California and the Cotton Club

by Keller WHALEN



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Mae Diggs and Les Hite in the “Cotton Club Revue” in San Francisco, 1934

Mae and the troupe continued in the Cotton Club Revue in San Francisco again; there Mae was promoted as “the world’s most beautiful colored girl.”

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At the Pismo Pavilion in 1934, Mae was described as “the Torch Singer”

In these touring appearances around southern California, Mae performed and sang in a skit based on the Broadway show tune “Eadie Was a Lady” from the musical Take a Chance (San Diego Evening Tribune).  “Eadie Was a Lady” was a hit record for both Ethel Merman and Cab Calloway and has a fascinating history all its own – read our ‘story about a song’ here.

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1934 appearances in San Bernardino and Calipatria, California

Around this time, Lionel Hampton moved on to form his own band and he was replaced in Hite’s orchestra by drummer and singer Preston ‘Peppy’ Prince.  Mae Diggs was now tagged the “Sun Tan Songstress” and “The Most Beautiful Colored Girl in the U.S.”

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Mae denied an affair with Les Hite in this major newspaper story, September 22, 1934. .

A rumor claimed that Les Hite and his wife Baby Mack were separating.  The story “was formed when the Les Hite’s Cotton Club Orchestra, first started their tour and carried Mae Diggs, beautiful blues singer along with them, instead of the equally good looking and beautiful voiced Baby Mack (Mrs. Hite).  Scandal mongers suggest that Hite and the lovely Diggs woman are something more than employer and employee.”

All three parties denied the story, with Mae explaining, “If I knew who started such a rumor, I’d fix them so they would never again make such cracks about people.  Most everyone knows who I go with, and I would never have a man who I’d have to hide” (California Eagle, September 22, 1934). We were not able to identify who exactly Mae was going with at the time.

Back at Sebastian’s with Les Hite in September, Mae sang “Harlem on My Mind,” once again joining Rutledge & Taylor and Eddie Anderson for the floor show.

In October of 1934, Les Hite and Mae Diggs announced they were heading east for the first time.  But that trip ultimately didn’t happen (maybe Mrs. Hite put her foot down).  Instead, Mae and the band undertook a six week tour of the Paramount theatres in the northwest appearing in Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and Vancouver.

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Frank Sebastian presented the Mills Brothers in 1935.

Early the next year, Mae was back at Sebastian’s with Les Hite for a major show starring the Mills Brothers, followed by an extended stay by Fats Waller. In May, Mae appeared in the “I’ll Take Chocolate Revue” at the Hollywood Music Box with Etta Moten.


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The whole cast posed with Fats Waller (center) in front of Sebastian’s Cotton Club.

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Fats Waller, Les Hite and Frank Sebastian.

Valaida Snow and Nyas Berry (producers), Glennie Cheeseman, Martha & Cliff Ritchie, Mae Diggs, Connie Harris, Flora Washington, Rutledge & Taylor, Dudley Dickerson, Les Hite Orchestra joined to appear in new shows at Sebastian’s during the summer of 1935.

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A lovely photo of Mae Diggs from 1935.

From December 29, 1935 to January 11, 1936 Cab Calloway and His Orchestra play two weeks at Sebastian’s Cotton Club just before filming The Singing Kid with Al Jolson at Warner Brothers, while Les Hite and Mae Diggs performed around southern California.

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The Rendezvous in Santa Ana, California, January 1936.  “Mae Diggs…She’s Sensational!”



Later in January, Mae did a solo act at George Ramsay’s Creole Palace (the former Douglas Nite Club renamed) with singer Norvelle Reese.


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Ads in the daily newspapers were careful to say “Colored Orchestra”
to let the white audience know that they will be seeing Black entertainers on the stage.

For their appearance at the Riverside Auditorium in southern California in March 1936, Peppy Prince, Hite’s drummer and a fine vocalist was also given featured billing.  During the show, when Prince stepped out in front of the band to sing his ballads, he was replaced on the drums by Mae Diggs.  The newspapers called the drums her hobby -- that “hobby” will be useful in the future. 

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Peppy Prince had a long and successful musical career.

The “Les Hite Trio,” listed in the early 1936 ads above, is a mystery.  It might have been a short-lived singing group.  Or was it a small jazz group made up of members of the band?  In October 1937, the jazz magazine Tempo mentioned that the Les Hite Orchestra and Eddie Barefield’s Trio -- Barefield (clarinet), Al Morgan (bass) and Eddie Beale (piano) -- appeared in the all-Black film Bargain With Bullets.


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A rare photo of Mae Diggs (sitting on the piano) posing with the Les Hite Orchestra.

Les Hite, Peppy Price and Mae Diggs continued their appearances in the “Black and Tan Revue of 1936” at the Roosevelt in Oakland for one week and in San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, the Napa Valley, Salt Lake City, Ogden, and other cities. Mae was billed as “Her Royal Highness of Blues.”

