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Willie Mae Wong, Greenville 1940s All-girls Big Band

Posted by John Jung on May 6, 2018 at 11:35 PM

                      During the 1930s and 1940s, big dance bands were popular and often performed in large restaurants, even in Chinese restaurants.  These bands generally had all male musicians, but a notable successful all girls orchestra was a multi-ethnic group known as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm that performed in major eastern cities. 

A 15 year old girl in Greenville, MS., Willie Mae Wong (her real surname was Lee but it was changed by the band to make it clear that she was Chinese), a Chinese whose father was Chinese and mother was a mixed Native American was recruited for the band even though she claims she had no musical experience and was probably selected because the organizer wanted a Chinese face to add to the international look of the 18 member band that had a Mexican, a Hawaiian, an Indian, and the rest, except for one caucasian, African American. She learned fast and became a saxophonist with the the band. It was claimed that in towns which were intolerant of bands that had both black and white musicians, the white performer resorted to blackening her face.

                                             


Not much else is known about her background in Greenville.  It would seem likelt that her parents owned a grocery store, but there is no evidence. Willie Mae died about 2 years ago at the ripe age of 94.







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