Priscilla Bowman was born May 30, 1928, in Kansas City, Kansas, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister. She made her singing debut at age seven in front of inmates at the state penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas. As a teenager she was encouraged by local pianist Roy Searcy as she began singing in area nightclubs. Later she was introduced to Kansas City jazz pianist Jay McShann and began performing regularly with his band.
In 1955, Bowman cut her first sides with McShann for Vee Jay Records, which resulted in the #1 R&B hit “Hands Off” – the recording most closely associated with her. She toured on the success of the record, highlighted by engagements at Mel’s Hideaway on the south side of Chicago and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. With marquee performances and a hit record to promote, the incessant grind of the road took a toll on Bowman. On the advice of entertainer Moms Mabley, who shared the same tour bill, the exhausted and ill Bowman returned to Kansas City for much needed rest. In a 1987 article for The Squire, Bowman reflected on how the decision impacted her budding career: “I wish I’d stayed [on the road], but if I’d stayed, I would have died…By stopping and staying home, they [the public] just forgot about me. And I’d forgotten about singing.”
Bowman continued to record through the end of the 1950s, achieving artistic and critical triumphs in the face of waning commercial success. Highlights include “I’ve Got News For You, the follow-up to her #1 hit (1956); “Everything’s Alright,” a Billboard Magazine pick (1957), and collaboration with doo-wop group The Spaniels (1958-59). However, Bowman failed to rekindle her initial success or to tap into the emerging rock ‘n’ roll market, a style ironically owing much to the rhythm and blues music she purveyed. By the early 1960s, Bowman had put her career on hold to get married and to raise a family.
Bowman revived her singing career in the late 1970s and early 1980s, performing at area nightspots and festivals. Original Rock And Roll Mama, the first full-length album collecting many of her 1950s recordings, was released in 1986. Despite surgery to remove a cancerous lung that same year, she continued to perform into 1987. She was honored posthumously with a Kansas City Jazz Heritage Award (1988) and an Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz Award (2003).
Priscilla Bowman passed away July 24, 1988.
Learn more about the Priscilla Bowman Collection housed in LaBudde Special Collections at the UMKC Miller Nichols Library.