As a child, she attended school in New York, Florida, Georgia and Ohio.
She got her first stage job at 16, dancing and then singing at The Cotton Club in Harlem, where she worked with musicians such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
She was 21 when she made her first movie.
Her pictures at MGM were shot so that her scenes could be cut out when they were shown in the South - the studio didn't want to take a chance on losing that source of revenue.
In 1956, she left films to concentrate on music and the stage.
She was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991.