A Lover’s Blues: The Unforgettable Voice of Margie Hendrix

Remembering the woman who outsang Ray Charles.

Tarisai Ngangura | Longreads | September 2020 |14 minutes (3,715 words)

 

Hive is a series about women and the music that has influenced them, edited by Danielle A. Jackson. Read more at Longreads and The Believer

 

The voice of Margie Hendrix on “Night Time is The Right Time” comes at you out of nowhere, like an explosive, thunderous crack in the sky after a period of steady rain. Long after the song is over, it’s her words that stay ringing in your ear. You’ll belt out, “Babyyyyyyy!” in the shower, while out for a jog, or when giving your friends a hard time as they share their most trying relationship conundrum. On The Cosby Show, it’s her part that is most memorable when reenacted by adorable, pig-tailed Rudy, played by Keshia Knight Pulliam. In the 2004 biopic Ray, it was future Academy Award winner Regina King who played the role of Hendrix. King spoke of the difficulty in channeling the musician, as few references, visual or text, were available to use as inspiration for the role: “There isn’t a lot of information out there on Margie, so I had to rely on her voice to guide me.” The kind to stop you in your tracks, Hendrix’s voice remained unchanging, and from her earliest solo releases to her final years, it was an infallible offering from an artist who was moved to sing.

I stared at a blank page for days trying to figure out how best to begin my story on Hendrix, but nothing felt appropriate, fitting enough for the woman who had outsung Ray Charles. I’ve thought about her regularly for years, wondering how a woman with that voice could disappear from the public eye so easily, after making such an unforgettable appearance. It’s a thought that’s stayed with me, because it carries the sobering reality that someone can be incredibly talented — phenomenal even — and still find themselves omitted by history. It could happen to anybody, but it seems to happen most often to talented Black women who are bold enough to chase their dreams, then fall apart from the sheer pressure of it all. Women who are public but invisible and who are noticed without really being seen. Women like Margie Hendrix.

I stared at a blank page for days trying to figure out how best to begin my story on Hendrix, but nothing felt appropriate, fitting enough for the woman who had outsung Ray Charles.

She didn’t look like the performers most record producers wanted Black women to be. She was too dark, had a gap between her two front teeth and was a Southern girl with none of that Northern polish and glam. The music industry of today is incredibly corrosive and toxic, but it was even more so for Black musicians in the middle of the twentieth century, who dealt with nothing but no-good managers, unfair contracts, and stolen music credits. Anti-black racism and its social realities make it astounding that artists emerged who weathered through even when it seemed like everyone at some point or another crumbled, with many never making it back.  The argument could be made that had Hendrix managed to stay far from the drugs that would ravage her body, and kicked those bad habits, she would have lasted longer and achieved success rivaling that of her still living peers from that “golden” era. Yet the number of Black women uncounted and unnamed in music history makes it clear that this wasn’t only a question of sobriety. It was also about opportunity, and a perverse lack of care for the artists whose mental and physical health were secondary so long as money continued to be made. Hendrix’s death and eventual erasure from the mainstream were not simply tragic turns in a complicated life, but the outcome of a series of events that befell a woman unloved by those she committed herself to, and unprotected by those whose coffers she filled. 

***

Margie Hendrix was born in Georgia either in 1935 or 1939, in the tiny town of Register, Bulloch County — the nearby city of Statesboro had a population 5,000 — during the height of the Great Migration. She had an older sister, Lula, and a brother, Harley, who passed away when Margie was just a toddler. Starting from the early part of the 20th century until the mid 1970s, the Southern United States saw an exodus of African-Americans moving to the Northwest, Midwest, and Northeastern parts of the country. For many, economic disenfranchisement had made upward mobility impossible, and poor housing along with low quality education ensured they remained at a social and structural disadvantage. Another reason for this mass movement from the South, one more terrifying and pernicious, was the constant fear of lynching at the hands of white mobs. 


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According to the NAACP, between 1882-1968, there were 4,743 recorded lynchings in the U.S., with 79% of them occurring in the South. Mississippi had the highest number at 581, with Georgia a close second at 531. In the city of Statesboro, a quick fifteen-minute drive from Hendrix’s hometown, two African-American men — Will Cato and Paul Reed — were lynched in 1904 after being convicted of murder by an all-white jury. There was neither motive nor evidence for the alleged crime, and after being sentenced to death, Cato and Reed were dragged outside the courthouse, doused in kerosene and burned alive. The psychological legacy of lynching and its generational impact, is one rarely addressed in contemporary American history, yet for those who fled the South after seeing their kin strung up like strange fruit, any place seemed infinitely better than the one they were leaving behind. In her essay, “Black Workers and the Great Migration North,” University of Delaware sociology professor Dr. Carole Marks wrote, “In 1910, over 90% of the entire black population of the United States lived in the 14 states in the South.” By the end of the Migration a little under 50% had moved North with 1 million leaving between 1910-1930. 

