The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters

Background on OHAM Interviews with Jones, Thornton, & Waters


Background on Willie Ruff

Renowned jazz musician and Yale alumnus Willie Ruff conducted the interviews with Bessie Jones and Ethel Waters. During the 1950s, Ruff and pianist Dwike Mitchell formed the Mitchell-Ruff Duo after the two men met in the Air Force. He graduated from Yale with a Bachelor’s in Music in 1953 and a Master’s in Music in 1954. 

Ruff became a faculty member at the Yale School of Music in 1971. In the following year, he founded Yale’s Duke Ellington Fellowship Program and Ellington Jazz Series. He retired in 2017 after teaching at Yale for forty-six years. In 2018, the Yale School of Music awarded Ruff an honorary doctorate.

More information on Ruff’s life and career is available through the online exhibit titled A Riff on Ruff: Yale’s Jazz Ambassador to the World, curated by the Gilmore Music Library’s Research Archivist Richard Boursy.


Overview of Ruff's Interviews

In 1972, Ruff interviewed Bessie Jones at Yale to discuss various topics including African American folk and gospel songs, children's games, her religious beliefs, and Yale's first Ellington Fellowship Event. Two years later, Ruff interviewed Ethel Waters at her Los Angeles apartment. Waters discussed topics such as her recording career, her performances on Broadway, and her influence on other female performers.

OHAM holds audio recordings of Ruff's interviews with Jones and Waters. Audio clips and written excerpts from the interviews are featured in this exhibit.

Background on Anthony Connor and Robert Neff

In 1974, Anthony Connor and Robert Neff interviewed Big Mama Thornton for their book Blues (1975). The book features excerpts from Connor and Neff’s interviews with fifty-five blues musicians conducted between 1973 and 1974. In addition, Blues includes photographs of the musicians both on and off stage taken by Neff. The full interviews were later donated to OHAM.


Overview of Connor and Neff's Interview

Connor and Neff's interview with Thornton addresses topics including the beginnings of Thornton's career in showbusiness, her recording career, the difficulties she had throughout her life, and her favorite musicians.

There is no audio recording available of Thornton's interview. OHAM holds the typed transcript of the interview conducted by Connor and Neff.