Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill was born (one of sixteen children) on March 15th, 1905 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Although not particularly good looking in her later years, she got her nickname ‘Chippie’ as a reflection of her cute looks, small stature and very young age when she started working. She began her career as a dancer with the singer Ethel Waters when only fourteen years of age, before she became better known as a singer (and a very good one!)
During the late 1920s she began performing with the ‘Rabbit Foot Minstrels’ as a singer and dancer, and toured with them on the Theatrical Owners Booking Association circuit throughout the South going on to become a solo performer on vaudeville for a long period. One of the better and certainly more powerfully voiced classic blues singers of the 1920s, in my view she brought to bear a strongly original Blues sound, not so focused on the commercial sounds of her contemporaries.
She began recording in the mid 1920s, working with musicians such as jazz legend and genius Louis Armstrong, and continued to record and perform in the New York City, New York area during the early 1930s until the late 1940s. Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill was one of the few singers of her generation to make a seriously successful comeback in the ’40s. During this time, she established herself as a popular blues and jazz singer with a strong vibrato in her rich and powerful voice.
Bertha settled in Chicago in 1925 and recorded regularly for a few years. After working steadily in the Chicago area until 1930 (including touring with Lovie Austin), she eventually left music to raise seven children. She occasionally sang during the next 15 years but mostly worked outside of music. Bertha was rediscovered by writer Rudi Blesh in 1946, working in a bakery.
Appearances on ‘This Is Jazz’, Rudi Blesh’s radio series resulted in her coming back to the music scene, performing at the Village Vanguard, Jimmy Ryan’s and even appearing at Carnegie Hall in 1948. She sang at the Paris Jazz Festival, worked with Art Hodes in Chicago, and was back in top form in 1950 when tragically she was run over by a car and killed in 1950 in Harlem.
Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill passed away on May 7, 1950 in Harlem, New York County, New York.