She was born Freda Lipschitz in Worcester on August 17, 1919, and before dying in New York City at 87 on December 9, 2006, the singer would try on a closet full of names before wearing Georgia Gibbs to fame.
She is largely remembered as a white singer who, because of her skin color, was afforded the fortunes denied her people of color counterparts. Gibbs is accused of building a career out of tunes first recorded by R&B greats like LaVern Baker and Etta James. Itâ€™s all true. She did hit the charts with covers of â€œTweedle Deeâ€ and Dance with me Henry,â€ but Gibbs was so much more than a white version of these great American R&B artists.
As the Encyclopedia of Music (UK version) points out, Gibbs has been unfairly maligned by rock critics. Her story reaches way back before R&B and rock â€˜nâ€™ roll were even invented. â€œIn reality,â€ the unidentified writer of the Encyclopedia article states, â€œshe was a genuinely talented pop vocalist, whose jazz-tinged approach reflected years of experience in the big band era, a period when there was no stigma attached to covers.â€
Gibbs was the product of Russian Jewish immigrants and the youngest of four children. Her father died when she was only six months old and young Freda was sent to the former Jewish Home for Aged and Orphans at 25 Coral Street. (The home was later moved to 1029 Pleasant Street.) It was owned by John and Charlotte Beller, who ran it for nearly 25 years before closing the orphanage in 1946. They converted the institution into a home for the elderly and operated that until the couple retired in 1962.
In a 1993 interview about the orphanage, Georgiaâ€™s brother Maurice Lipson said, “We were a family in spite of everything. The Bellers did a great many things. He was one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known in my life.”
Though he didnâ€™t mention them by name, Lipson noted that another sister who grew up to be an artist and a brother also played music and toured with big bands. Lipson was a noted sculptor himself. An example of his work, a bust of a rabbi, had been on display in the entrance way of the Jewish Home for Aged, 629 Salisbury Street.
In an interview in the November 3, 1957 edition of the Worcester Sunday Telegram, Gibbs told writer James Lee that she began singing in variety shows held by the orphanage. He said, â€œMany Worcesterites recall her as a small child appearing in their annual revues at the Auditorium.â€
Gibbs would later reveal that being sent to the orphanage as a young child was a living nightmare. Evidently, in an unidentified New York paper account, Gibbs said, â€œthe frustrated superintendent beat the daylights out of us.â€ The story was later reported in the local papers. In a July 19, 1952 letter to the editor of The Evening Gazette, Ethel Rosenberg of Worcester wrote a letter to the editor taking issue with Gibbs. Under the title of â€œSingerâ€™s Statement Called Ungrateful,â€ Rosenberg said she found herself so upset after reading the item about Georgia Gibbs that she felt compelled to offer her own perspective.
Rosenberg said that Gibbs (â€œFreda, to all who know her.â€) owes her stardom to the late Mrs. Bertha Beller, the former wife of the orphanageâ€™s superintendent. â€œFreda was treated with every kindness, as every other child in the home was treated,â€ Rosenberg stated. â€œShe was given the opportunity to develop her talent of singing, and as a matter of fact, she was given every encouragement by Mr. and Mrs. Beller; also their love, devotion, time and patience. The statement she is reported to have made is shameful, completely false and terribly ungrateful. It is a pity that when good fortune has come her way, she chooses this manner in which to repay her benefactors.â€
The Jewish Home for Aged and Orphans housed some 200 orphans between 1914 and 1946. Gibbs said that she was separated from her siblings at the home and because of her working schedule her mother could only visit once a month. The young singer is said to have been left with only a radio for company.
“Some can’t get over they came out of an orphanage,” her brother Lipson told the Telegram. “But I’m a better man because of it.” Stating that he and two sisters also grew up in the home, he added, “All of us who’ve come out of the home have done well. I think it was the home that did it.”
Gibbs says she earned her first money singing at 11. â€œShe got $1.50 for appearing with a Worcester orchestra, singing in a ballroom,â€ wrote Lee in a 1957 feature in the Worcester Sunday Telegram. â€œShe was Frieda Lipson then. A few years later she was the house singer at the Plymouth Theater, running down from the High School of Commerce each noon at 1 to make the first show. Three times a day she sang a number with Don Dudleyâ€™s orchestra on the stage. She was Fredda Lipson then.â€
Gibbs, nÃ©e Lipson, also sang in the area with the Dol Brissette Orchestra at the Bancroft Hotel. At the Plymouth she also worked with Ed Murphyâ€™s Orchestra. At the Rathskeller, she performed with Bud Goldman and his Orchestra.
In a December 10, 1952 issue of The Evening Gazette, she told writer Bob Thomas that she started her singing career at 13 years-old. â€œI had to go to work, so I lied about my age and toured with small bands,â€ Gibbs said. â€œIt was back breaking work, travelling 400 miles between one night stands. I was singing 50 or 60 songs a night. If your voice can stand that, it can stand anything.
Gibbs also said, â€œItâ€™s the best possible training for a singer. You find your range, you find out what songs you can sing and what songs you canâ€™t.â€
By the time she was in the eighth grade she was taking home $20 a week to help support the family. In addition to working local ballrooms and theaters, Gibbs was venturing out as far as the Raymor Ballroom in Boston.