Hendrix’s mother and father, Katie and Renzy, made up the percentage of people who stayed behind, but Lula joined the travellers, moving north to New York. Some time in the early 1950s, Hendrix would join her sister and she quickly set her sights on conquering the city of dreams and possibilities as a performer. She began taking voice lessons at a Broadway studio in Midtown, and by 1954 she’d recorded her first single, “Every Time” on the newly formed Lamp Records, a subsidiary of  Aladdin Records — a label that at one point had recordings by Billie Holiday, saxophone legend Illinois Jacquet, and Blues guitarist and singer-songwriter, Lightnin’ Hopkins. As a powerhouse vocalist who could fluidly transition from jazz to blues, Hendrix was in good company. She was on her way. 

***

New York in the 1950s was an economic juggernaut powered by a resurgent industrial workforce made possible by WW2. Even so, the shadow of The Great Depression still hung over the city, especially for those hardest hit by the downturn. Prior to the financial collapse, the African-American workforce had already been the most underpaid, and during The Great Depression they were the first let go and the last to be rehired. Writers such as Ralph Ellison and Lorraine Hansberry responded to this tangible dread and despondency via literary works released during the decade which centered Black survival: Invisible Man in 1952 and A Raisin In The Sun in 1957. Richard Wright’s opus, Native Son, was a precursor to both Hansberry and Ellison, and laid the poor economic realities faced by African-Americans squarely at the door of American capitalism and racial violence. With literature taking the role of witness, something else was desperately needed to offer solace from the hardship, to uplift, comfort and make better the constant lashes of discrimination. A sound was needed, one that carried like a whisper but landed like a shout. So with a little bit of blues, a little bit of jazz, and some gospel for good measure, a tonic was created. They called it soul music. Molded by musical traditions of the Black American South — gospel, call and response, and often a pounding, unmistakable horn section — soul came on the scene as easily as if it had always been present, bringing with it its most notable instrument, the voice. This was the tool that could adequately convey the highs and lows, the strife and triumph and the hope and desperation of living as a Black American. When Hendrix landed in New York, music executives drafting draconian contracts and smelling money were clamouring to discover the voices that would shape the sound of soul. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and James Brown built the genre’s foundation and heavily influenced its lyricism and musicality. It’s no mistake that all three hailed from different regions of the South, and the ‘50s would see soul emerge as a dominant facet of American music.

A sound was needed, one that carried like a whisper but landed like a shout. So with a little bit of blues, a little bit of jazz, and some gospel for good measure, a tonic was created. They called it soul music.

***

At the same time the genre was taking over, The Cookies, a singing trio from Coney Island, was just starting to bloom with members Dorothy Jones, Darlene McCrea, and Beulah Robertson. Female singing groups were then all the rage with The Blossoms coming on the scene in ‘54, The Chiffons along with The Supremes in 1960, and Martha and the Vandellas in 1963. Their origin stories and aesthetic formulas were the same: groups made up of three or four childhood friends whose musical aspirations extended beyond school recitals, with the popular beehive hairstyle and trendy but not too outrageous coordinating outfits. In 1954, after a standout performance at the famed Apollo Theatre’s talent night, The Cookies found themselves on what they thought was a fast track to stardom, even booking an appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s popular Talent Scouts show. “We were required to read music but we didn’t,” said founding member McCrea. “Right before we were scheduled to appear the performance was called off.” Later disagreements between group member Robertson and their producer would lead to her termination, and an up-and-coming solo singer was brought on as a replacement. It was a ready and capable Hendrix. 

After her addition, The Cookies became in-demand backing vocalists, but in 1958 it was Hendrix who received her highest billing yet, at the famed Cavalcade of Jazz in Los Angeles. This was a massive outdoor festival started in 1945 by African-American businessman Leon Heflin Sr. Since then, it played host to the career breakthroughs of various African-American artists including Count Basie, Dinah Washington, and Joe Liggins Jr. Charles had chosen Hendrix to accompany his scheduled performance next to singers Gwendolyn Berry and Pat Mosley, who also shared the stage with Sam Cooke and Bo Rhambo. Their addition compelled Charles to make an all-female singing group a permanent fixture in his recordings, leading to the creation of The Raelets later on that year.

Their creation as fixed members of Charles’s entourage spoke to both their skills and sonic compatibility with the singer. When questioned on the roots of the name in an interview with French magazine Jazz Hot, Hendrix said, “In America, Ray is for men and Rae is for the ladies.” Charles had suggested another name for the group—the Silver Bells. According to Hendrix, she “immediately rejected [it]. That name appeared ridiculous to me.”

