The Apollo and the Hep Cats
by Keller WHALEN
THE APOLLO – ‘CENTER OF THEATRICAL CONTROVERSY’
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.
The Apollo advertisement for the week of October 20th, 1939. But Mae did not appear.
Before the Apollo show, Mae was negotiating with notorious manager and agent, Nat Nazarro. She ultimately refused to sign a three-year personal management contract giving him 33 1/3 of her salary for all of her appearances. White managers for Black entertainers could certainly be exploitive, but Nazarro took advantage to the extreme. And he got away with it for years with such clients as Buck & Bubbles, the Berry Brothers and Avis Andrews. The Pittsburgh Courier reported:
Unlike legitimate artist-manager’s agreements, the one which Miss Diggs refused to sign, was all in favor of the manager. At no place in the bargain was the artist promised anything for the unfair percentage asked by the agent-to-be. One clause stated that not only was he, Nazarro, to receive the cut asked for the securing of work for the artist, but the amount was to be the same regardless of who found an outlet for the performer’s talent.
In October 1939, Mae was the ‘Center of Theatrical Controversy’
The day before the Apollo’s Friday opening, an angry Nazarro successfully had Mae’s appearance canceled by threatening the Apollo’s management -- he was going to pull the two headline dance teams on that week’s bill, Buck & Bubbles and Stump & Stumpy, who were both already under his personal management. The Apollo capitulated and Mae lost her gig. Books about the Apollo’s management and its history fail to include this story.
Mae took her complaint against Nazarro to the newspapers and an attorney and ultimately to the labor commissioner. “The first performer to buck the demands of Broadway booking agents, Miss Diggs is the center of attraction in Harlem” (Pittsburgh Courier).
Nazarro apparently didn’t learn much of a lesson in humility when, in August 1940, he got into an altercation with Cab Calloway after walking out on the maestro in the middle of a performance. It ended with name-calling and insults and a threatened lawsuit, but just short of a fist fight. At various times Nazarro had also had legal, and sometimes even physical, disagreements with Bill Robinson, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey and Joe Glaser. Read more stories here about “the Monster Agent” Nazarro in Jean-François Pitet’s story about Avis Andrews.
The Apollo advertises its line-up for the week of October 27th, 1939.
The following week starting October 27, 1939, after handling the Nazarro affair, Mae was back at the Apollo with Tiny Bradshaw and His Band, making up for previous week. Eddie Green’s film “Dress Rehearsal” was shown at the Apollo the same week. The 20-minute short later became the first African-American made film to be broadcast on television, on NBC in New York on December 16, 1939.
In November, Mae was signed for a major new stage show, Rhapsody in Black, being prepared by Lew Leslie, the impresario of the hit show Blackbirds and other all-Black productions, who was working for nine months on this new production (Leslie had previously produced a different show called Rhapsody in Black starring Ethel Waters in 1931).
Meanwhile, for the week of February 2, 1940, Mae was once more at the Apollo with the Ink Spots headlining and Mae’s old friends from Detroit, Al Cooper’s Savoy Sultans, providing the music. On March 19 the Sultans recorded the song “Wishing and Crying for You,” co-written by Mae Diggs, with a vocal by Evelyn White. Click here to listen to Mae’s composition performed by the Savoy Sultans.
The new Rhaspody in Black opens in 1940.
Instead of the usual out-of-town tryout for a Broadway show, the new Rhapsody in Black premiered locally at the Apollo at the end of August 1940, presenting Act One the first week and Act Two the following week. The main draw was blues singer Ada Brown, later seen in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. Singing “I’m a Little Blackbird,” Mae suffered a poor review from Variety: “Miss Diggs… unfortunately, can’t hold up her end. She’s a neat looker, but aside from a positive lack of vocal ability, her gestures are stiff and ungainly.” Another Variety scribe reviewing Act Two said, “Mae Diggs is a lively gal without noticeable voice or skill.”
In complete opposition to Variety, however, ANP columnist Alvin Moses compared Mae’s performance in “Rhapsody in Black” favorably to a couple of the greatest female performers of the past, the original singer of “I’m a Little Blackbird” in Shuffle Along and The Queen of the Cakewalk: “…the old, old complaint, no theme centered around a principal. Mae Diggs could easily have been used in that connection, for she possesses greater talent than most vaudeville performers since [the] passing of Florence Mills and Aida Overton Walker.”
The climax of the show’s second act had a full orchestra and pianist George Rickson playing a rousing “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Cecil Mack Choir interpolating the spiritual “Babylon.” The Orchestra was conducted by Gertrude Martin – Mae took the conductor’s baton in a later edition of the show. The production, however, was overlong and not well-rehearsed, so its Broadway ambitions looked dim.
