Mitzi Mars was another of those minor singers who was around for several years and made a couple of records (one of which was actually a hit). However, she never seemed to appear outside of Chicago, nor was there a single review of any of her live appearances. Hers is a story of unrealized potential.
On top of that, her private life is shrouded in mystery (Mitz-tery?), but I've managed to uncover a lot of it.
The future "Mitzi Mars" was born Margaret Sweeney, in Nashville, Tennessee; her parents were Bowman Sweeney and Mattie Belle Nealy. Margaret was the youngest of six siblings: Samuel, Hazel, John W., Susie L., and Mattie were the others. (All of them, parents included, had been born in Tennessee.)
By the time of the 1920 census, Bowman had died and mother Mattie Belle (as Belle Sweeney) had relocated to Lansing, Michigan. The only children still left with their mother were Susie, Mattie, and Margaret, whose age was recorded as one year and five months. Considering that this census was taken as of January 1 (instead of the usual April 1), Margaret, the future Mitzi Mars, was born around July 1918. She'd end up lying about her age.
By 1930, sister Susie had departed and the family had moved to Chicago. However, the census information is a mess. Presumably some neighbor gave the data, since Mattie Belle and Margaret were recorded as having been born in Michigan, while daughter Mattie was the only one with a Tennessee birthplace.
It gets even stranger in 1940. Mattie Belle (who, by the 'x' after her name, provided the data) said she'd been born in Ohio, when in 1910 and 1920 she'd said Tennessee. More important, Margaret (as "Margret") is still with her (single, 20, and a night club dancer). Margaret is also the mother of two children, both born in Illinois:
The older child is a girl named Lantoy [sic; should be Lentoy] Sweeney, who was 3 (born January 17, 1937; died April 21, 2000). Fortunately, her Social Security record names her parents: Leonard Roy and Margaret Sweeney.
The younger one, who'll be of much greater interest later on, was Sonja Sweeney. The census says that she was 1 year old on her last birthday, meaning she was born in 1938 or 1939. Also, although her name was written as "Sonja", both the "j" and the "a" have dots over them. (Hint: her name was really "Sonji".) I get the feeling that Mattie Belle wasn't really very good with censuses.
While both Lentoy and Sonji were in the census as "Sweeney", they would both use the surname "Roy".
So who was Leonard Roy, their father (aka Pierre L. Roy)? His World War 2 draft registration said that he was born on May 10, 1908 in Houston, Texas. He only seems to have made the news once, but not in a good way: on January 12, 1949, he was fatally shot in Billings, Montana's Elmo night club. He'd been arguing with his then-wife and ended up firing a shot at her when she wouldn't leave with him. The bartender grabbed a gun and shot Leonard as he was preparing to fire at his wife a second time. (The court ruling was "justifiable homicide".) The January 14, 1949 Billings Gazette, reporting the story, named his children as Lentoy Roy and Sonji Roy, as well as their half-brother, Leonard Roy, Jr. of Evanston, Illinois. Leonard Roy and Margaret Sweeney never seem to have been married.
Just to help my research, there was another Margaret Sweeney, a well-known harpist, who was all over the Chicago newspapers in the 1940s. Possibly, our Margaret changed her name in order to avoid confusion, but we don't know why she picked "Mitzi Mars".
There's no further trace of Margaret Sweeney (or "Mitzi Mars", as we must now call her) prior to 1947, when a Chicago Defender blurb (which I don't have access to) placed her at Chicago's Cotton Club. She also worked at Chicago's Club DeLisa in 1950.
While I always maintained that there were no mentions of her appearing outside of Chicago, Jim O'Neal (of Living Blues Magazine) found her appearing at Detroit's Cotton Club in November 1947. There was a blurb in the November 29 Michigan Chronicle:
Direct from a two-year run in the Windy City's "Three Deuces", Mitzi Mars is a competent singer and pantomime artist who has received raves from those "in the know" for years. [It also called her the "Blonde Bombshell", because she sometimes wore a blonde wig. However, I can't quite figure out how "raves" and "competent" belong in the same sentence.]
The first time I can find "Mitzi Mars" in an ad is on June 9, 1951, when she was appearing at Chicago's Cork Club.
