Recently I lost an old friend, Jerrie Thill, who had celebrated her 93rd birthday in April. The last time I heard her singing, it was at jazz trumpeter Stacy Rowles' (1955-2009) memorial in January, at Local 47 of the AFM, even though Jerrie was lugging around an oxygen tank. She hugged me and told me she was "hanging in there" but hadn't been well.
Jerrie was a singer, entertainer, drummer (self-taught, but rather unusual stick techniques), and a Life Member of Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians. Jerrie was the drummer/singer for the senior citizen women's Dixieland Jazz band, Peggy Gilbert and The Dixie Belles. I produced their one and only recording for Cambria Master Recordings (in 1986), wrote a book (Peggy Gilbert and Her All-Girl Band, Scarecrow, 2008), and made a documentary film about them (http://www.peggygilbert.org/). Jerrie had joined the Dixie Belles in 1974 and played with them for more than 20 years. The highlight of Jerrie's career perhaps were the national television appearances with Peggy Gilbert and the Dixie Belles, including "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," "The Golden Girls," "Married...With Children," and "Trapper John, M.D." (the latter one, without Peggy), not to mention various national news programs.
Born in Dubuque, Iowa, (named Geraldine Wissing), Jerrie started performing professionally in her late teens. She was in all girl bands in the 1930s, touring vaudeville in the waning days of that tradition. She moved to Los Angeles in 1945 and played drums at the Flamingo Night Club in Hollywood from 1945 until 1952; she toured in Ada Leonard's all-girl band in 1953-54, and played with The Biltmore Girls in the mid 1950s. Her early life in the business was rough, mostly because of The Great Depression, and oh boy, did she have stories to tell. Jerrie had street smarts, a sharp tongue, and could be very funny. She would describe herself as "a tough old broad;" she survived two bouts of cancers. But, oh, did she love entertaining the crowds! In 1984 she began playing at the vintage Mexican restaurant, El Cid, in Silver Lake for a Sunday jazz brunch, and held court there for more than 25 years. Her website is still up: http://www.jerriethill.com/ and there are some clips of her playing on Youtube.com.
Only the piano player Georgia Shilling is still with us from the original band members of The Dixie Belles. A grand generation of old gals. Peggy Gilbert died in 2007. These were seasoned jazz musicians who knew what was what. How fortunate we were to have known them! The Peggy Gilbert and The Dixie Belles cd is still available: www.cambriamus.com/cds/cd-jazz.htm and I still have a box of the original lps, if you want one for your vinyl collection. Jerrie sings, "When You're Smiling," her signature tune and these women play Dixieland jazz like they had invented it. [The photo above shows Jerrie with bass player Feather Johnston, in their Dixie Belle costumes.]
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