Clarice Vance: The Southern Singer

The Southern Singer. 

Long-forgotten vaudeville singer Clarice Vance (Clara Etta Black, 1870), born this day.She first comes into view in the 1890s as a ragtime singer and blackface** “coon shouter”, dubbed the “Southern Singer” when she performed with James and Bonnnie Thornton. By 1904 she was an Orpheum headliner, and she began cutting records in 1905.

She stood over six feet tall, a fact which she credits to her not having more success on the legit stage and in musicals (although she did enjoy one lead part in the short-lived 1910 musical A Skylark). She was a comical, character type, not an ingenue. But she had great success during her active years, a fact attested to by the scores of song sheets advertising the association of their contents with her performances of them (some by her third husband Mose Gumble). She retired from the stage in 1918.

The next period of her life was associated with the film business. Her fourth husband was Phelps Decker, a scenario writer who was finally promoted to run Universal Pictures’ New York branch office. Vance is known to have had at least two small roles in films during that time. When Decker was fired from Universal, he committed suicide, and thereafter Ms. Vance seems to have become a hermit. In the mid 30s there is evidence that she was trying to make a go of it as an acting instructor in San Francisco. After that, records have her living as an anonymous citizen, friendless, in slum conditions throughout the 1940s. In 1951 she was checked into a state mental asylum in an advanced state of dementia. She passed away in 1961. How do such things happen?

Ironically, interest in her career has increased recently (50 years after her death). A lot of the material in this post comes from recent research done by Sterling Morris on available here, and he also wrote the liner notes for a summer 2011 release of some of her old recordings by Archeophone Records available here. And here’s a snippet:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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