Later that month (June 30), Mitzi had her first recording session, held at Chicago's Modern Recording Studio. Backed up by pianist Henry Palmer & His Boys, Mitzi waxed "Scrunch" and "Jump Boy". (Although the titles sound like instrumentals, Mitzi does the vocals.) These would be released on Joe Brown's J.O.B. label, probably in early January 1952.
Bob Campbell's Red Saunders Research Foundation's J.O.B. site says:
To put Henry Palmer in perspective, he was born [Georgia, September 28, 1898] the same year as Jimmy Yancey, and the year after Fletcher Henderson. From the evidence of these recordings (the only ones he is known to have made), he was basically a Stride pianist. Because of Palmer's strong left hand, Joe Brown didn't hesitate to record him with drums and no bass (a lineup that was common in Chicago clubs, though not on recording sessions, during the 1930s and 1940s). Unfortunately, the songs that Palmer chose to feature are two Swing dance numbers with lyrics unusually silly for an already lightheaded genre. (And where was the market for such things in 1952? No wonder JOB 1006 is such a rare record.) The band, which there is no reason to doubt is Palmer's working ensemble from Mills' Inn, is a little rough and ready (both sides end less than crisply). On the plus side are the good alto saxophonist (sounding a little like Willie Randall) who solos on both sides, and Palmer's rock-solid accompaniment (his left hand really does make a string bass unnecessary). Mitzi Mars, who by this time had enjoyed several runs at the Club DeLisa, tries to inject some excitement (the upward glissando on "hunch," for instance) but is ultimately brought down by dopey words that sacrifice everything to the compulsion to rhyme. The other musicians are a Swing trumpet player (muted on "Scrunch," open on "Jump Boy," no solos) and a rather heavy drummer.
Mitzi began at Norman Schlossberg's Crown Propeller Lounge on November 23, 1951. The show starred someone named Tanitikao, who appeared with a live python and alligator. (Table in the rear, please, waiter.) Second on the bill was Share-Cropper (Lavern Baker; "Singing Sensation"), Mickey Martin ("Singing - Dancing - Spoon Drummer"). Then came "Mitzie Mares" [sic] ("Song Stylist"), Candy O'Connor ("Contortionist - Acrobat"), the Revelaires ("Outstanding Comedy Trio"), Sax Mallard ("And His Outstanding All-Star Quartette") and Eddie Penigar ("Singing Piano Virtuoso"). Don't forget: Wednesday is Amateur Night.
She (reduced to "Mitzie Mars") was still there in the Crown's January 19, 1952 ad. (However, there was no real incentive to get Mitzi's name correct when they couldn't even spell their own: the ad had "Propellor".)
As I said, "Scrunch" and "Jump Boy" were most likely issued in January. The January 26, 1952 Cash Box said (in a column by WGN DJ Sam "Jam With Sam" "Evans):
Joe Brown, indie record manufacturer, out with Mitzi Mars and Henry Palmer on his J.O.B. label. Doing "Scrunch" b/w "Jump Boy." Latter side sounds best to these ears. Joe Brown has a habit of picking up new artists and boosting them 'way up the ladder.
Mitzi was still at the Crown Propeller in late March. This time, the ad managed to spell both her name and theirs correctly.
Mitzi lingered on at the Crown through May and June 1952. In May, the club featured Lupita Peruyero ("The Girl With The Green Hair"). There's a photo taken at the Crown showing Lupita, boxer Joe Louis, owner Norm Schlossberg, Sarah Vaughan, trumpeter King Kolax, and an incredibly bored-looking woman who's been identified as Mitzi Mars - she isn't. All you have to do is compare her chin with the other photos of Mitzi to see that it's a different, unknown (but still bored) woman.
Mitzi isn't heard from again for a whole year. On March 29, 1953, she recorded a couple of sides for Checker, backed up by the orchestra of tenor sax man Oett "Sax" Mallard. This time, she got better material. To me, the side is the raucous rocker "Roll 'Em", with great vocal by Mitzi and sax work by Mallard. The flip, "I’m Glad", was an answer to Willie Mabon's hit, "I'm Mad" (on Checker's parent, Chess Records). That song featured Mabon's really annoying "bay-ay-ay-by" (which he'd already used on "I Don't Know") and it was copied by Mitzi.
