A singer and band leader who looked white turns out to be mixed — which serves as a reminder that boxes aren't good for people.
Ina Ray Hutton was a sensation in the 1930s and ’40s, “the Blonde Bombshell of Rhythm.”
In the 1950s, she had an Emmy-winning TV show, but much of her life was a mystery.
She spent a lot of energy breaking out of boxes, trying to be what she needed to be to succeed.
Maybe you can identify with that. How many people are completely free to be themselves?
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Hutton had a harder time of it than most, but she kept that under wraps. It was obvious that she was fighting convention as a female bandleader, but not apparent that she was black.
Mixed, actually. And we know that now only because a Seattle radio reporter saw something of herself in a photo of Hutton.
Phyllis Fletcher is mixed, too. Her mother is white and her father was black.
Fletcher is familiar to many as a reporter for KUOW-FM. She became an editor there last month, and last week we talked about her pursuit of Hutton’s story.
In 2007, Fletcher was preparing to sub for Amanda Wilde, the host of “The Swing Years and Beyond.” Wilde was showing her a Hutton CD when, “I saw someone who looked like me,” she told me.
Her next thought: That woman is black; what is she doing leading a white male orchestra?
Being a reporter, she started nosing around. There was surprisingly little biographical information, but there was a place online for people who were interested in Hutton, so Fletcher put out a question about her race.
One woman responded that she’d seen a census form that listed Hutton as “mulatto,” but added that she didn’t know what that meant.
Fletcher’s own life pushed Hutton into the background for a while. She started working on her master’s in communications at the University of Washington, and she had a baby.
Then on New Year’s Eve 2010, Fletcher and her husband heard Hutton on the radio and started talking about her.
“My husband looked her up on Wikipedia, and said, ‘It still lists her as Irish. You could correct that.’ “
Since her job at KUOW was strictly local news, she proposed writing a story for BlackPast.org, which is run by one of her UW professors, Quintard Taylor.
After that story went online, she updated Wikipedia and later did a radio story for “Studio 360,” which aired Sept. 30.
Hutton was born in a mixed neighborhood of Chicago in 1916 as Odessa Cowan. Census records classified her as Negro or mulatto.
Through the UW, Fletcher searched the storied black newspaper the Chicago Defender. There was a story and a photo of Hutton in a dance costume at 7, and several mentions of her mother’s piano gigs. One of Hutton’s relatives wrote an article about the Homestead Act finally being available to black people.
Mentions of her stopped when Cowan was 8, which is about the time she was discovered by a white vaudeville producer and signed to tap dance.
She appeared on Broadway at 14, and at 18 became leader of the Melodears, an all-woman band. About the time she became Ina Ray Hutton.
Wanting to be taken more seriously, she started working with an all-male orchestra and made herself over as a brunette.
Fletcher said she saw her discovery as adding another layer to an already interesting person and exploring “what it took to be successful in the music industry at the time.”
She said the story is about more than race: “A lot of people have had experiences in their family where something was hidden.” When the truth comes out, some things people did in the past make more sense.
Knowing more about Hutton made her more interesting to Fletcher, but it didn’t define her any more than Fletcher feels defined by her own background. It’s one of many pieces of her.
“I like all kinds of things, and I like getting other people excited about all kinds of things,” she said.
When you don’t live in a box, you can have a ball.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.