Almost everyone knows the song “Try A Little Tenderness”. Most remember it as the soul ballad nailed by Otis Redding in 1966 — based, he always said, on ideas heard in performances by Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin a few years before. Some recall its origins as a sentimental number recorded by Bing Crosby, Ruth Etting and others in the early 1930s.
But almost no one remembers how the song first jumped from crooners to modern soul — transformed by a diminutive singer dressed as some down-home bumpkin just come to town, sitting on the edge of a stage, barefoot and weary, actually wearing that “shabby dress” of the lyric, and just letting it wail.
On the forgotten 1951 recording by that singer, the song cuts across the space from microphone to speakers, and then across the years, with an almost embarrassing intimacy, an intimacy never to be forgotten by those who have heard it. The record begins with a low sax moan, and her singing builds to a heart-rending, pleading ending: “Awww-oh…oh, it’s so easy — try a little…tenderness!” It sets the pattern for all the famous versions which followed.
Today, most people have never heard of that powerful performer, let alone had the chance to hear her music. That’s as large a distortion in the American musical record as the now-corrected neglect of “Lovesick Blues” songster Emmett Miller.
She was called Little Miss Cornshucks.
Miss Cornshucks was, above all, a unique live performer. She riveted audiences from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York in the post-World War II years, the “after-hours blues” era between swing and rock ‘n’ roll, when the break between jazz and popular R&B was not yet a chasm.
She was not a back-country singer of acoustic folk blues. She did not fit the scat-singing “Great Lady with precision vocal instrument” model favored by jazz critics and historians. Neither did she provide the cool rebel or dead-by-25 personal story often sought by those looking for proto-rock romance. Thus, she’s fallen between the card files of chroniclers of all forms.
Little Miss Cornshucks has merited but a line or two in any available reference work, with not even basic facts — her birth and recent death dates, her married name — accurately reflected. But she has been mentioned repeatedly in the memoirs of R&B, jazz and vaudeville performers alike, as a personal favorite and as a singular influence.
Ahmet Ertegun, the storied chief and co-founder of Atlantic Records, chose to begin What’d I Say, his recent memoir of the label’s rise to dominance in soul, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, by remembering Miss Cornshucks as “the best blues singer” he’s ever heard, “to this day.” She was the first performer he was moved to record, privately, when he was awed by her appearance at a Washington, D.C., nightclub in 1943.
As he recently shared a new listen to “Tenderness” and the 30 other sides Miss Cornshucks recorded (most over 50 years ago, and virtually all unavailable since), Ertegun’s eyes welled up. “That,” he said, surrounded by his memorabilia of Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, “was the reason I got into this business in the first place.”
“Little Miss Cornshucks was the most important voice that I’d heard,” says Ruth Brown, the hugely successful singer who helped transform R&B into rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s, “and, I’m proud to say, she was a big influence for me. There was something really deep in her meaning. That was the kind of stylist that I wanted to be; closing your eyes, you could say just what her meaning was.”
By the late ’40s, Little Miss Cornshucks’ unique style was already a powerful bridge between generations of singing — combining the emotional wallop and clarity Brown recalls, predicting the best soul music of the 1960s — while keeping alive the undiluted sentiment of 1920s Ethel Waters-era vaudeville and torch singing, and working the phrasing and rhythm smarts of 1940s Billie Holiday-era swing for good measure. The continuing shock of that synthesis is a key source of Cornshucks’ power as a vocalist.
“There were three singers of that era who were the best,” Ertegun reflected. “Miss Cornshucks, Dinah Washington, and Little Esther Phillips. But Cornshucks was just so…soulful.”
Little Esther is anthologized; Dinah Washington is even memorialized on a postage stamp. But the story of Little Miss Cornshucks has been a blank postcard in the dead letter office.
The story began in Ohio. By her own testimony to the only one who seems to have asked, the late liner-notes author and Ebony magazine reporter Marc Crawford, Cornshucks was born Mildred Cummings in Dayton, Ohio, “learned to sing at her mother’s knee, and got a great big soul in church.”
Federal records show that she was, in fact, born May 26, 1923. Her own daughter, Francey, adds that Mildred was the smallest, youngest child in a large musical family; she regularly sang spiritual-style gospel with her sisters around Dayton, in a popular local act billed as the Cummings Sisters. A brother was a working musician as well.
As a teenager in the 1930s, Francey said, Mildred was already stepping out at amateur shows or performing for the family as a single. A lover of poignant, torchy ballads, she began to adopt heart-tugging, down-and-out tramp costumes when she sang them. Briefly, she tried an outfit that presaged street hip-hop gear by decades, but found that her largely black audiences, which consisted of many rural southerners who had migrated to northern towns, seemed to respond best to a touch of country style.
That meant donning a plaid shirt at first, then more, much in the way Charlie Chaplin found his “Little Tramp” character’s suit — piece by piece. Mildred’s mother finally made her the first of the full pantaloons-and-gingham-dress outfits that would be a key part of her emerging Little Miss Cornshucks stage persona. Never finding shoes that seemed quite right, she started taking to the stage barefoot.
A woman who had been promoting gospel acts around Dayton (her name thus far unrecalled) first brought Mildred to Chicago in 1940, solo. Chorus girl Eloise Williams Hughes, now 87, remembers Mildred’s first arrival at Chicago’s famed 1,000-seat Club DeLisa the following year.
“The dance orchestra at that time was Red Saunders’. We just looked up one day and she was there” — with her stage character set and practiced, and an act that quickly grabbed attention. “And she was in love — madly in love with a young man! I mean, as things got going good for her, she bought him a Cadillac, which was something, back in those days. It was the talk of the club!”
The young man, just six months older than Mildred, was Cornelius Jorman, whom she’d met and married back in Ohio, at a very young age. Ertegun remembers him at this stage as a short young fellow in a Wilberforce College sweatshirt; he was from an Indianapolis family that had briefly been living in Dayton.
“She was very conservative at that time; she was in love; she had a kid,” recalls orchestrator Riley Hampton, then an alto sax player with Red Saunders’ popular big band. “When we were at the DeLisa, her husband was always there. He’d have that car out in the alley, and he kept their baby out there.”