Mae was expected to open at Club Caverna in Washington DC on December 6, 1940, but instead appeared with Charlie Barnet at the Apollo that week singing “Jive is Here to Stay.” She also worked the Stork Club in Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve and then the Tic Toc Club in Boston (Swing, May 1941).
Lew Leslie’s Rhapsody in Black, “A Symphony of Blue Notes and Black Rhythm.”
Back in Philadelphia, on January 20, 1941, Lew Leslie’s Rhapsody in Black stubbornly re-opened at the Erlanger Theatre, this time with Mae Diggs conducting violinist Billy Butler’s Symphonic Swing Orchestra. The new company included Honi Coles and White’s Lindy Hoppers (credited as the Harlem Rhapsodic Dancers), with Estelle & Papo and Tim Moore returning. Ada Brown was replaced by Edith Wilson, an original star of Leslie’s Blackbirds. Advertised as the “Greatest Colored Show of All Times,” it closed after just six days into its scheduled two-week run. (from thehidehoblog.com)
Café Society menu designs by Anton Refregier, downtown (l) and uptown (r).
At Café Society downtown, at 2 Sheridan Square, in Greenwich Village, Mae opened February 11th after Sister Rosetta Tharpe had played there for several weeks. The 220-seat room dubbed “the wrong place for the right people” was a landmark venue for the career of Billie Holiday, where she introduced the classic “Strange Fruit” during her residency there in February 1939.
The Pittsburgh Courier reported on the latest Diggs gig in 1941.
Mae triumphed for two months singing at Café Society. In April 1941, Lena Horne was next to take over the spot.
At Café Society Mae Diggs shared the stage with several great jazz musicians of the time.
In April Mae performed at the Baltimore Royal with the immortal Fats Waller, and at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Later in April, columnist Billy Rowe reported that Mae was ill once again, this time identified as ulcers.
PHILADELPHIA – ‘A SULTRY JAZZ SINGER’
Starting in August 1941, Mae Diggs was the added attraction along with an instrumental trio at Deighan’s Café-Restaurant in Pennsauken, New Jersey. The trio, The Hep Cats, were Bob Mosely, piano and trumpet, Wilson Myers, bass, and Arthur ‘Pye’ Russell, guitar. Mae, as the added attraction, soon became a long-term fixture both at this club and with the band -- their gig at Deighan’s lasted for 14 weeks. And even longer-lasting was the marriage of Mae Diggs and Arthur Russell.
Russell was formerly with The Three Dukes (Leslie ‘Bubber’ Gaines, James ‘Hutch’ Hudson, and Arthur ‘Pye’ Russell), a dance team active in the mid-1930s. In 1936 The Three Dukes traveled with Valaida Snow for a tour of the U.K. and Europe (New Journal & Guide).
Earlier, the Four Hep Cats had consisted of Wilson Myers, bass (and sometime vocalist, “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup”), Bob Mosley, piano, Paul Jordan, violin, and Arthur Russell, guitar. Songs the group wrote and performed included “Aw Reet,” (recorded by Jimmy Dorsey), “Invitation to a Kiss,” “Dot’sa Muh Boy” and “We’re Gonna Write a Song” (New York Amsterdam News).
Around this time Mae Diggs commandeered the name Daisy Mae from a popular song called “Daddy” recorded in 1941 by Sammy Kaye, Harry James, Frankie Masters and others:
Hey, listen to my story 'bout a gal named Daisy Mae
Lazy Daisy Mae
Her disposition is rather sweet and charming
At times alarming, so they say
She has a man who's tall, dark, handsome, large, and strong
To whom she used to sing this song:
‘Hey, daddy, I want a diamond ring, bracelets, everything
Daddy, you oughta get the best for me lee-ya lee-ya
Hey, daddy, gee, don't I look swell in sables?
Clothes with Paris labels?
Daddy, you oughta get the best for me, la da da da da da’
It’s ‘The Hep-Cats with Daisy Mae’ in 1941.
Mae continued working with her new group, and by the end of 1941 they were billed as The Hep-Cats with Daisy Mae for a regular spot at the Lexington Casino in Trenton New Jersey. (There seemed to be no agreement on the correct presentation of the name of the group – Hep Cats, Hep-Cats, and Hepcats were all used interchangeably.)