In an interview with the singer at the Marguery Hotel in New York in August of 1946 local writer Douglas Kennedy talked about her transition from Worcester to Boston. â€œShe landed a job singing in a dance hall from eight to eleven, from which she could just make it to the Theater Club for another vocal chore from midnight to three. It was a rugged existence for such a little girl.â€
Gibbs quit school in 1936 and joined the Hudson-DeLange Orchestra, a great regional band led by Eddie DeLange and Will Hudson. Both leaders were also extraordinary songwriters. DeLange penned such hits as â€œA String of Pearls,â€ “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans,” “Darn that Dream,” and â€œSolitude,â€ and Hudson is the author of “Deep in a Dream,” (w/Delange) “Moonglow,” (w/Delange) and â€œOrgan Grinder Swing.â€
In a book about 1950s singers, Gibbs told writer Karen Schoemer that we did the gig for â€œabout six months, and it was the most unbelievably hard work in my life. Every night was 200, 300 miles. We didn’t have a bus. It was a broken-down car with the shift between my legs and bleeding, chapped thighs because there was no heater. It was marvelously horrible.”
Talking about her one-night stands on the road, Gibbs once told a writer for TIME magazine, “It was hell, honey: 18 men and me.”
Gibbs made her first recordings with the band as Fredda Lipson for the Brunswick label. One of the sides was the memorable, â€œIâ€™ll Never Tell I Love You.â€ The studio experience, however, was regrettable.
She would later reveal that a record company executive assaulted her after she refused his advances. Frustrated, he then tried to kill her career. Trying to shed that horrible memory, Gibbs once again changed her identity. Writing her obituary for the Washington Post, Adam Bernstein wrote: â€œRecording periodically as Fredda Gibbons or Gibson, Ms. Gibbs had changed her name by the early 1940s because a music industry executive had raped her and threatened to ban her from the airwaves, according to Rochelle Mancini, the executor of Ms. Gibbs’s estate.â€
Though the recording was a bad experience it led to more work.
TIME magazine picks up the story: â€œOne night in Ithaca, at a Cornell prom, Fredda got a call from Orchestra Leader Richard Himber: he had heard her recording of I’ll Never Tell You I Love You, and wanted to try her out in a radio show. Fredda borrowed $10 from the band manager and lit out for Manhattan. The orchestra hasn’t heard from her since.
â€œHimber took one look at her plain little face and groaned. But she got the job, sang on Himber’s ‘Studebaker Champions’ program for 13 weeks. Then a song plugger told her about a big audition at NBC. Like the songstress in Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters, she was cautioned to sing “loud and fast. . . and on the beat.” About 150 other girls were trying out, too (“An acre of mink and silver fox, honey, and me in a little old suit”). But Lucky Strike’s late George Washington Hill liked Fredda’s hep style, and she got the contract. For the next two years she was the unsung singer for the ‘Lucky Strike Hit Parade.’â€
In 1937 she first appeared on â€œYour Hit Parade,â€ then â€œMelody Puzzlesâ€ and â€œThe Tim and Irene Show.â€ In 1940 she hooked up with the Frankie Trumbauer band. She was also heard with Joe Venuti and Hal Kemp.
In May of 1942, bandleader Artie Shaw caught Gibbs singing in the Music at Work show at the Alvin Theater in New York for Russian War Relief. He then hired her to record. She scored her first hit, â€œAbsent Minded Moon,â€ with the band. It was Shaw who took her to the William Morris Agency. They changed her name to Georgia Gibson.
In October of â€˜42, while still answering to the name of Fredda Gibson, Gibbs was called upon to fill in for Connee Boswell on the Camel Caravan program with hosts Jimmy Durante-Gary Moore. It was Moore who her tagged her with her famous nickname â€œHer Nibs.â€ The moniker is derived from her size. It means “important or self-important person.” Gibbs stood a whisper over five feet tall in stocking feet and weighed 99 pounds fresh out of the shower.
The rest of the Gibbs story is well-documented history â€“ including how she became Georgia Gibbs. Go online, punch in any one of her many names and look it up. It should be noted that she was married to journalist Frank Gervasi, who was a WWII correspondent for United Press and the official biographer of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He died in 1990.
Gibbsâ€™ later years were spent working with her lawyer, Mark Sendroff successfully collecting royalty payments owed to her from reissues of her master recordings. At the time of her death in New Yorkâ€™s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a family friend, Leslie Gottlieb, said she died due to complications from leukemia.
It should also be noted that after leaving Worcester, Gibbs returned to town from time to time, including a successful vaudeville show at the Plymouth Theater. The Worcester Sunday Telegram covered another one of the live shows. In the Sunday, July 11, 1954 edition, under the heading, â€œThe Joint Really Jumps as Georgia Returns: Her singing sends â€˜em, reviewer Jack Kelso wrote: â€œThe brass section slashed into â€˜Georgia on My Mind,â€™ putting plenty of beat in it, and every head in the crowd swiveled as the home town girl in the flouncy dress bounced onto the stage to punch out the lyrics of her first number.
â€œIt was Georgia Gibbs in her first appearance in Worcester in 12 years. Since that time she has gone places â€“ and it was easy to see. The blue-jean set rocked right down to their moccasins as the little singer with the big voice laced into â€˜Somebody Stole de Wedding Bell.â€™
â€œAnd when she threw back her head and lost herself in her best-known hit, â€˜Kiss of Fire,â€™ several teenage girls in the crowd â€“ with dreams of their own â€“ smiled softly and lifted their heads, too.
â€œLooking out over the crowd at White City Park from the open-air stage, â€˜Her Nibsâ€™ Miss Gibbs claimed she saw some classmates from Commerce High School. Even with the footlights shining directly into her eyes she pointed here and there â€“ left, right and center â€“ to the familiar faces. She told them it was nice to be back.â€