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Gertrude C. Saunders Biography: Career, Songs, Awards, and Death

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Gertrude C. Saunders, an entertainer, was born on August 25, 1903, in Ashville, North Carolina. In Columbia, South Carolina, she attended Benedict Institute (now Benedict College). During her adolescence, she left to tour with vaudeville producer Billy King Stock (Performing) Company, where she performed as the principal at the Grand Theater in Chicago, Illinois, singing King’s hits “Wait for Til the Cows Come Home” from the show The Board of Education and “Little Lump of Sugar” from The Heart Breakers both in 1918, “Hot Dog” from They’re Off and “Over the Top” in 1919, and “Rose of (1920).

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Saunders was the principal dancer and singer in Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s musical Shuffle Along in New York in 1921, where the legendary Josephine Baker danced in the chorus line. Saunders was famous for her scat (improvised baby-talk) at the end of songs like “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home,” which inspired other female singers of the time to start scatting in their singing, laying the groundwork for the “Tooty-Tooty-Too” scat-singing rhythm that was later used. When she was in vaudeville, Saunders introduced the “Tweet-Twat-Tweet” at the old Grand Theater.

In 1926, Saunders, a popular entertainer, was cast as the lead in Irvin C. Miller’s Red Hot Mama Show. In 1929, Saunders was featured in a revue directed by Jack Gee, the husband of the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, who was nine years Saunders’ senior. Smith funded the project, and it was rumored that Saunders and Gee were having an affair after the revue. This resulted in a public brawl between Smith and Saunders, which left the younger performer brutally beaten and bloodied on a sidewalk. Saunders, on the other hand, continued to secretly date Smith’s husband.

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Saunders was temporarily incapacitated by severe stress in 1931 and returned to Asheville to recover. In 1939, she co-produced her show, Midnight Steppers.

Saunders appeared in the Broadway production of Run, Little Chillun in 1943. She then appeared in the film Big Timers two years later, in 1945. She starred in Sepia Cinderella in 1947. Both shows were aimed at African American audiences.

Saunders was also well-known for her passion and style of performing the “Charleston” popular during the Harlem Renaissance period, as well as singing “Sweet Georgia Brown” composed by Black musicians Maceo Pinkard and Ben Bernie for the Broadway musical Runnin Wild.

In 1964, the Negro Actors Guild of America, a charitable organization for African American entertainers, honored Saunders in New York City. Gertrude C. Saunders, a trailblazing entertainer, died in Beverly, Massachusetts, on April 1, 1991. She was 87 years old.

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