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The Torch Singer From Down the Street

While passing Hughes High School and the University of Cincinnati, few people are aware that one of the great torch singers attended both of those schools. Probably few of the students know, either. But along with being one of the most famous jazz singers during the Jazz Age, Libby Holman was involved in a scandal on such a scale that a movie was based upon it.

With a title like Sing, Sinner, Sing, you can guess what the public thought about the matter. Yet no one was ever convicted, as authorities were never able to determine whether 20-year-old Zachary Smith Reynolds, heir to a huge tobacco fortune, committed suicide or was murdered.

Born in Cincinnati in 1904, Libby Holman pursued theater and music during high school and college. After graduating in 1923 she moved to New York, where after a string of small successes and the occasional flop, she went over big with The Little Show, a musical that included the song “Moanin Low.” That song will forever be associated with Libby Holman, and she also put her stamp on such standards as “What is This Thing Called Love” and “Body and Soul.” This was the kind of music that would have played at a party thrown by Jay Gatsby while flappers downed bathtub gin.

No Libby Holman compilation would be complete without “Find Me a Primitive Man,” a hilarious Cole Porter song that provides a refreshing perspective on the relationship between the sexes:

When the Depression came, the wild Jazz Age lifestyle was no longer in vogue. Far from becoming irrelevant, however, Libby Holman kept evolving. The “earth music” she recorded in the 1950s was very different in character from her early musicals. The music reflected a social consciousness that rang true and was deeply moving.

It seems that, as soon as Holman left Cincinnati for New York, she was ready for the big city. While Holman was still living here Sinclair Lewis was working on Babbitt, a novel that we have an easier time associating with the Queen City than Libby Holman, but I suspect that our image of old Cincinnati is oversimplified. I gotta wonder too: I read once that Lewis lived in the Roanoke Apartments while he was here, which puts him within walking distance of Holman. I wonder if they ever met. I also wonder if she ever caught any of the local blues artists documented on Shake-It’s new anthology, Play It Like You Did Back to George St. That could well have been her first exposure to a musical style that she later performed.

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