O Sister! Stompin’ Down the Boswells Path

Stompin in Joy

STOMPIN’ IN JOY / PADILLA: Nowzah! (I Don’t Accept Your Rules). Please, Don’t Talk to Me Before My Morning Coffee. I Fell in Love with New Orleans. Keep Your Head Up, Sister.3 COMINO: The Baby Rag.1 MEYER-LOESSER-DeLANGE: I Wish I Were Twins. SECUNDA-CAHN-CHAPLIN: Bei Mir Bist du Schoen. COMINO-BOSSO-CABRA: The Dances I Owe You. BOSWELL SISTERS: (Stop That) Puttin’ It On. HUDSON-DeLANGE-MILLS: Moonglow.2 BOSWELL SISTERS-O SISTER: You-dle-ee-oo-dee-oo / O Sister!: Helena Amado, Paula Padilla, Marcos Padilla, voc/uke; Matías Comino, gtr/bjo/ Camilo Bosso, bs; Pablo Cabra, dm/washboard; Juli Aymi, cl/a-sax; Julien Silvand, tpt; Josep Tutusaus, tbn; Ángel Andrés Muñoz, pn; 1Amalia Comino, Daniela Huertas, Abril Cabra, baby voices; 2Miguel Romero, Enrique Chaves, vln; Gonzalo Castelló, vla; Sebastián Lato, cello; 3Amandine Dulaurans, Mamen Arroyo, Rocio Huertas, Viki Vassiliou, voc qrt / O Sister private release, no number, available as LP, digital download or CD at https://osister.bandcamp.com/

Back in the 1980s, when I was in sporadic contact with Vet Boswell, I mentioned to her one day that it was a shame the Boswell Sisters couldn’t have stayed together another 12 years because they might have been the groundbreakers who started singing close-harmony jazz vocal arrangements of hip tunes of that time like Caldonia, Four Brothers and Cloudburst. “Oh, sure,” she said. “We would probably have done things like that…we always enjoyed a challenge, and songs like that were the kind of things we did best…” And then he voice trailed off into silence. I didn’t know, at the time, how much it pained her inside that the sisters broke up when they did, and how badly she missed the act even into advanced age.

Fast forward to May 20, 2011. On a street corner in Seville, Spain, a relatively new group calling themselves O Sister! lined up at a Seville street corner, a photo of Vet Boswell on an easel behind them, and celebrated the 100th anniversary of her birthday by singing a spirited version of Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On. You can still see that live video on YouTube; delighted passersby stop and smile as they sing the infectious rhythms, a group of somewhat blasé young men at an outdoor café raise their eyebrows and listen. The Boswell Sisters, to a large extent, were reborn.

What made O Sister’s performance so much better than the contemporaneous versions by the Puppini Sisters and The Wah Wah Girls, among others, were two things. First, they had the same penny-bright vocal timbres that the Boswells had, which gave their music more of an edge, and second, they had a much edgier rhythmic drive and were able to sing those tricky vocal triplets and other little turns without trying to sound sultry and soft. In short, they sounded so much like the original Boswell Sisters that it was eerie.

Before I go on with this review, I think an editorial comment is in order. It never ceases to amaze me when jazz listeners, particularly those who know the history of the music and have explored it in some depth, say to me that they’ve “just discovered” the Boswell Sisters, that they’re “the greatest jazz vocal group you’ve never heard” and that they’re “forgotten.”

Yes, that was true for a long time, from the early 1940s, when the very popular Andrews Sisters eclipsed them in the pop music charts up through the early ‘70s. I can understand a lot of people missing out on the 2-LP compilation that American Decca issued in 1971, on which one measly Boswells record was included (although a good one, When I Take My Sugar to Tea). The only reason I knew to look for them was that I had been reading somewhere, in my explorations of early jazz, that the Boswell Sisters were supreme in their field and influenced both the Andrews and every other jazz singing trio that came after them. But yes, I admit that in 1971, the Bozzies were obscure. In order to hear anything more by them, I had to travel to The Record Album, a rare-record shop on the upper West side of Manhattan, to buy a 4-78 set issued by Brunswick around 1941 with eight of their classic performances on it.

But then, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, there was a brief but spirited “Boswells Renaissance.” Producer Michael Brooks convinced Columbia Records, then owner of the original Brunswick masters (but not their handful of Decca sides), to issue a 3-LP set on their Columbia Special Products label. The price was inexpensive, and to the best of my knowledge the album sold very well because CSP followed with a Vol. 2 and the Boswell Sisters were back on the map.

Music historian David McCain, then a young man, also got into them around this time and contacted Vet, the surviving Boswell sister, at her home in Peekskill, New York. They began a lively phone-and-mail relationship that eventually led to face-to-face meetings. Somehow, someone was persuaded to do an off-Broadway show about the Boswell Sisters. It did well artistically but not financially; Vet, a real perfectionist, was never 100% satisfied with the singers chosen to play her and her sisters. The one thing she couldn’t get across to them was the Boswells’ penchant for crossing voices during ensemble passages. This is very tricky and, in fact, most untrained ears never picked up on it, but the “usual” arrangement of Vet singing the high part, Martha the middle and Connie the low did not always hold true. They would switch parts in the middle of a chorus or even in the middle of a bar. The mere mortals chosen to play the Boswells for the show never could catch on to this; it really was something very difficult for them to wrap their heads around. But somehow or other, they managed to do it to a point, and the show went on.

