Viola Gertrude Wells (1902-1984)
Jersey gem: Born in Newark
Viola Gertrude Wells, famously known as “Miss Rhapsody”, began her career in jazz, blues and religious music at Newark’s Orpheum Theater Amateur Hours. Wells launched her professional career at the age of nineteen; she joined a traveling show that played at Minis Theater in Newark. Wells would soon perform at the famous Orpheum Theater in Washington, D.C.
In the early stages of her singing career, Wells toured in clubs, theaters, taverns and talent shows throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. On more than one occasion, Wells’ group was the first African-American act ever to perform in a particular venue. In 1937, she toured the black vaudeville circuit throughout the East and Midwest with famous blues shouter Ida Cox’s Harlem Strutters. Wells was fired once her talents outshone those of her employer.
Wells soon landed in Kansas City where she headlined, emceed and produced shows at the Sunset Crystal Palace. She toured the East Coast, Midwest and Canada during the 1940s and shared the stage with jazz legends like Nat King Cole, Art Tatum, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins. Wells was even awarded the opportunity to perform at President Roosevelt’s Inaugural Ball with her own group the Three Sportsmen of Rhythm. She shone onstage until the age of 82.