herself, one half of the husband and wife act McCoy and McEvoy, a pair of Irish clog dancers. As soon as they were old enough Bessie and her sister Nellie got into the act. The two sisters performed as a duo for a number of years before Bessie broke off on her own around 1904. In addition to her steady work in vaudeville, she was featured in a number of Broadway shows from 1904 through 1920, including numerous editions of Ziegfeld’s Follies and Midnight Frolics.
From 1912 through 1916 she took a break from the business while married to the famous war correspondent Richard Harding Davis, renowned for his heroic coverage of the Boer War, the Spanish-American War and World War I. After Davis’s death (reportedly from strain suffered at the front) she returned briefly to show business, then moved to France where she died in 1931. The Time magazine obit from that week reported that it was complications after an “emergency operation”.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.