Pittsburgh Courier columnist reported that producer Charles Glenn was desperately looking for Mae Diggs to open at the new Rhumboogie night club in Chicago. Unable to locate Diggs, the venue instead gave the job to Mae Johnson, another recent Cotton Club headliner. Click here to read our bio of Mae Johnson.
A few months later, Nell Dodson of the Chicago Defender got a letter from Mae Diggs explaining that she now called herself Daisy Mae and was working with the Hep Cats -- Wilson Myers on bass, Arthur ‘Pye’ Russell on guitar, Roy Testamark on piano, and Mae on drums.
In December 1942, now billed as the Hep-Cats and Daisy Mae, the whole group joined yet another touring version of Sissle and Blake’s famous Shuffle Along revue. Also in the cast were Avis Andrews, and Flournoy Miller and Johnny Lee (the comedy team can be seen reprising one of their skits from Shuffle Along in the movie Stormy Weather filmed a few months later). Mae sang “Uptown in Harlem” and other numbers in the show. The rest of the evolving Hep Cats lineup at the time were Roy Testamark, piano,’Pye’ Russell, guitar, and Billy Pollard, bass.
In May of 1943, Daisy Mae and Her Hep Cats had spent 24 weeks entertaining at Dumond’s bar in Philadelphia. In 1944 the Hep Cats “along with other swell entertainers” performed at Kaliner’s Little Rathskeller in Philly. The Hep Cats appeared there several times during the year (Philadelphia Inquirer).
The Hep-Cats and Daisy Mae at Kaliner’s Little Rathskeller, Philadelphia 1944.
By 1944 the California Eagle’s showbiz columnist J.T. Gipson was asking the question, “Whatever became of Mae Diggs, one-time darling of the theatrical profession?” When his query was posed, the previously well-known “Mae Diggs” had been completely subsumed by the new “Daisy Mae” persona.
Wonderful photo of Daisy Mae Diggs headlining at Lexington Casino in Philadelphia in 1946.
In the early war years, the Hep Cats were entertaining at The Circle Restaurant, a venue popular with servicemen where Mae was described as “a sultry jazz singer.” The band often changed and lost personnel due to members joining the armed forces -- “selective service made GI’s out of her jivesters.” The caption on the photo above implies that her band was no longer together at that time, but it was soon active again (from the Baltimore Afro-American).
At the Casino, where Allentown meets in Bethlehem, PA 1947 (left) and 1949
GIGS, TOURS AND RECORDS – DAISY MAE AND HER HEP CATS
Now called Daisy Mae and Her Hep Cats, their first recordings were made in 1948 with Billy Butler, guitar; Arthur Russell, rhythm guitar; Gene Johnson, piano; Jimmy Butts on bass and Daisy Mae Diggs on drums. The sides were unissued and may not have survived at all. This guitarist Billy Butler is a different person that the violinist Billy Butler who lead the swing orchestra for Rhapsody in Black in which Mae had appeared seven years earlier (from uncamarvy.com).
“Truly one of the finest groups ever to play Toronto,” 1952.
Jimmy Butts, bass; Arthur Russell, guitar; Daisy Mae; Gene Johnson, piano; Billy Butler, guitar circa 1948.
Iconic saxophonist John Coltrane was briefly a member of the Hep Cats band sometime between 1953 and 1955. Pianist Bill Evans remembered that “Coltrane described the Hep Cats as the kind of band you’d find in Las Vegas lounges ten years later. Daisy Mae would shimmy out front in a sparkling dress while her husband the guitar player [Arthur Russell] was boggieing behind her. John said the guitarist had discovered the lost chord, because it sounded as if he’d found the one chord that fitted everything—a chromatic crunch.” (From John Coltrane: His Life and Music)
Words and music by Mae Russell and Arthur Russell. Library of Congress, 1954 copyright records.
Daisy Mae and the Hepcats recorded several sides in 1955 and 1956.
From blues author and researcher Bruce Bastin:
LONESOME PLAYGIRL is clearly partly autobiographical. With a nice voice, which she didn’t use much, she sings of being “tired of being hired” and wants “no more of these lonesome nights…. WOMAN TROUBLE” is an odd cut, commencing with a skit about her entering a bar with Sam, only to have her husband come in also. He breaks into a blues (in good voice) with fine guitar accompaniment. Eventually a fight breaks out but the end is chaotic rather at odds with the music.
