Georgia Gibbs (August 17, 1919 – December 9, 2006) was an American popular singer and vocal entertainer rooted in jazz. Already singing publicly in her early teens, Gibbs first achieved acclaim (and notoriety) in the mid-1950s interpreting songs originating with the black rhythm and blues community and later as a featured vocalist on a long list of radio and television variety and comedy programs. Her key attribute was tremendous versatility and an uncommon stylistic range from melancholy ballad to uptempo swinging jazz and rock and roll.
Gibbs was born Frieda Lipschitz, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the youngest of four children of Russian Jewish descent. Her father died when she was six months old, and she and her three siblings spent the next seven years in a local Jewish orphanage.
Revealing a natural talent for singing at a young age, she was given the lead in the orphanage's yearly variety show. She reunited with her mother (who had visited her once every other month) when the latter found employment as a midwife. Her mother's job, however, often forced her to leave her daughter alone for weeks at a time with only a Philco radio for company.
While still in Worcester and at the age of thirteen, she auditioned for a job at the Plymouth, one of the prime vaudeville houses in Boston. The manager of the Plymouth had already heard her sing on the local Worcester radio station, and Gibbs was hired and moved to Boston, eventually landing at the Raymor Ballroom. She joined the Hudson-DeLangeOrchestra in 1936 (age 17), and toured with them for 10 months, under the name of Fredda Gibson. "You don't really know loneliness unless you do a year or two with a one-night band.", Gibbs said of her life on the big band circuit, "Sing until about 2 a.m. Get in a bus and drive 400 miles. Stop in the night for the greasy hamburger. Arrive in a town. Try to sleep. Get up and eat." (Worcester Telegram & Gazette, May 12, 1994.)
She found steady work on radio shows including Your Hit Parade, Melody Puzzles and The Tim And Irene Show and freelanced in the late 1930s and early 1940s singing with the bands of Tommy Dorsey, Hal Kemp, Artie Shaw and Frankie Trumbauer. While a Billboard article reports that it was with Trumbauer's orchestra that she appeared first time on disk with The Loneliest Gal in Town on Brunswick Records, liner notes from the 1998 Simitar compilation report her appearance on some of DeLange's recordings on Brunswick and, a recording exists with Hal Kemp from 1939. She first charted with Shaw's band in 1942 on Absent Minded Moon (Victor 27779) which received a lukewarm review at the time.
In 1943, name changed to Georgia Gibbs, she began appearing on the Camel Caravan radio program, hosted by Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore, where she remained a regular performer until 1947. It was Moore who bestowed upon her the famous nickname "Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs": a playful reference to her diminutive stature of barely over five feet.
Gibbs signed with Majestic Records in 1946 cutting multiple records, but her first solo hit single, "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake" (on the Coral label) did not come until 1950. During this period she also was the featured vocalist on tours with comedians Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar. Success as a singer outside of radio and variety shows continued to elude her, as noted in a 1952 Time article:
"Georgia", they kept telling her, "you gotta get a sound." Musical soothsayers were trying to get Songstress Georgia Gibbs into line with the latest fashion. Perhaps, they thought, she should sing mechanized duets with herself (like Patti Page), or she might try an echo chamber background (like Peggy Lee). But gimmicks were not Georgia Gibbs's cup of tea. She had a big, old-fashioned voice, a good ear, a vivacious personality, and she knew how to sing from the shoulder. She would stick with plain Georgia Gibbs.
Through 1949 and 1950 she appeared on TV shows Cavalcade of Stars and All Star Revue. In 1951 she signed with Mercury Records where she ultimately had success "sticking with plain Georgia Gibbs". Possessed of a versatile voice, she cut a long list of well-received records in every category from torch songs to rock-and-roll, to jazz, swing, old fashioned ballads and cha-chas. The most successful,1952's Kiss Of Fire, which she performed on the Milton Berle Show in that spring, reached #1 on the pop music charts.Kiss of Fire was adapted from the Argentinian tango El Choclo and the lyrics, arrangement and delivery communicate passion on a Wagnerian scale. It immediately became one of the defining songs of the era.
Sultry and throbbing, with a touch of vibrato, Georgia Gibbs' voice is best showcased on romantic ballads and torch songs like Melancholy Baby, I'll Be Seeing You, Autumn Leavesand You Keep Coming Back Like A Song. Yet she could be equally thrilling belting out steaming jazz numbers like Red Hot Mama, A-Razz-A-Ma-Tazz; jiving with tunes like Ol Man Mose, Shoo Shoo Baby; or rocking out with I Want You To Be My Baby. Her Swingin' With Her Nibs album (1956) demonstrated her natural affinity for improvisation as well.
In 1957, Gibbs signed with RCA Victor going on to chart with over 40 songs before retirement from singing, and was briefly successful doing rock 'n' roll songs as well. She continued to appear on many television shows including The Ed Sullivan Show, and hosted one of her own, Georgia Gibbs And Her Million Record Show. She cut her final albumCall Me, in 1966 and rarely performed after that.
Some notoriety followed Gibbs for her cover versions of music popularized by black performers such as Etta James' The Wallflower (recorded by Gibbs with modified lyrics under the title Dance With Me Henry) and of LaVern Baker's Tweedle Dee (which outsold Baker's version, prompting complaint from Ms. Baker) and for her novelty number The Hula HoopSong, which was her last hit, in 1958. Decades later Gibbs commented that she, like most artists of the day, had no say in their choice of material and arrangements.
In the late 1950s she married respected foreign correspondent and author Frank Gervasi, biographer of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and whose books include To Whom Palestine?, The Case for Israel, The Real Rockefeller and The Violent Decade. They had first met in Paris in the 1930s, but lost touch with one another for twelve years. The marriage lasted until his death in 1990; they had one child who predeceased Georgia.
Georgia Gibbs died of leukemia on December 9, 2006, aged 87, at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Survivors included grandson Sacha Gervasi (from her husband's previous marriage), her brother Robert Gibson and nieces Patty Turk, Jody (Babydol) Gibson. and Jody's sister Amy. Gibbs' last interview, conducted by Greg Adams, was subsequently published online.
Interest in Gibbs' work has enjoyed a revival with the re-issue on CD of long unavailable material. In her recent book, Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair With 50s Pop Music,Newsweek music critic Karen Schoemer wrote: "What really turned me around, though, were her R&B covers ... Georgia was the rare fifties canary with a genuine flair for rock and roll ... [b]y the time I was through listening ... I had a healthy new respect for Georgia, and a sense of indignation over her neglect by critics."
The New Yorker magazine [Dec 24,31 2012] ran a small, painful piece by Tad Friend which mentions her rape by an agent at the Gotham Hotel. He then blackballed her from his show.