Checker issued these two sides in May 1953 and "I'm Glad" began to take off. They were reviewed in the May 23 Billboard:
Roll 'Em (81): Mitzi Mars turns in a whale of a performance on this wild riff item, backed with a solid beat by the Sax Mallard ork. It isn't the material as much as the sock reading of the tune by the singer in her own inimitable style that makes it an outstanding side. Disk is potent enough to break out as a real coin grabber.
I'm Glad (80): The first answer to Willie Mabon's smash hit "I'm Mad" features thrush Mitzi Mars telling her man where to get off. It's another mighty potent reading by the thrush, and this side, too, could crack thru for a lot of coins.
I don't really understand the phrase "in her own inimitable style". For that to have any meaning in this context, Billboard would have had to have mentioned Mitzi before, but it never had. Neither her J.O.B. record nor any live performance had ever been written up.
Cash Box made the record it's Sleeper Of The Week (along with Lloyd Price's "Where You At?") in its May 30 edition:
Checker comes up with their own answer to their Nation's number one hit, "I'm Mad". Mitzie [sic] Mars handles the item called "I'm Glad" and the lyrics follow closely the vein of the original, and even employ the "B-aa-a-b-eee" used so effectively in the Mabon sensation "I Don't Know" about half a dozen months ago. Mitzi Mars sells the novelty with a personality job against the solid saxing and orking of Sax Mallard. A natural. The under portion, "Roll 'Em", is a wild quick beat that must be a tremendous item when done on the floor [that is, they'd like to see people dance to it]. The gal pulls out all the stops and belts a frenzied reading complete with squeels [sic], shouts, and sounds that defy description. Sax Mallard chips in with some torrid sax support. While the upper deck might take off in a hurry on the strength of its novelty appeal, don't sell the "Roll 'Em" side short.
They were right about "I'm Glad"; it was on the national charts for 3 weeks, rising to #9. However, they were wrong about "Roll 'Em", which never, unfortunately, became a hit.
That same May 30 Cash Box reported that Mitzi said she gets "feathers in my stomach every time I hear it [I'm Glad] on the air." At the time, she was appearing at the Club Gaiety. Assuming she actually said that (and it wasn't invented by a press agent), it's the only quote ever printed.
Her photo appeared in the June 4 Jet, along with this blurb:
Chicago singer Mitzi Mars waxed an original, I'm Glad You're Mad, which has become an "overnight sensation" throughout the nation according to Cash Box and Billboard magazines. Cash Box observed that the tune, recorded as an answer to bandleader Willie Mabon's hit disc, I'm Mad, topped the rhythm and blues numbers in at least 11 major cities and is "still selling strong." Miss Mars, bandleader Sax Mallard and record executive Leonard Chess penned the words and music.
Interesting information about the writers. I'm reasonably certain we can cross off Leonard Chess, but the label credits Mallard and Witzel for both sides. I originally thought that "Witzel" might be Mitzi's married name (I really wanted her to be "Mitzi Witzel"), but it turned out to be Marty Witzel, one of Leonard Chess' friends.
In June, she started at Chicago's Cotton Club. The July 2, 1953 Chicago Defender called her a "songsational recording star". One of the club's ads called her the "Blond Bombshell Of Rhythm" (she sometimes wore a blond wig) and also said "She Made 'Hound Dog' Famous" (I bet you didn't know that; I certainly didn't).
On July 11, while still at the Cotton Club, she appeared (along with Jack Cooley's band) at the first Saturday midnight show held at Chicago's Shakespeare Theater.
Checker brought Mitzi back for another session in July (exact date unknown). At it, she recorded "My Little Doggie", "All In The Game", "You Got To Know", and "Let's Face It Baby". However, none of these was released and, as far as is known, she never recorded again.
