Dear Boswell Sisters (but especially Vet):
I know that your only goal was to entertain people and have fun. You never thought that what you did had any serious purpose despite the fact that you took infinite pains to develop the style you had. And perhaps we, today, shouldn’t push it too far or see it for something more than it was, but nevertheless there was something in your recordings and film clips that touched people—something that very few jazz singers were ever able to do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Boswell Sisters as a trio affected people even more than Connie as a solo act did, but it was Connie’s choice to soften her image and go more into ballads.
I could wax poetic over your mastery of song, say that your voices wafted on waves of melody, but I know that you’d laugh at the corniness of that. How did you put it, Vet? “It was like everyone was doing the waltz, and along came the Twist. We were the Twist.” Yes, much more realistic. I also remember your telling me how delighted Connie was when Martha tearfully handed her a letter received at the radio station which said that she was embarrassed to find out that the Boswell Sisters were white, because they sang “just like a bunch of chanting savages.” Connee laughed and said, “You see, girls? I told you we were on the right track!”
Of course, historical revisionism would doubtlessly denounce you as white performers who co-opted black culture. But there wasn’t a single female black singing trio in sight who could compete with you in your own time. You were indeed unique. It almost boggles the mind to consider that you started out playing classical music: Martha on piano, Vet on violin and Connie on cello. It was listening to African-American jazz musicians in person and having other jazz musicians, including the great but unrecorded cornetist Emmet Hardy, sit in jam sessions in your living room that turned you towards jazz. I once asked Vet on the phone what Emmet’s style was like, and she gave me a general description. Then I asked her if he sounded anything like Bix Beiderbecke, who was supposedly influenced by Hardy. To my shock, she told me that she had never heard Beiderbecke play! So I sent her a tape of the “Bix and his Gang” sides, then called her back and asked her what she thought. “Oh, he’s wonderful!” Vet said. “He sounds just like Emmet!” This is not an unimportant similarity, since it is acknowledged that Hardy helped the sisters form their ideas on jazz harmony, syncopation and improvisation.
It’s even more surprising to consider that you began your show business career at a very young age—Martha was 19, Connie 17 and Vet barely 14—without a chaperone. This was even more astonishing when you consider that Connie was crippled from a childhood bout with polio. Thanks to her mother’s insistence on exercising her young legs, she was able to get around a little by leaning on her two sisters’ shoulders (Vet told me that it always made her laugh when strangers at the train station would ask Connee if she had fallen and needed a doctor…she used to joke that she was just a little hung over!) until one day, while foolishly playing hide-and-seek in their hotel room, Connie inadvertently hid herself too closely to the window sill and fell two stories. That was the end of her limited mobility.
Yours was an act, then, that absolutely relied on one thing, your musical talent. With sister Connie virtually immobile in a sitting position, you couldn’t strut and dance like other vocal groups (although, watching the Andrews Sisters do their almost scary jitterbugging in their movie clips, that might not have been so bad). In the early days, as evidenced by a pair of songs recorded in early 1925, your style was only half-formed, with Connie belting out blues and jazz numbers à la her hero, Mamie Smith, but when you arrived in Los Angeles in 1930 and first went on the air, you came to the conclusion that softening your volume actually helped you swing faster and harder. By the time 1931 arrived you had a long-term record contract with Brunswick Records, which made you nationally known, along with your radio show. A year later and you were appearing in film shorts and features. Your rapid rise to the top of your profession had begun.
The first time I heard you sing was in 1971, when I bought a 2-LP compilation on Decca Records of “nostalgia” acts from the 1930s. There was only one track on the album by you, When I Take My Sugar to Tea, and it simply blew me away. It was also the first time I heard the original Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, which was your most frequent back-up band of choice—with a few ringers, like trumpeters Manny Klein and Bunny Berigan (then working with Paul Whiteman), thrown in for an extra kick. I tried to find other records by you on 45 or LP but to no avail, so I had to spend more than I wanted to in order to buy the rare 4-78 Brunswick album of your recordings. In addition to When I Take My Sugar, it also included Wha’d Ja Do to Me?; Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On; Shout, Sister, Shout; Shine On, Harvest Moon; Heebie Jeebies; River, Stay ‘Way From My Door; and It’s the Girl—all classics. But it wasn’t until jazz critic Michael Brooks persuaded Columbia Special Products to issue a 3-LP set of your recordings in the late 1970s that I finally managed to hear more of your marvelous work.
What remarkable singing! Three voices swinging and improvising as one, often switching voice-leading imperceptibly to the untrained ear. Martha very rarely sang a solo line here
and there, Vet never; mostly, they were “able shadows” to sister Connie whose voice, by the early ‘30s, had mellowed into a rich mezzo. Her swinging vocal stylings were so far ahead of their time that no one could compare to her, which is why Ella Fitzgerald considered her the best jazz singer of the era. Then there were the frequent key and tempo changes, up to five within a single record, that kept the listener on the edge of his or her seat. Wild, baby, wild! Eventually I got to see two of your movies, The Big Broadcast of 1932 and Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, on TV, and then I was lucky enough to discover Vet’s home phone number. I spoke with her around ten or twelve times over the next few years and once, when I returned back to the East Coast to visit my family, almost got the chance to meet her in person. Unfortunately, the day before I was to visit you, you called my parents’ home and told me that an iron had fallen out of your closet and hit you in the forehead, and you were both in pain and had a black eye, so the visit never happened.