In 1959, a year after bringing on The Raelets, Charles left Atlantic Records and signed on to ABC-Paramount, where he created his subsidiary label, Tangerine Records, three years later. During a 1962 press conference to announce Tangerine’s launch, Charles promised that the label would sign “important name artists,” from pop and R&B and his roster included Ike and Tina Turner, Percy Mayfield (writer behind “Hit The Road Jack”) and The Ohio Players. He also signed on The Raelets, who in 1970, released Souled Out, a joint album with Ike and Tina featuring “Dust My Broom” and “One Hurt Deserves Another.” In the bigger picture of artists who paved the way for female singing groups, The Raelets are undeniable pioneers, but Hendrix stands alone as the one who shaped their sound and also that of contemporary powerhouse vocal stars.


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In their countless gigs together, it’s Hendrix who your eye is drawn to with her wide smile and expressive face. She quickly became group leader and was the female voice that would echo Charles’s reverberating baritone with elastic vocals that could fit around any note he improvised, adding an electric current to an already buzzing performance. During their 1963 show in São Paulo, Brazil, the personality in Hendrix’s vocals shone through as she sang “You Are My Sunshine,” projecting mischievousness and solemnity while also evoking naivete and pessimism. On Charles’s rendition of “Hit The Road Jack,” there was something iron-like about her voice, which was capable of withstanding great extensions without cracking. Hendrix showed her range and more than that, she displayed an intuitive understanding of knowing just when to come in strong or a little laid back. 

***

A Lover’s Blues,” recorded on the Tangerine label, is Hendrix’s vocal calling card, with a melody that is slow, funereal and thick like molasses. She begins the song tentatively and is joined by members of The Vocals who repeat the phrase, “It’s alright,” their voices synced in resigned sadness. First recorded in 1964, Hendrix sings about an abusive lover she couldn’t stop loving; Sometime beating me/But I said it’s alright/And sometimes you mistreatin’ me/It’s alright/And sometimes you abuse me/That’s alright. It’s a long suffering lamentation reflective of its title but there’s a particular point at around the 1:17 mark that stands out in the musical elegy; the emphasis Hendrix places on the word while which was both explosive and compressed. It feels like an almost playful pivot to soften the pain she is singing about, and with a subtle change in cadence and timbre, Hendrix gives the word a racial geography. It became not only a noun but an adjective describing a mood and an experience. It’s so special and you hear sorrow mixed with determination transmitted via one unlikely word. For almost four minutes on this track, she layers her sharp, piercing chords that are reminiscent of James Brown, over her cries of anger and deep resolve. They sound equal parts familiar and singular, a testament to Hendrix’s ability to be both relatable and unmatched — a performer’s dream. Blues listeners heard the legacy of gospel in her round and full tones and lovers of soul would hear the unmistakable heart pulls that came from opening yourself up to love’s torrents only to wind up alone, with no one to give the love to.

In the bigger picture of artists who paved the way for female singing groups, The Raelets are undeniable pioneers, but Hendrix stands alone as the one who shaped their sound and also that of contemporary powerhouse vocal stars.

Hendrix brought her own personal experience with loving a man who couldn’t love her the way she needed and yet whom she was tied to professionally and intimately. When “A Lover’s Blues” was recorded, she was in an on-again-off-again affair with Charles, and in 1959 she had their only child, a son named Charles Wayne. In 1958, During the early months of their business and personal relationship, she recorded “Night Time Is the Right Time,” a sensual nod to romantic love, highlighting its most potent and heady reactions. It leaned into a desire that was full grown, and Hendrix sang with lust-filled abandon. She instinctively tapped into the swell of her own longing and drew a level of emotion that is only possible when what you’re singing is your absolute truth.

Hendrix spent six years as a Raelet before a fight with Charles while on tour in Europe in 1964  led to her being fired, around the time of  recording “A Lover’s Blues.” On Tangerine, Hendrix released one of her last solo singles, “Let No One Hold You,” which she also composed. A bouncy tune, it is a plea for a lover’s fidelity while separated by long-distance. If you get lonely/While I’m away/Then go to a movie/Don’t go astray. Hendrix didn’t own the rights to the song, and after she left it remained as part of the label.  Even though Charles spoke of her great skills and contributions to his music, she is hardly mentioned as a collaborator and only ever as one of the many women whose relations with Charles would become public knowledge long after they were over.