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Les Hite and Mae Diggs appeared in Santa Ana, California in January 1936.


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Screenshots from San Francisco (1936) with Mae Diggs and Nyas Berry.

Filming in the spring of 1936, Mae Diggs danced in the Clark Gable – Jeanette MacDonald film San Francisco, as part of a troupe of Black dancers performing the Cakewalk dressed in stereotypical minstrel show costumes of the early 1900s.  At an event in the story called The Chickens Ball at the Paradise Club, a couple bursts through a paper drum on stage, somewhat awkwardly, and then energetically step together to the music of “At a Georgia Camp Meeting.”  Mae’s dancing partner is Ananias ‘Nyas’ Berry of the Berry Brothers.  These two major Black night club stars of the time were on screen for about 30 seconds and were not listed in the film’s credits.

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Frank Sebastian welcomed the Elks Club to ‘The Greatest Floor Show in the West’

In July 1936, Mae starred with Eddie Barefield & His Orchestra at Sebastian’s Cotton Club.  Saxophonist and clarinetist, composer and arranger, Barefield had just left Cab Calloway’s band in January of 1936 and would return to work with him often in the future.

Mae was now romantically connected with white screenwriter John Bright (She Done Him Wrong, The Public Enemy).  The newspapers described their relationship a bit salaciously, but without judgment, as “going around together” and “playing house.”   

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John Bright, screenwriter.

Bright’s memoir, Worms in the Winecup, is the source of one of the few actual quotes from Mae Diggs that our research was able to uncover.  She apparently had a distaste for Bill Robinson, whom she described  to Bright as:

…the worst Uncle Tom and yowsa-massa toad in the business…he makes Stepin Fetchit look like Frederick Douglass….When Bojangles is standing up before ofays, he goes real Deep South on his talk – as a part of his tomming.  Most  grays cream for that—makes you-all feel super.

Mae Diggs produced a “Hilarity Night” floor show at Sebastian’s and sang “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” a ballad that had been a major hit for Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy.  And in August 1936 Mae produced the next show at Sebastian’s with Eddie Barefield’s Orchestra while Les Hite was in Seattle.  An unsigned brief in the Inter-State Tattler reported that Mae Diggs “is entitled to be known as one of the brainiest, most versatile producers, as well as her long-enjoyed title as California’s most beautiful show girl.”

The Interstate Tattler reported in October 1936 that Mae Diggs and John Bright broke up:

John Bright, Universal’s ofay scenario writer, who for several years was constantly seen with his adored sepia beauty, Mae Diggs, now cuddled closely with new tan teaser at Club Alabam….Mae finally jilted Johnny for a pretty haired Race youngster, half a head shorter than herself…. “After all I love my race” dulcetly explains Mae to this tattler.


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“Coming to Tip Top Café,” December 1936, was among Mae’s final shows on the west coast.

In early 1937, Mae was off to New York.  She told Harry Levette that she got a telegram from Duke Ellington himself, inviting her to perform at the re-opened Cotton Club at its new location on Broadway, as a featured act in the Cotton Club Parade Second Edition opening March 1937 starring Duke and Ethel Waters. 



When Mae left Los Angeles, June Richmond gained the featured spot on the billing with the Les Hite band at Sebastian’s after she had spent a couple of years appearing in various touring revues, similar to Mae’s career path. 

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The Coast’s Gift to New York, Miss Mae Diggs, on her way to the big time.


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The original program for the new Cotton Club Parade promised a ‘Song Specialty’ from Mae Diggs.

Rehearsals began early March 1937. Starring Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington, the new revue included Duke’s vocalist Ivie Anderson, the acrobatic Nicholas Brothers, dancer Bessie Dudley, tap dancer Bill Bailey, ballroom dancers Anise & Aland, tenor George Dewey Washington, erotic dancer Kaloah, dance team Three Giants of Rhythm and the versatile Mae Diggs.  Eddie Mallory and his Californians were brought in at the request of Ethel Waters to play her numbers.  Mallory and Waters were partners at the time and would soon marry.

When the show was in rehearsals, Ethel Waters, always the diva, demanded that no other female singer could have a solo number in the show.  Mae’s singing spot was immediately deleted and she was relegated to taking part in the ensemble opening and closing numbers including a novelty bit in the grand finale.

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The revised program eliminated the Mae Diggs solo.

As the production progressed, the order of the acts was shuffled around.  The “Minstrel Days” sequence was moved to a separate 2:30 AM slot.  And for the second printing of the 25-cent souvenir program, Mae’s ‘song specialty’ was removed altogether thanks to Ethel. The biographies and memoirs of Ethel Waters all omit this episode.