Another rare Daisy Mae record (courtesy of Gilles Petard)
Only about eight sides survive from the Hep Cats recorded output, just a few of them with vocals and all of which were made for small Philadelphia labels. Other titles recorded by the group include “Hop Scotch,” “Fanny Duncan,” “Want Me a Man,” “Stuff You Got to Watch” and “Frosty’s Groove.” Most of the compositions were credited to Russell and Russell. The Collectable label compiled many of the songs on the 1990 CD, Thelma Cooper and Daisy Mae & Her Hepcats with a booklet by Bruce Bastin.
A late 1950s lineup of Daisy Mae and Her Hep Cats with a sax player added.
In March of 1959 columnist Ziggy Johnson reported that “Daisy Mae and Her Hep Cats have a new and terrific recording,” but he failed to give us the title or record label, so it remains a mystery.
In the late 1950s, the group enjoyed several long-term residencies in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New Jersey clubs -- The Rave Musical Bar, The Circle, Club Cali, Club Esquire, and the Bolero. In March 1960, the Hep Cats appeared at the Lindenwold Inn with Wilbert Harrison, hot off his number one hit record “Kansas City.” During this period, Arthur Russell was extolled as “one of earliest exponents of the Twist” from the group’s appearances at the Buena Vista Country Club in Vineland NJ.
Daisy Mae and Her Hep Cats, 1962
The Vineland Times-Journal in New Jersey published a fine photograph for the group’s upcoming engagement at Beth Israel Synagogue Sisterhood’s “Peppermint Lounge” night. Taking place in March of 1962, it was apparently one of their last appearances.
Here we lose track of the public life of Angela Daisy Mae Diggs Rousseau Russell. If the Hep Cats had more gigs or residencies, they weren’t advertised or documented. Did Mae retire from show business at the age of 52? The 1950 census showed Mae and Arthur living at 6636 Musgrave Street in Philadelphia, each listing their occupation as musician. For whatever reason, Mae reported her age as 29 although she was 40 at the time. The couple had no children. We’ll look for Mr. and Mrs. Russell when the 1960 U.S. census is released in 2032.
Mae Diggs was a talented performer who, while not a major star, had a successful and challenging career, conquering night clubs, appearing in Hollywood films, working with some of the mid-century jazz greats, leading an R&B band, entertaining the Apollo audience, and holding her own in two Cotton Clubs. Mae took charge of her own options and adapted her many skills to the changing times, always demanding her proper compensation. She was an independent performer throughout her career, never becoming “a big band singer” for instance, relegated to singing a couple of choruses every tenth song.
Encore! Encore! One more time!
Mae Diggs was an “Inspiration” in 1933 and throughout her career.
- Bruce Bastin, Thelma Cooper and Daisy Mae & Her Hepcats, CD booklet, 1990
- Clyde E. Bernhardt, I Remember: Eighty Years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands, and the Blues, 2015, p111
- John Bright, Worms in the Winecup: A Memoir, 2005, pp19-20
- Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom, Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm and Race, 2020, p210
- Richard L. Carrico and Stacey Jordan, Ph.D., Centre City Development Corporation Downtown San Diego African-American Heritage Study, unpublished, 2004
- Buck Clayton, Buck Clayton’s Jazz World, 1995, p56
- Bette Yarborough Cox, Central Avenue – Its Rise and Fall (c1890-1955), 1996, p206
- Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans: Out of the Cool: His Life and Music, 2003, p33
- Elva Diane Green, Eddie Green: The Rise of an Early 1900s Black American Entertainment Pioneer, 2016, p66
- Jim Haskins, The Cotton Club, 1994, p124
- Franz Hoffman, Jazz Advertised 1910-1967, 3rd dition, privately published, 1999
- Robert Kimball and William Bolcom, Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, 1973, p207
- Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz, p177
- Constance Vallis Hill, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, 2000, p114
- Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music, 1999, p92
- Marshall Royal with Claire P. Gordon, Marshall Royal Jazz Survivor, 2001, pp36-49
- Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows, 2nd edition, 2014
- Keller Whalen, The Cotton Club: Productions and Performers 1924-1940, unpublished, 2023
- Christopher Wilkinson, Jazz on the Road: Don Albert’s Musical Life, 2001, p195
The story of Mae Diggs would have been entirely impossible without the archives of the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Inter-State Tattler, the California Eagle and a host of other local and regional African American weeklies along with the Associated Negro Press syndicated columnists Billy Rowe, Harry Levette, Otto McClarrin, Alan Macmillan and others.
Unlimited thanks my friend and editor, webmaster and archivist Jean-François Pitet for his consistent encouragement and invaluable assistance.
NOTE: Sources used for this article occasionally spelled “May” for “Mae” and “Digges” for “Diggs.” I have changed the incorrect spellings for clarity in several places.
The Hep Cats live on!