Big bands and girl singers


Unofficially, of course, the Swing Era, or the Big Band Era started about 1935 and petered out about 1947. Of course there were fine big bands before and after that period, but that was the hey day. More than any other time, pop music was written and arranged by great writers and arrangers, and played and sung by great musicians and singers.
Popular music! On the juke boxes and on the radio and music for dancing. And music for just listening, decade after decade. Lasting music.
For a moment, let’s look at one little part of that wonderful time, the girl singers. Not all, but most bands featured a boy singer and a girl singer. This time, let’s talk about girls.
Think of the job they had. Glamorous in some respects. After all, they got to be seen and heard by many people. But it must have been tiring to sit there cat the edge of the bandstand through instrumental after instrumental, waiting for your next song, acting very “into it” and looking, preferably, very nice all the while. And then, as the orchestra transposed down or up to her key, walking to the mike at just the right time.
One of the first notable big band singers was Helen Ward with Benny Goodman. When she left, Martha Tilton came in and when she left, Helen Forrest came over from the Artie Shaw band to take her place. When Forrest left Goodman for Harry James’ band, she said she was glad to get out of there. Maybe because of the new Eddie Sauter arrangements? (Just a thought.) Anyway, when she left Goodman, he managed to come out all right: he somehow found out about this young blonde from the Dakotas, Peggy Lee. It was a perfect fit, and she went on to star in several fields.
When Forrest left James, to go into radio, another great big band singer took her place, Kitty Kallen. Kitty started out as a teenager with Jack Teagarden’s big band. Yes, he led a big band for a while. Then she went with Jimmy Dorsey to take Helen O’Connell’s place From there, she went to Harry James to fill the spot left by Helen Forrest’s departure. Another of those cases of “glad to be out of … .” She said Jimmy was always too intense, always worrying about selling as many records as brother Tommy.
It reminds me of today’s baseball players, constantly switching from team to team. But some stayed a while, becoming almost a part of the name of the group, like “Les Brown with Doris Day,” or “Gene Krupa with Anita O’Day” (although O’Day was also an integral part of the Stan Kenton orchestra, before she “escaped” from it and went back to Krupa, being replaced in the Kenton band by June Christy.
Gets confusing, doesn’t it? Woody Herman had Mary Ann McCall and Frances Wayne. Guy Lombardo could call on his sister, Rosemarie, when he needed a girl singer. Sammy Kaye ran through a whole bunch of alliteratively named singers— Laura Leslie, Betty Barclay, Mary Marlowe, Nancy Norman, etc.
Ella Fitzgerald was Chick Webb’s girl singer. Eugenia Baird was Glen Gray’s in his very fine and often overlooked mid-40s band.
Call up the video of Ivie Anderson singing “Mood Indigo” and see a real girl singer. No gimmicks, no “trying to be hip” stuff, just good band singing.
And there was Larry Clinton and Bea Wain— “Heart and Soul,” “My Reverie,” etc. Tommy Dorsey had Edyth Wright, then Jo Stafford.
Fran Warren with Claude Thornhill. “A Sunday Kind of Love.” The whole band sounded better when she was singing. And Rosalind Patton with Elliott Lawrence. She was a little past the glamour part of the job, but it was a perfect fit. Voice a little rusty from chain smoking, but exactly right.
And never forget the singer who followed Kitty Kallen into the Harry James band, Marion Morgan. She was about the last of the really notable, iconic big band singers. I saw her in person with James when I was a senior in high school and immediately fell in love with her. Was she as good as I remembered? Well, a couple of years ago, I found a CD that contained all of her Harry James sides. Yes! Every bit as good as I remembered. If I knew how, I’d call her up and tell her how great she was.
They were wonderful, those girl singers. The only girl on the bus, just sitting there for most of the gig, and then putting on their best faces for a few songs.
You were wonderful, girls. Wonderful, and I love all of you.
Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist and raconteur of note. He can be reached at


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