BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

A singer who never achieved any real level of stardom at her peak but in spite of scoring no national hits she enjoyed a highly regarded career that kept her a fairly recognizable name for close to sixty years.

Born Mildred Sallier in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1926 where as the granddaughter of a church deacon got her start singing gospel where she attracted the attention of Louis Jordan who reputedly was attending a service in that church while on tour and impressed with her voice immediately offered her a job on the road. Her aunt and uncle, with whom Mickey was living, forced her to turn down the opportunity.

After graduating high school she married Norman Champion and moved to Los Angeles with him, exposing her to a wider array of singers who had plenty of work at the clubs lining Central Avenue which flourished during the war years. Following her divorce in 1945 she kept his distinctive last name and began singing professionally doing club work and building a small localized reputation. It was there in 1949 that Johnny Otis discovered her the night he first saw Little Esther and Big Jay McNeely in the same talent show.

While he signed Esther and soon made her a star, while McNeely worked on and off with his band while building his own legend, Champion had to be content to serve as the under-aged Esther’s stand-in on the road after the 14 year old had become a national phenomenon in the winter of 1950.

Somewhat similar in appearance to Esther, though with a more polished – and less distinctive – voice, Champion’s talents began to get noticed in their own right and she signed a brief deal with 4 Star Records in the summer of 1950 before inking a longer pact with Modern Records in August where she cut a slew of records over the next few months with sidemen which included members of Otis’s band as well as Roy Milton’s pre-rock outfit, as well as pairing her with The Robins (with whom she was acquainted with from working with Otis) and Jimmy Witherspoon (while billed as His Gal Friday).

It was Milton who would have the biggest impact on her career going forward as the two of them became romantically involved, eventually marrying and having two children, while professionally after a stint at Aladdin Records, before she and Milton signed together with Dootone Records and later King Records as Milton tried with these recordings, as well as touring with younger artists, to shift into the rock field after he himself, now nearing fifty, had helped to provide early blueprints for the emerging style in the mid-1940’s when he was one of the most popular small combo bandleaders in all of black music.

The Milton-Champion marriage, professionally and personally, broke up by end of the 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s Champion bounced from one label to another, usually for just one or two releases, before stepping away from music altogether in the early 1970’s, working as a cook in the L.A. schools.

Two decades later however she returned with a vengeance as a live performer around California, her saucy club act leading to further recording deals which netted her Grammy nominations in the early 2000’s.

She performed regularly a couple nights a week in the Los Angeles clubs she’d first made her home at more than a half century earlier until shortly before her death in 2014 at the age of 88. Never a major star, but a quality singer whose contributions to rock ‘n’ roll over the years are hard to quantify just looking at the recorded output, but easy to discern when talking about those who saw her perform over sixty years.
 
 
MICKEY CHAMPION DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

I’VE GOT IT BAD
(Modern 20-778; September, 1950)
Though it doesn’t try for too much, Champion herself is firmly in control, imbuing the basic story with as much color as she can while the by-the-numbers accompaniment gets a much needed jolt from Pete Lewis’s scintillating guitar break. (5)

EVERYBODY KNEW IT BUT ME
(Modern 30-778; September, 1950)
With outdated backing that veers towards something more pop-jazz in style, Champion has her work cut out for her here but does a good job selling the song by laying on the power more, but it’s still the fairly weak arrangement that gives the record its identity. (4)

GONNA HAVE A MERRY XMAS
(RPM 313; December, 1950)
As The Nic Nacs with The Robins… Getting the Little Esther role in an attempt to cash in on the pairing with Bobby Nunn here, the results are transparent and a little hackneyed, but carried off well enough to make for a decent Christmas present.
(6)