Kay Davis

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Even among the biggest fans of Duke Ellington there is considerable controversy regarding his use of vocalists. The words "wimp" and "wimpy" come up from time to time, even in scholarly discourse, so…
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Even among the biggest fans of Duke Ellington there is considerable controversy regarding his use of vocalists. The words "wimp" and "wimpy" come up from time to time, even in scholarly discourse, so it seems quite important to mention an Ellington vocalist whose actual surname was Wimp. This fact can also be interpreted to benefit either range of opinion regarding Ellington's various front-line singers over the years. Kay Davis' surname only became Wimp after she left the Ellington band in the early '50s. Listeners who find her unique, sound-oriented singing style a remarkable or at least pleasant element of '40s Ellingtonia will insist her only wimpy act was leaving the music business in order to marry a fellow named Edward Wimp.

Davis hailed from Illinois and was a major in both piano and voice at Northwestern University. She graduated in 1943 and spent the next year performing recitals in the Windy City area, where she came to the attention of Ellington. The big-band leader was always on the hunt for new talent, singers who could pull off a singing style that used no words but only sounds, and pretty women -- probably in that order. Adelaide Hall was the first singer who had performed for him in this way -- the critics described it as "wordless vocals" -- on sides first issued in 1927. Davis' turn with the band came during an even busier era in terms of documentation, including a series of short films made for Universal.

Her tenure with Ellington also included a pair of memorable tours in 1948 and 1950, the former a rare small-group setting focusing on the boss' piano skills and the instrumental and vocal charms of the talented Ray Nance. French critics were of course unaware of the female singer's future marriage plans, otherwise their savvy knowledge of American slang might have provoked commentary about "the Duke" being backed by both a "nance" and a "wimp." This tour in fact was considered an artistic oasis, subject to the thirsts of jazz travelers who may find some vocal numbers from the '40s Ellington band not their drink of choice. Davis' best-known performances include "Minnehaha," the gorgeous "On a Turquoise Cloud" and "Creole Love Call," and the difficult to pronounce "Transblucency."