The July 25 Indianapolis Recorder reported:
CHICAGO (ANP) - Chicago's little bombshell of rhythm, Mitzi ("I'm Glad") Mars, recorded again for Chess Records here this week, waxing four original tunes composed by her and arranger Sax Mallard
Mitzi is at present headlining the all-star bill at the Cotton Club. The little girl who has been singing and jumping around Chicago's Southside for the past decade hit pay dirt with a little thing on Chess Records, "I'm Glad," an answer to Willie Mabon's "I'm Mad."
While we needn't take "past decade" literally, this is only the second of three mentions of Mitzi appearing in the 40s.
So what happened to Mitzi's career? She had a hit record; she was making appearances (all in Chicago and mostly undocumented); but her record company had instantly lost faith in her for some reason that has never been explained.
Another long gap between mentions. The December 19, 1953 Cash Box said that Mitzi was at Joe's Los Angeles, a Chicago club.
There's not a thing about Mitzi in all of 1954 or 1955, but in late March 1956, she turned up at the Stage Lounge. The March 31 Chicago Defender said:
The Stage Lounge, 1524 E. 63rd Street is presenting one of the biggest all star shows ever been staged at the Lounge. [Do they even read what they write?] Headlining this extravaganza is, the nation's number one blues singer, Big Maybelle, plus Betty Comous Dance team, Mitzi Mars, Jean Carroll and Carri's All Stars "The Fascinators" one of Chicago's most versatile musical groups. This show will play the Stage for 13 straight days including Monday and Tuesday. [I don't know how Carri's All Stars is supposed to match up with the Fascinators.]
She appeared at Velma's Jet Lounge in July 1956, which caused some problems with Chicago's musicians' union. The story is quite complicated and isn't really worth going into, since Mitzi wasn't at fault for any of the trouble. However the minutes of the AFM Local 208 hearing said that Mitzi wasn't present "... due to the fact that she had no one to leave with her three children." Since Lentoy and Sonji were both in their late teens, who were the others? (Thanks to Jim O'Neal for this.)
Mitzi was back at the Stage Lounge when her photo appeared in the June 15, 1957 Chicago Defender. The blurb said:
Mitzi Mars, sensational singing star and recording artist is currently appearing at the Stage Show Lounge, sharing the spotlight with the Michel organ quartet....
The June 22 Defender added:
The State [sic] lounge also comes on with a sock in Mitzi Mars, a big favorite with nightery fans. Mitzi shares Stage lounge activity with Jump Jackson and his band that takes over on Mondays making the hot spot groovy every night in the week.
Nothing else until mid-1958, when her untimely death was reported. The Monday, June 30, 1958 Chicago Defender said: "Mitzi Mars, one of Chicago's top gifts to cafe entertainment died in Provident hospital Friday [which was June 27]."
A couple of reports said she died from "a sudden attack", but nothing more specific. The July 2, 1958 Chicago Defender had an obituary. At the time, it said, she was appearing at Chicago's Hollywood Show Bar and she'd worked, over the years, at these Chicago spots: Budland, the Crown Propeller, the Old Hurricane, Club Moderne, the Leather Glove, the Three Deuces, and the Berkshire Hotel. The piece also said she'd appeared at the Club Three Sixes (Detroit), the Cotton Club (Detroit), the Piccadilly Night Club (Green Bay, Wisconsin), and the Latin Club (Toledo, Ohio). The report kind of told us about her recording history:
During her career, which began at the age of 17 or 18, Mitzi recorded two songs on the Chess label, "I'm Glad You're Mad" and "Scrunch". [At least they tried.]
Although reports said that she was 34, her age was understated by some half-dozen years. Remember, she was born around July 1918, so she was just shy of her 40th birthday when she passed away. Still alive (or at least named in the obituary) were her siblings, Mattie (as Mary Bega) and John Wesley Sweeney (who had polio).