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Mae Diggs in a chicken suit with Harold (left) and Fayard Nicholas.

Mae joined the Nicholas Brothers for the grand finale production number, introducing the new dance, “Peckin’”.  She appeared on stage for the number wearing a chicken suit!  Did Mae’s Cotton Club debut lay an egg?

The revue’s successful run ended and the Cotton Club closed for the summer on June 13, 1937. 

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The Apollo lineup for the week of July 2, 1937.

The residents of Harlem often couldn’t afford the cover charge and were rarely allowed to enter the Cotton Club anyway.  So occasionally, between major productions, the managers and agents shrewdly -- and profitably -- shifted the performers to venues that were friendlier to the inhabitants of Harlem. Immediately after the Cotton Club Parade Second Edition closed, the Apollo Theatre presented the “Cotton Club Revue” starring Ethel Waters and many others from the latest Cotton Club cast minus the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but including George Dewey Washington, Anise & Aland, the Eddie Mallory band, Renee & Estelle, 3 Giants Of Rhythm, and the additional talents of Paul White, Derby Wilson, Dewey Brown and Bessie Dudley.  Mae Diggs was there, too, although her name is down on the bottom in the smallest letters.  

Mae, however, instantly proved to be a popular attraction with the highly discerning Harlem audience at the Apollo.  Just two weeks after her first appearance there, she was back for the week of July 16 with the Edgar Hayes band, Eddie Green, Barrington Guy and others. Mae Diggs would appear at the Apollo 14 times over the next three years.


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Mae Diggs in a publicity photo for The Grand Terrace in Chicago, 1937.

During this period, Mae also gained employment at various upscale east coast and mid-west venues -- New York, Detroit, Chicago. Appearing at Grand Terrace in Chicago, she sang “Downright Disgusted Blues.”  Ada Brown, George Dewey Washington, and Son & Sonny along with Andy Kirk & His Clouds of Joy were in the cast. (Variety)


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Earl Hines at the Grand Terrace in 1938 with Ada Brown and Mae Diggs.

 Ada Brown, Son & Sonny and Mae Diggs remained at the Grand Terrance when Kirk and company leave and Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and his orchestra took over.


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Mae Diggs – “West Coast Darling Dazzles Chicagoans.”

At Club Plantation in Detroit with Leitha Hill and The Rhythm Pals, “Mae Diggs throws sophistication and poise to the four existing winds and combines a little Cab Calloway and a little Martha Raye, with a gob of Mae Diggs, and the results are terrific” (Pittsburgh Courier). At The Plantation, Mae sings “Frankie and Johnny.”


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Mae Diggs brought a heat wave to the Club Plantation in Detroit.

Mae was held over for a third show at Plantation, this time with the Sunset Royals. And in December, Mae stayed on again as the Royals moved on and were replaced by Al Cooper’s Savoy Sultans, “the non-conformists of swing.”  The Sultans were the popular house band at the Savoy in Harlem.  In the 1970s, former Cab Calloway drummer Panama Francis named his new band the Savoy Sultans in homage to the original group.


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Al Cooper’s Savoy Sultans (Al Cooper at right).

In January 1939, and through the next month, Don Albert and His Music was the new orchestra at the Plantation. Mae stayed on yet again. (Pittsburgh Courier)


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Mae Diggs-- “A Peach Comes to Harlem” (Pittsburgh Courier).

Mae finally returned to New York after another unnamed illness kept her out of the lights for a couple of months.  Singing “Three Little Fishes,” she was back at Apollo the second week of May 1939 with the Louis Armstrong Orchestra, and the following week with Jimmy Lunceford.

Mae Diggs “makes Ina Ray Hutton look like slow motion” (Chicago Defender) at the Apollo again for the week of June 23 with Maxine Sullivan, and then the week of July 28 with Teddy Wilson, and once more the week of August 25, singing “I Want to Lead a Band,” sharing the bill with Andy Kirk and June Richmond, who was now the star vocalist with Andy Kirk’s organization.

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The California Eagle remembered Mae Diggs, June 1938.

In late 1939, Mae was romantically connected with Buddy Bradley, a dancer and Broadway choreographer.  He was called the “Invisible Man of Broadway” since he often worked out of the public eye; his choreography was more than once credited to Busby Berkeley.  He found more satisfactory and fully credited success working on shows at London’s west end including the Rogers and Hart musical Evergreen in 1930. He later worked with George Balanchine and Agnes DeMille.  Bradley was only visiting America in 1939 and he didn’t move back permanently until the 1960s.

For the week of October 20th, 1939, the Apollo had scheduled a tight 85-minute show with a spectacular line-up starring Buck & Bubbles, Stump & Stumpy, Mae Diggs, several specialty acts, and Teddy Hill & His Orchestra.


Click here for PART THREE – The Apollo and the Hep Cats

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