One of the earliest recording stars, a lady who was sometimes billed as the Queen of the Blues, was churning out hit records as early as 1917. Many of those who bought her records assumed she was black even though her style was a little more mainstream than singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. But Marion Harris is considered to be the first white blues singer to achieve stardom, and she certainly had plenty of reasons to sing the blues — especially in her later years.
Although her origins are a little fuzzy, she is thought to have been born in Indiana as Mary Ellen Harrison and was still a teenager when she began appearing in Chicago-area vaudeville shows around 1914. By the following year she had managed to find some success in New York, appearing in an Irving Berlin musical and later in Ziegfeld’s Follies.
A recording contract with Victor soon followed and hit records began flowing, with songs like “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me,” “After You’ve Gone,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” among her most popular. Her building fame also helped her find renewed success on the vaudeville circuit — but as a headliner this time — and for the rest of the decade Harris did very well.
But the 1920s brought changes. Her new marriage to a musician soon dissolved and she also changed record companies, reportedly because Victor Records wouldn’t let her record W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” But Columbia Records did and it became a hit for the singer, along with several others like “Tea For Two” and “Look For The Silver Lining.” Continued success in records led to other opportunities, including radio and stage shows, and she even appeared in a movie late in the decade.
By the 1930s Harris was beginning to lose career momentum, although she continued to work. She spent much of the decade in London, where she met her 2nd husband and maintained a house for a number of years. But things really went downhill after that. Her house was destroyed by German bombs in the early years of World War II and she shed her husband after he was charged with the rape of an acquaintance. She subsequently moved back to the U.S. but had health problems, and died in 1944 in a hotel fire caused by her smoking in bed. She was just 48 at the time.