But not for long. It attracted an enthusiastic but smallish audience and never really gained traction, closing only a couple of months after it opened. Still, it put the Boswells back in the entertainment section of the New York Times.

Around the same time (1981), Steve Martin made a rather surreal film about a salesman in the 1930s who lived a fantasy life in his head. Pennies From Heaven wasn’t a box-office smash, but it did well enough, and among the ‘30s records played in the film was the Boswells classic, It’s the Girl. So once again, popular culture and the Bozzies intersected. The British wing of Decca Records issued an LP titled Sand in My Shoes which included several solo recordings by Connie Boswell and the last six sides made by the sisters. Vocalion issued a single LP of Boswells material from their Brunswick days, which included a few tracks not on either of the CSP sets. And, from Pennsylvania, an indie label called Jazum Records issued some really rare Bozzie performances, including British discs, super-rare Brunswicks and a slew of radio transcriptions from the Dodge Bros. radio show.

It’s true that they were rather neglected for a while after that, but you’d have thought that all of this was enough to re-establish their fame, at least among jazz aficionados. But apparently not. Then, from the late 1990s on, a series of CD reissues came around, including yet another from a British label which had some of their all-time best recordings on it. Still, no traction. The British label ASV put one out; Jass Records put out a few more; Columbia Legacy struck again, on CD, with their “Art Deco Series” tribute. Still, no traction.

Or was there? Somehow their name and style was spreading, because tribute groups sprang up, most prominently the Pfister Sisters, Hazelnuts, Puppini Sisters, Boswell Project, The Stolen Sweets and an extremely talented Spanish trio, O Sister!, whose sound is so close to the originals that it’s almost eerie. The Stolen Sweets and O Sister! have gone beyond the confines of pure copying to produce later material in the Boswells’ style, which I really do think Vet would have appreciated had she lived to hear them.

And now we have this new album by O Sister!, which is even more assured and swinging than their earlier performances. A perfect example is their completion of an original Boswells tune that was sketched out but never recorded, You-dle-ee-oo-dee-oo. O Sister! has indeed worked this song out in a manner very close to what the Boswells would have done, and it is my opinion that none of the other Boswell-imitation groups could have done as great a job. Moreover, their performance on this new studio recording is stronger and more assured than their original version, apparently recorded during a hot day in Seville (August 2014) and also available for free streaming on YouTube. In the earlier performance, there is indeed a certain frisson when they switch gears from the ballad portion of the song to the uptempo improvisation that sounds more planned on the studio one; but I like the slightly quicker tempo and jauntier performance of the early section on the new recording.

This greater assuredness by the group runs like a spine of metal throughout the entire album, and this extends to the many new songs that are the bulk of the program. Both Paula Padilla, one of the group’s founders, and guitarist/banjoist Matías Comino have contributed several wonderful new songs in the Boswells mold, only with the personal stamp of O Sister! on the lyrics. My particular favorites are Nowzah! (I Don’t Accept Your Rules), The Baby Rag, I Fell in Love with New Orleans and Keep Your Head Up, Sister. The vocal group’s back-up band has, if anything, also grown in assurance and style over the past four years. They are now as good, in my view, as the Dorsey Brothers’ studio band that accompanied the Boswell Sisters. Guitarist Comino, trumpeter Julien Silvand, trombonist Josep Tutuseus and pianist Ángel Andrés Muñoz play some real quality solos and lay down a ground beat as strong and solid as a stonewall, Jackson. I was particularly delighted to hear the way they played and sang I Fell in Love with New Orleans with the kind of swaggering backbeat associated not with New Orleans musicians of the Boswells’ era but with the New Orleans sound of the 1950s and ‘60s, i.e, the world of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and Alan Toussaint. That is modernizing the Bozzies’ sound without leaving “The Land of Dreams.”

With so many things to praise in the album, however, I must let O Sister! know that their English diction simply must improve. At first it was rather charming to hear them sing the old Boswells numbers with a heavy Spanish accent, but now that they’ve gone into original numbers they really need to clean up their nasal consonants and mangled vowels. True, what they sing in the New Orleans song is wholly accurate:

I’m not a US citizen
I don’t speak English very well
I never celebrate Thanksgiving Day

I live so far away from the land of dreams
Even so, Mississippi, wait for me
(Oh, please…)

But it’s a matter of wanting to improve them. If all Helena Amado, Paula and Marcos Padilla really want of their career is just to sing in and around Spanish cities (although they did appear once in New Orleans), I guess they don’t need to change. I doubt that most of their audiences know what they’re singing anyway if they perform mostly in their heavily-accented English. But if they spent three months working with a good diction coach and improving their English, they would be world-famous. No audience in any city, particularly in the U.S.A., would be able to resist a group that is to all extents and purposes a reincarnation of the Boswell Sisters. They would have the jazz world at their feet.

And they’d be able to create Boswells-style arrangements of tunes like Caldonia and bowl people over with the tremendous power of their infectious rhythmic drive. I say these things not because I wish to hurt their feelings but because I want so badly for them to conquer the world.

They’re that good.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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