In the Bronx, a lady sings the blues

Hinds, circa 1952.

Hinds, circa 1952.

Eloise Hinds is a small woman, thin and short. Her face is gaunt. She described it as foxlike from her missing top row of teeth and apologizes profusely for being without them. When we met, she was headed out of her building to have a rent check photocopied. “Handling some business,” she said. Her hair was wrapped under a crisp white, linen scarf, over which she wore a black beret. Time had worn the hat in spots so parts that were once covered in velvet, were now bald like the coat of a sick dog.  She cocked it to the right side of her face anyway.

From top to bottom, she wore black. First the beret, then a large jacket that gathered at her waist from the squeezing of a belt. Its gold buckle was placed on the last notch. Her sweatpants ballooned almost comically around what had to be twig-like legs. The look was complete with black Fila sneakers and a shock of white from the athletic socks that sprouted from them. She wore a beaded necklace that tangled up with a few others, one with a cross pendant and another a feather.

You can smell her apartment from the hallway, a mixture of decay, dust and dog. Before allowing anyone in, Hinds takes a few minutes to rearrange boxes that block the doorway and begs pardon for the mess. A large oil painting of Jesus and a sweatshirt commemorating the election of President Barack Obama greet you behind the door. They hang on the wall side by side like gargoyles protecting the place.

There’s a narrow entrance space that leads to a bedroom on the left and common areas to the right. The bedroom is completely inaccessible behind stacks of boxes. The only other option is down a cluttered hallway, past the bathroom where she keeps a dog. At the end is a large living room. Everywhere the eye lands in it are boxes and bags, their contents unclear. Hinds is a collector of purses. They’re like file cabinets for her, a habit she picked up working at Western Union. Ask her for anything and she’ll go shuffling through her stacks of purses. There’s a baby grand piano in the middle of the room that you could miss if Hinds didn’t point it out. It’s buried under fallen ceiling plaster and, of course, purses. “That’s the second piano I bought,” she said. “The other was ruined.”

With no running water, she showers in her tub by using a small plastic container to pour water over herself. She eats dry foods, fruit and honey. A small beverage cooler is her refrigerator and she has a pasta dinner whenever she can bother to boil noodles, using her camping stove. To sleep, she rolls out a pallet onto the narrow hallway floor. “I don’t dwell on the past,” she said “And I don’t know what the future holds but my present stinks.”

Eloise Hinds had a powerful voice that rose and fell with little effort back when she went by Lois. She was an R&B singer living in New York and recorded her biggest single, “Loving In Vain Again” for Okeh records. The October ‘52 issue of Billboard magazine described the song as a “rhythm opus” on “buck-beat backing” wrapped up in Hinds’ strong “warble.” Fifty-nine years later, she still lives in New York but has lost the voice that gave her a brush with fame so many years ago. Hinds live now in an uninhabitable Bronx apartment, where she fights with her landlord to make repairs. She spends most of her days sitting in the building’s hallway and sorting through a hoard of papers for evidence of money owed from former managers and record companies.

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Hinds won’t admit her age but will acknowledge that she was 20 at some point in the 1950s. After dodging the question of her birthdate, she offered that she’s 65. Her eyes darted mischievously to my notebook as she waited for me to write it down. When I didn’t, she said it again. I pointed out that she would have had to been six when her single was released. She managed to forget what we were talking about and asked me if I like to sing. “You never know what your vocal cords are capable of,” she said.

She doesn’t like talking about her early years, saying only that she remembers a large market in her East New York neighborhood near an elevated subway platform. She said her mother was “overprotective” and her father abusive. Census records show that Eloise Simmons was born in 1925 to Robert and Eloise Simmons, making her now in her 80s. At the time of the 1930 census the family was living at 82 East 110th St. in Manhattan, a few blocks from Central Park and the elevated IRT Ninth Avenue line. Four-year-old Eloise appears on the record, along with her older brother Floyd.

“My mother is very dear to me. She named me after her,” said Hinds. “But the man she married was not my actual father,” she said in a hushed tone. “He knew it but we didn’t. He would beat my brothers… I had an older brother that we never talk about. I remember he was a little taller than me. One day he got beat and I could see this vein in his head.” She held her first up to her head and simulated a pulsating vein. “Then he died and it was me and Floyd. We didn’t talk about it ever.”

Hinds said that her mother kept her and Floyd busy with as many lessons as they could manage. Mrs. Simmons saved for Eloise to take ballet. She learned to dance en pointe but lost interest after starting piano lessons with a private teacher.

“I wish I could remember her name,” said Eloise. “All of this was a long time ago. She had a lot of students. I wasn’t the only one but she liked me and I was good. She would put on recitals for all of us. I was shy but I performed with our class at a recital in Carnegie Hall.” Hinds continued to play through high school and began writing songs at Hunter College, from where she would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in languages. During this time she also met and married her husband, Walter Kennedy Hinds.