The July 17, 1958 Jet said: "Mitzi Mars Belcher, 34, night club entertainer for almost 14 years; after a sudden attack at her Chicago home." Why "Belcher"? That July 2 Defender obituary further named him as Wayman [sic] Belcher. They were close: he was actually Waymon Stephen Belcher. The May 30, 1944 New Philadelphia, Ohio Daily Times said (in speaking of an army show): "The star of the program, and the man who stopped the show, was a guest artist - Pfc. Wayman [sic] Belcher of Chicago, a singer from a neighboring unit. Private Belcher sang three numbers - 'Embraceable You,' 'Don't Get Around Much Any More,' and 'Give Me Some Skin'." The July 15, 1944 Chicago Defender said that he was "a former night club entertainer at Jim Martin's Corner and Gatewood's Night Spot, in Chicago". Nothing ever said when they got married, but he was still single until at least the end of World War 2. Waymon had been born in Chicago, on November 27, 1922, so Mitzi probably lied about her age since she was four years older than he. It's probably more than a coincidence that Waymon had a brother named Charles; Charles Belcher was a pianist with Sax Mallard's orchestra.
The obituary also named her two daughters: Lentoy Roy (21) and Sonji Roy (19), as well as two grandchildren: Rennard Sutton (Lentoy's son) and Herman Griffin, Jr. (Sonji's). Both had been born in 1953.
Since I've mentioned her again, let's come back to daughter, Sonji. By the time her father was shot in 1949, she was known as Sonji Maria Roy (sometimes seen as "Roi"). Sonji became a model, and this was in the August 27, 1964 Jet: "Daughter of an attractive Chicago night club singer, the late Mitzi Mars who was a regular entertainer at the now-shuttered Crown Propeller Lounge, Miss Roy appeared in Tan magazine illustrations in such stories as Teen-Age Temptation, Let Me Love .... Just This Once, and Tricked By His Kisses."
Why were they writing about Sonji Roy? Because, on August 14, 1964, she became the first wife of boxer Mohammad Ali. (Note that many sources say he was still called "Cassius Clay" at that point, but that's not how he filled out the marriage certificate. It had even been reported in early March 1964 that he'd changed his name.) It wasn't a good marriage and they were only married about 17 months before being divorced in January 1966 in Florida (he as Cassius Clay). There's lots in the newspapers of the time about the marriage, but it's beyond the scope of this article and easy for you to investigate if you're interested. After the divorce, she (as "Sonji Clay") made a few records.
Sonji's age is part of the Big Lie. Here's her timeline, working backwards:
Sonji Clay-Glover died on October 11, 2005. Her burial record shows a birthdate of November 23, 1945. (This is taken as the gold standard and is all over the Internet; sorry, but it's off by about seven years.) Her second husband had been Reynaldo Glover, with whom she had a son, Reynaldo, Jr.
In August 1964, her marriage certificate to Ali says she's 22 (therefore a birth year of 1941, if the November 23 date is correct).
Her mother's July 2, 1958 obituary gave Sonji's age as 19; this is correct if she was born in November 1938.
The 1954 yearbook from Chicago's DuSable High School has a photo of Sonji Roy as a sophomore. A sophomore would typically be between 14 and 16 (which is how old she looks in the photo) - therefore she was born between 1938 and 1940.
Going back to the 1940 census, Sonji (as Sonja) was one year old as of April 1, 1940. Again, if that November birthdate is accurate, she was born on November 23, 1938.
Sonji shows up in over 90 genealogical trees; in not one of them is either parent named.
I really don't know how to sum up Mitzi Mars' career. She had a good voice; she worked steadily for years; she had something of a hit record; and yet, I'll bet there are many of you who have never heard of her. Most of her singing career was undocumented (this is a very short article, only 8 typed pages; fully 4 of them have to do with what I've found out about her family, rather than her appearances and recordings). Since nothing of a personal nature was ever written about her while she was alive, we'll probably never know why she didn't succeed.
Special thanks to Robert Pruter, Bob Campbell of the Red Saunders Research Foundation, Jim O'Neal of Living Blues Magazine, and Armin Büttner's Crown Propeller Lounge page.
J.O.B. (Henry Palmer & His Boys, vocals by Mitzi Mars)
1006 Scrunch / Jump Boy - 1/52
CHECKER (Mitzi Mars, with Sax Mallard and Orchestra)
773 I'm Glad / Roll 'Em - 5/53
UNRELEASED CHECKER (all recorded July 1953, probably with Sax Mallard again)
My Little Doggie
All In The Game
You Got To Know
Let's Face It Baby