“This new record of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ came out, with strings, and I thought, ‘Yeah; there it was!’ The guy on the radio said, ‘You’ve got to hear this!’ And he just played it over and over. And then he said, “That, ladies and gentlemen — was Aretha Franklin.”
Aretha’s string-laden version of “Tenderness”, lavishly produced by Bob Mersey in April 1962 and among a handful of Franklin singles released by Columbia Records that year, shows Cornshucks influences that are hard to miss — from the opening “I may be weary,” to the mannered enunciation of many of the phrases, to the emphasis on certain emotional points. It got heard then — it reached the Billboard pop charts — and has been in print most of the time since. And it overshadowed what had come before.
There was no new Cornshucks “Tenderness” single from Chess. Nothing much happened with her only LP, and the disappointment must have been overwhelming.
Mildred Jorman would now truly begin to disappear.
Dancer Lester Goodman, returning to Chicago after years on the road with the traveling Ted Steele Revue, renewed his friendship with Cornshucks at this time. Goodman says she had just about stopped performing late in 1961, not that long after the Chess LP’s release. After a while she moved back to Chicago, staying at a theatrically-oriented South Side hotel.
Her last advertised appearances included a July 1963 show at jazz room McKie’s Lounge — side by side with Ruth Brown, now some years past her hits herself, and well ahead of an eventual comeback.
A Halloween show at the Golden Peacock in 1966 put Cornshucks on the bill, very possibly for the final time anywhere, with West Side guitar stylist Eddie C. Campbell and his band. She employed a last vocal turn that sounds like an extension of some rhythmic talk heard on the Chess LP — perhaps borrowing a tactic from Ted Lewis, who’d always used dramatic patter.
“She was a very sweet lady. She would sing a little bit and then she would talk a little bit — just like poetry,” Campbell recalls. “Was she good? Yes, she was; she had that beat and was good and all — even though her voice wasn’t there.”
Campbell and Cornshucks were both being handled, Campbell notes, by Jay Banks Delano, who ran the tiny R&B labels Delano and Hawaii and also specialized in booking acts “who’d lost a lot of their money,” Campbell says. Campbell recorded for them; Cornshucks evidently didn’t.
Lester Goodman ran into her a while later: “She told me that she’d then gone into the church, was singing only in a church, and couldn’t be hired anymore.”
Daughter Francey simply says that her mother didn’t perform again, anywhere, save for the funerals of friends. But a curious Cornshucks coda occurred in 1975.
The late Jimmy Walker, a fabled boogie-woogie pianist very much up in years, but still active, was in a South Side supermarket when he spotted Cornshucks, shopping for groceries. He had instant visions of setting her up for a comeback — live appearances, even recording again. He invited her to his nearby basement rehearsal space to see what could happen.
Bassist/engineer Twist Turner recalls: “The following week, Miss Cornshucks showed up at our rehearsal, wearing regular street clothes. She brought a bottle of white port and a package of Bugs Bunny brand lemon flavor Kool-Aid in her purse. We played a couple songs while she and a friend stood around and drank the port.
“I was really interested to hear her sing, excited about being a part of her comeback. Jimmy gave her the mike, but the next thing I knew she just snatched off her wig and threw it on the ground. She did sing a little, baldheaded, but she just couldn’t get it together to perform.”
Mildred did show up again, with startling effect, at the 1980 Chicago wake for the famed “sepia” dance troupe producer Larry Steele, with whom she had appeared years before. Much of the black show business community had gathered to memorialize Steele; the A.A. Raynor Funeral Home was packed. Lester Goodman relates what happened.
“She just walked in, from the back — already singing. She came all the way up the side aisle, singing. It could have been her song ‘So Long’…”
“So long, hope we’ll meet again someday…”
“…and she finished it just as she reached the funeral bier at the front. The place was hushed. It was such a surprise that she was there; she had faded out, you know.”
Longtime Living Blues magazine editor and Chicago resident Jim O’Neal ran into Little Miss Cornshucks face-to-face in March 1980, while visiting the same South Kenwood Avenue apartment building in which she lived. He tried to arrange an interview, but it never materialized. The generally reliable Living Blues erroneously reported the death of Little Miss Cornshucks, in a passing reference, in 1985, apparently based on someone’s misunderstanding of a report that she was now “gone” from the city. Around that time, Lester Goodman attempted to reach her at the Chicago resident hotel where she’d last stayed; he, too, was told she was “gone” — perhaps back to Dayton.
And that, her family confirms, was the sad-enough truth: Mildred Jorman continued to live alone in Dayton for many years, unrecognized, doing “not very much.”
In the early 1990s, after suffering a stroke, Mildred moved closer to Francey and surviving Jorman relatives in Indianapolis. (Cornelius had passed on in the ’70s.) Her health worsened, and further strokes followed. She joined other family members in taking Bible Study classes with the Jehovah’s Witnesses; she was taking a class over the phone when she suffered a final stroke, and her last words came during that conversation.
She was, in those last years, Francey reports, saddened to be forgotten, resentful that others had capitalized on musical breakthroughs she knew she had made. She died in Indianapolis, at the age of 76, on what in her day they had called Armistice Day — November 11, 1999.
It went unnoted.
ND contributing editor Barry Mazor thanks the dozens of direct witnesses, record collectors, and period specialists who helped make this report possible, over the more than two years that it’s been in the making — especially fellow music researchers Nadine Cohodas, Robert Pruter, Charles Walton and Alan Balfour, who suggested directions that proved especially important.