But I was lucky to be in touch with you during the rehearsals for an off-Broadway revue based on the sisters’ career and style, and I still recall your frustration in trying to get the singers to swing as well as you, Martha and Connie did. I also recall some of the things you told me which contradicted established opinion, for instance that it was your sister Connie who made most of the arrangements you sang, and that it was Glenn Miller playing second trombone on your recording of Alexander’s Ragtime Band. (You were quit adamant when I told you that another trombonist was listed in Brian Rust’s discography—you said, “Honey, I was there, and I tell you, it was Glenn Miller!”) And I remember discussing the recent biography of Bing Crosby, The Hollow Man, which showed that beneath his show-business chumminess was a cold, callous human being who ditched the contacts and friends he made on the way up and thought only of himself. “Well, he was always nice to us,” you said, “and he did have sister Connie on his radio show fairly often, but you know…now that I think of it…he was in town when Connie died, but he didn’t bother to come to the funeral. He just sent a very cheap basket of flowers.” And I also remember how much you and your sisters liked Russ Columbo, Crosby’s biggest rival who died tragically young in 1934. How Columbo and sister Martha would fill in air time by playing violin-piano duets. I hadn’t even known that Columbo played the violin! And what a nice, modest, stay-at-home guy he was, that he preferred having close friends (like the three of you) over for a homemade spaghetti dinner and good conversation to going out to nightclubs.
I especially laughed when you pointed out that, in the double-time Pig Latin chorus the sisters sang in It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), you sneaked in the words “Don’t give a damn / Don’t give a good God-damn” that got past the censors because they went by so quickly that no one noticed them. I also laughed when you told me about the time when Jack Kapp, the musically conservative A&R director at Brunswick Records, complained about all the tempo and key changes in one of your numbers, at which point Tommy Dorsey blew a loud blat on his trombone and shoved the slide in Kapp’s face. TD was a weird guy, a great musician who was also a hard-nosed S.O.B., but he adored the sisters and especially Connie. That’s why, once he broke off from Jimmy and ran his own band, he hired another pop contralto, Edythe Wright, to sing the hot numbers with his Clambake Seven.
But surely the most tragic thing about the Boswells was that they broke up in late 1935 (though they briefly reunited to record six sides in early 1936) because Martha wanted to get married, and in those days “well bred young women just didn’t perform once they got married…Carole Lombard was an exception.” This opened the door for Vet to get married as well. Connie, left adrift, married her manager and tried to establish a solo career of her own. You would have thought this would have been easy—after all, she was very well known as the lead voice of the trio and in fact had made a fair number of solo recordings for Brunswick while still singing with her sisters—but for some reason, it wasn’t. She had to do auditions to establish herself as a solo act without the sisters, and part of this transformation apparently included what I brought up earlier, a softening of her image. Jazz chick though she was, and remained in her heart until her death, Connie had to doll up in flouncy dresses, makeup and perfectly coiffed hair, switch her repertoire more in the direction of soft ballads, and thus redefine her image. She was eager to entertain the troops during World War II, but was devastated when the Army turned her down—not because they thought she was too frail to make the trip overseas, but because they felt that wounded soldiers would feel too self-conscious seeing a performer in a wheelchair.
Happily, during the 1950s Connie went back to jazz, singing uptempo tunes with Crosby on his radio program and appearing on occasional jazz-oriented TV shows. There was even an RCA Victor LP, Connee Boswell and the Original Memphis Five, but it didn’t do very well. Then, eventually, Connie retired permanently and soon afterwards died. An era was over.
But still your legacy lives on, not only in your own recordings but in the various vocal trios inspired by your style. I’ve heard them all, and the best of them in terms of actually sounding like you in timbre as well as swing is the Spanish-based group, O Sister! Unfortunately, O Sister! doesn’t work very hard on their English diction because they mostly perform in and around their native Spain, but by God they sound almost exactly like the Boswells. Thus your legacy continues; a style once ahead of its time but now locked in time, period music played and sung in a modernistic fashion. Even today no one can surpass what you did; the best they can hope for is to equal your accomplishments. And in your wake you left the world a happier place, your old recordings still bringing joy to all who listen.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley
Listen to the Boswells’ legacy here:
Vol. 1: 1925-April 1931
Vol. 2: April 1931-March 1932
Vol. 3: March-December 1932
Vol. 4: January 1933-May 1934
Vol. 5: June 1934-February 1936
Connee Boswell, Solo and with Bing Crosby