She would write songs and sing them to herself, saying, “I had an idealistic and romantic idea of love.” She says she has written over 200 songs, mostly blues ballads steeped in gloom. One such song was “Please Tell Me Why.” Hinds wrote it around 1950 and gave it to a friend, Varetta Dillard, a popular Rhythm and Blues singer best known for her song “Mercy, Mr. Percy." Dillard made “Please Tell Me Why” a minor hit and began recording a number of songs penned by Hinds - almost all written about her troubled relationship with Walter.

Eloise Hinds’ ballads were in demand. Packages of demos that would come back unopened before were being returned with contracts and checks. She sold songs to artists at Atlantic, Columbia and Capital. After selling a song to her idol Ruth Brown, Hinds had the confidence to finally record one of her own.

She recorded “Loving In Vain Again” as a demo and sent the record to Lee Magid, Varetta Dillard’s manager. Within weeks, she received a call from Magid saying that he wanted to release the single and had a contract waiting for her from a subsidiary of Columbia Records, Okeh. The song was was released in 1952 with heavy promotion from Columbia records.  That fall, Billboard magazine’s pages featured mentions of Eloise, who recorded as “Lois” Hinds, alongside artists like Doris Day and Tony Bennett.

“The fist time I heard it was in a restaurant,” said Hinds. She smiled thinking, “I was with my husband and the people didn’t believe it was me so I sang along with the record.”

Hinds said that she bought a house in Brooklyn with the money that she made from her recording, much to the chagrin of her husband. Conflict began in their marriage over her ambition to be a professional singer. Walter wanted a more traditional family and she wanted to sell songs. She said that he resented that she paid for their first home and things only got worse when she gave birth to their only child Waltdrina. Just a few years later, Walter left the family. Scared and with a daughter to support, Hinds was forced to put music aside for more steady work. She took a job at Western Union and sent her daughter to live with her mother until things were stable.

Hinds tells the unfolding of her life without flinching. “It all happened so long ago that it seems like someone else’s life," she said. She lost her home and moved to an apartment. She'd visit her daughter at her mother’s at first but the visits became less frequent as she worked more. Just a few years old, Waltdrina barely recognized Eloise as her mother. She stopped visiting out of shame.

In 1968, Hinds was mugged while on the job as a night teller for Western Union. She was dropping off money from her branch office at a nearby bank when a man ran up behind her and grabbed her neck with both hands. “I was too small to fight him off,” she said.  “But he didn’t know the money wasn’t in my purse. It was in my waistband. He was going for the purse so I slid down and he lost his grip. I bit his hand and locked down. All he could do was scream and run off. I went to run the other way and saw another one of ‘em running past me. The two of them were going to rob me.”

The robbers didn’t get any money that night but Hinds left with permanent damage. A neck injury caused her to retire early from her job at Western Union. She started collecting disability aid from the federal government and has survived off of that and her occasional royalty earnings for over 40 years.

Hinds’ landlord wants to put her out, saying that the apartment is a firetrap. By any reasonable account, it is. Rather than clear the apartment, Hinds lives without electricity and the threat of an electrical fire. She said that the bill was too high anyway. Besides, all that she needs is her music. She puts fresh batteries in her portable radio everyday and listens to her favorite singers. She likes Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Sade. Beyoncé’s “Love on Top” was playing as she searched her bags for her rent check. Her landlord sends her a letter every month stating a zero balance for rent but Hinds pays him the $500 dollars agreed to on her lease. “I don’t like to brag but I’m pretty smart. I went to school on scholarship," she said. “He wants me to not pay my rent so he can kick me out.” Instead, she walks to the post office every month to buy a money order. Then she walks a few more blocks to have it photocopied. The photocopy goes into a purse that she files into the stack on the piano.

Her neighbors think that the woman who sits in the hallway, listening to her radio is crazy. The kids run past her to get to their doors. Lois Hinds lives a life of isolation, except for a dog with which she shares her apartment. She believes her brother Floyd lives in New Jersey with a wife. She heard years ago that her daughter was married. She hasn’t seen Waltdrina in years. “I don’t want to think about all of that. My daughter could find me, if she wants to. My mother could find me.” On the topic of her mother, Hinds became stoic, saying with a still intensity, “If she’s gone, I don’t want to know it. I would rather not know it. I don’t know what I would do without my mother.” Social security records show that her mother, Eloise Simmons died 12 years ago.

I played “Loving In Vain Again” for Hinds when our interview was over. I found the track on the Youtube channel of a rare record collector who converts old vinyl into digital formats. For the first time since I’d arrived, Hinds lowered the volume of her radio as I held out my cell phone. She leaned forward in her chair and smiled as the recording crackled softly. Finally, the sound of a crooning saxophone emerged and swept into Hinds’ powerful vocals. “Am I playing a losing game?” she warbled. “Am I crying for what was then? Am I loving in vain again?” Both hands went to her mouth as she covered her toothless grin. Then Hinds sang along to words that she wrote almost 60 years ago, words saturated with melancholy that she hadn’t yet earned.