***

A year after leaving Tangerine, Hendrix travelled to Chicago to record music under her new label, Mercury, with “Now The Hurts on You,” being one of the first tracks to come from those sessions. It’s a moanful, smooth tune, and though her voice sounds reigned in, there are moments when her signature gravelly grit comes through with the kind of sheer force that makes you grimace as you listen. The song stays at a steady, soulful pace before reaching a crescendo on the song’s title, when the tables are turned and her heart is not the one that’s been broken. At this point in her life, Hendrix was mother to a five-year-old son, and after losing her spot on The Raelets, she wasted little time finding her bearings. She was no longer doing this for her own dreams, but a better life for her son.

Under the Mercury label she would go on to write or record several singles including, “Baby,” “Restless,” and “One Room Paradise,” with the latter two coming out in 1967. Fans of Hendrix during her Mercury era know her best for the very groovy and foot stomping, “I Call You Lover But You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Tramp.” It features Hendrix admonishing an undeserving partner while shining a spotlight on her own inability to call a tramp by its name. Produced by Boo Frazier, who’d worked with Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, and jazz maestro Dizzy Gillespie (who happened to be Frazier’s cousin) the record offered the perfect pocket for Hendrix to show off her storytelling chops and go all out with the song’s musical direction. It’s a mystery why it never charted on the Rhythm & Blues singles chart, because the song had all the elements to make it a solo hit: stunning vocal arrangement, skilled live instrumentation and a catchy hook.

One could point to an oversaturated music industry for the lack of visibility Hendrix received after leaving The Raelets. Perhaps there were just too many other great female voices who, unlike Hendrix, just got luckier. The cutthroat reality of the music business is no surprise when you look at the millions waiting to be made. The weights are heavier, and room for failure is so much smaller when you’re black and racism is another foot pressed against your neck. Double the pressure if you’re a black woman navigating stifling gender politics and a violent racial reality. While singing with The Raelets and traveling city to city for months at a time with the expectation always being she would perform with the same high-octane energy in every show, Hendrix had turned to drugs. Heroin quickly became her vice, and this continued after her departure from the group.

***

Margie Hendrix passed away in 1973 in New York, where she had remained after leaving The Raelets. Her body was taken back to the South and buried at New Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, the same resting place as her parents. Hendrix would have been in her mid-thirties, and her only son would have been about 13. She recorded her final songs fifty years ago in 1969 on the Sound Stage 7 label. “Somebody Gonna Plow Your Field,” is a metaphorical warning to a man who can’t seem to love his partner the way she needs. It starts off with an acknowledgement, I’m a woman and I’m human/ There’s times when I needed someone/ To hold me close/And give me lots of lovin, and she ends with the reminder that If you don’t tend your crops/Somebody else is gonna plow your field. If there’s one thing Hendrix could do besides sing you out of your seat, it was deliver witty, tongue-in-cheek lyrics with both seriousness and humor. She was in on the joke while still making sure that the laughing matter stayed an important matter.

In today’s current radio hits I hear hints of Hendrix, particularly in artists who know how to take a room and balance it in the palm of their hand; women like Jazmine Sullivan, Jennifer Hudson, and Ledisi. Teyana Taylor, as successful as she is, remains the most underappreciated artist on Kanye West’s GOOD music label, constantly sidelined for the male artists she so obviously outshines. I see Hendrix in the voices that are present and also those who could be but aren’t, even when they have all the tools needed to be considered greats.

Margie Hendrix’s death was quiet and unnoticed. Her former bandmates from The Raelets and The Cookies weathered several lineup changes, a possible result of the industry’s fickleness, but also, just maybe, it was hard to replace someone with her kind of gift. When it comes to Hendrix talent, Charles, her longest musical collaborator said, “Aretha, Gladys, Etta James, these gals are all bad, but on any given night, Margie will scare you to death.” She began her career as a solo singer who became a background vocalist for some of the world’s most beloved musicians and died working to make it on her own. I think she stays on my mind because I see in her life the reality of what it means to hustle with nothing but faith and talent. Sometimes there’s simply no ascent no matter how hard you try. Sometimes, or maybe often, the path ends not through any fault of your own. And so I think of her with sadness for the times she felt close to her dreams and then had to start all over again. And I think of the work she left behind, markers of a life distilled into a footnote. When listening to Hendrix, it’s clear she was so much more than a sidelined part of history and it’s this that gives her memory roots. Her voice is irrefutable proof of what was, what could have been, and what is remembered.

 

Tarisai Ngangura is a journalist and photographer who documents Black lives around the globe—their histories, legacies, and movements. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Lapham’s Quarterly, The New York Times, The New Republic, New York Magazine, Literary HubJezebel and others. She is currently a writer at Vanity Fair.

 

 Series editor: Danielle A. Jackson

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