Marion Harris: Songbird of Jazz

Check it out, she’s playing a banjolele!

There is a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the origins of Marion Harris (Mary Ellen Harris, or Harrison, 1896-1944). She may have been from Indiana; she may have been from Henderson, Kentucky. What is known is that she turned up in Chicago vaudeville circa 1914. In the mid teens, Chicago was a hotbed of the new jazz music then exploding, and Harris quickly became known as one of the first white exponents of both jazz and blues (and one of the first to record those styles of either race). 

Vernon Castle is said to have been the catalyst for her early success. Within a few short months of her emergence in Chicago she was in New York cutting records, playing big time venues like the Palace, and appearing in Broadway shows like Stop! Look! Listen!, Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics, and Yours Truly. Harris recorded for the Victor, Columbia and Brunswick labels. Tunes she was associated with included “Ain’t Got Nobody”, “After You’ve Gone”, and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.

From 1921 to 1922 she was married to Robert Williams, also a minor star. Their daughter also went into show business under the name Marion Harris Jr. 

In 1928 she appeared in an MGM short called Marion Harris: Songbird of Jazz. This was followed by Devil-May-Care (1929), her one Hollywood feature, and a Paramount short called It’s All Over (1930). From 1931 to 1933 she had regular gigs on the NBC radio shows The Ipana Troubadors, and The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, with Rudy Vallee.

After vaudeville died in the early 30s, Harris moved to England, where music hall was still thriving. She appeared in the halls, as well as West End shows, cabarets and night clubs, and on radio. She appeared in one British film,Trouble Ahead (1935).

In 1936 she married a British theatrical agent and retired from performing. Their home was destroyed by the blitz in 1941, and the event (not unexpectedly) seems to have taken a heavy toll on her nerves. In 1944 she returned to New York to be treated for a neurological disorder. While staying in a hotel there shortly afterward she died in a fire due to the perennial culprit: smoking in bed. Details are sparse, but one can easily imagine she was on some sort of medication at the time.

Archeophone Records offers a terrific introduction to her music entitled Marion Harris: The Complete Victor Releases. 

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, where Marion Harris got her start, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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