Black women know what it is like to sing the blues, and for more than a century they were the reigning queens of the musical genre known as the blues. One unknown pioneer in blues was Ms. Lovie Austin.
Cora “Lovie” Calhoun was born September 19, 1887 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of the great pianists and composers of the 1920s, and enjoyed a career that bridged the worlds of blues and jazz for more than three decades. Ms. Austin studied music theory and piano at Roger Williams University and Knoxville College. She got her start in vaudeville as an accompanist to her second husband, the New Orleans jazz trumpet player Tommy Ladnier. Later she toured and recorded with her own band, the Jazz Serenaders, whose membership over the years included Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, and Kid Opry. She accompanied many other classic blues singers of the 1920s, including Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Alberta Hunter.
Ms. Austin and Ms. Hunter wrote the blues standards “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “Down-Hearted Blues”.
The latter provided Bessie Smith with her first hit.
As the Classic blues era wound down, Ms. Austin found work as a pit band leader at Chicago theaters and as musical director for the Monogram Theater in Chicago where many of the T.O.B.A. (Theater Owners and Booking Association) acts played. She worked there for 20 years. In the late 1940s, she later became a pianist at Jimmy Payne’s Dancing School at Penthouse Studios, and performed and recorded occasionally.
Ms. Austin occasionally toured with her own band tthrough the 1940s.
In 1961 she recorded Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders. Ms. Austin’s songs included “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “C-Jam Blues,” and “Gallon Stomp.”
Ms. Austin died on July 10, 1972 in Chicago.
Excerpted from Black Women in America, pg. 150.