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Bricktop played barkeep to the Lost Generation" of international ex-patriots living in Paris in the 1930s. The red-haired, cigar-smoking American singer made the jump from Harlem to Montmartre—and her nightclubs became all the rage. A Who’s Who of musicians clamored to play there. The glitterati of the '30s knew hers was the place for ultra-chic café society.
Born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith in 1894 to her black father and mulatto mother, the baby’s flaming red hair earned her another name—Bricktop. She was a teenager when she got her first job in show business on Chicago’s South Side and wound up a headliner in Harlem’s top Jazz Age cabarets.
But Paris was Bricktop’s magic charm. Her bistro was a beacon for Parisian nightlife. The international set gathered there to bask in her hospitality and enjoy each other’s company. Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot wrote about her. Cole Porter gave her gowns and furs, and even composed a song for her. F. Scott Fitzgerald once quipped, “My greatest claim to fame is that I met Bricktop before Cole Porter.”
Bricktop ran several clubs in Monmartre. Her spot on Place Pigalle was a combination nightclub, mail drop, bank and neighborhood bar for the most elegant people in Paris. Bricktop would leave the stage and walk around the tables, stopping to rub a bald head, kiss a cheek, or tell a joke.
“I always said I’m not a singer, but I have my own style and I make it tough on singers who have to follow me. John Steinbeck told me, ‘Brick, when you sing ‘Embraceable You’ you take 20 years off a man’s life.’ And I swear, every time I shimmy, a skinny woman loses her man.”
In 1931, Brick moved into the grand old nightclub,The Monaco, and hired singer Mabel Mercer. She booked only the best musicians. Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt played for Brick. When Louis Armstrong was in town he came by to play, as did Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
Bricktop’s great musical guardian angel was the supreme master of popular song, Cole Porter. She taught his friends the latest New York dance craze at his Charleston cocktail parties, and he introduced her to the set that would become her loyal clientele.
Cole was the only person who had a special table reserved for him at all times at Bricktop’s. No one else was ever allowed to sit there, even when the club was packed and the Porters were in New York. Not even the Prince of Wales got such royal treatment. Through the years, Cole found ways to show Bricktop that her affection was returned. He composed his tune “Miss Otis Regrets” for her to perform, and it became her signature.
“‘Miss Otis’ is a song about a rich woman whose lover deserts her. She tracks him down, pulls a gun out of her velvet gown, and shoots him. In the end, she’s hanged for it. Very few people do it correctly. In my performance, I bow at the end, raising my hand in a motion across my neck to suggest a lynching.”
Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt built his brilliant career on being unreliable, short tempered—and a musical genius. Bricktop had been warned against hiring him to play at her club but she followed her own instincts, and never regretted it. Together they made jazz history—winning fans on both side of the Atlantic with a live shortwave radio broadcast on June 12, 1937, hosted by radio legend Edward R Murrow. Our broadcast this week includes an audio clip of this historic broadcast, during which Django’s famous temper flared when Murrow mistakenly credited Stephane Grappelli as the composer of one of Django’s tunes.
From the Grand Duke in the early '20s to the end of the 1930s, Bricktop built her reputation as the Queen of Paris Nightclubs. When Hitler invaded Poland, everyone in the city of lights realized that war would darken the city soon. Bricktop sailed for the States in October of 1939 on one of the last boats out.
It was the end of an era, but it wasn’t the end of Bricktop’s. She would go on to open clubs in Mexico City, Rome and New York before returning to Paris in the 1950s. In 1973 at the age of 78 Bricktop came out of retirement to launch the final venue of her career in New York City. She told reporters: “Anywhere I entertain becomes Bricktop’s. Running a saloon is the only thing I know and I know it backwards and forwards. As for me, it’s nice to be mingling around again. Not working nights began to wear on me.”