By David McCain
November was the month in which I first met Vet. I remember the date because it was shortly after my birthday (which is Nov. 4). The year was 1977, one year after Connee died. I had just turned 24.
I’ll never forget how excited I was to get a letter from Vet, addressed to me at my parents’ home in Thibodaux, La. This was in October of 1977, and I was just out of the Navy. I had tried writing to both Connee and Vet earlier (in 1975) but had never received a reply (later I found out these letters coincided with the time of Connee’s diagnosis of stomach cancer). Earlier in the year of 1977 I had written an article for the New Orleans Jazz Club’s quarterly The Second Line about the Boswells. Vet and Connee’s brother-in-law, Ben Leedy, had seen it—it was called to their attention by the Boswells’ old friend, Billy Bruce Broussard, who had lived many years in New York working as a vocal coach, but who had recently returned to his native Louisiana. So Vet seeing that article gave me a good “in.” Cynthia posted this article on bozzies.com.
This was also my first trip to New York City. Peekskill, where Vet lived, was 50 miles north of Manhattan. Vet’s daughter, Chica Minnerly, picked me up at my hotel in Peekskill and drove me to 801 Pemart Avenue. The door was opened by a smart looking and sprightly lady in a turban (and whose lipstick and nail polish were fire engine red). There she was! The last of the Boswell Sisters. She was warm and friendly right from the start.
I had brought a small scrapbook of things I had collected about the Boswells for Vet to look at, plus I had a lot of questions. Remember, this was 1977 and there was virtually no information in the reference books on the Boswells. There were only two writers then who inspired me to seek more information: Richard Lamparski (who profiled the Boswells in his very first book, Whatever Became Of… published by Crown in 1967–the way he described “the Boswell Sound” made me a fan even before I actually heard them) and Michael Brooks in his absolutely splendid liner notes on the 1972 Biograph LP “The Boswell Sisters, 1932-1934” (which was my aural introduction to the Boswell Sound). Michael’s notes featured an actual interview with Connee and Harry and he said that he had grown up with their records, likening that to growing up in the court of Louis XIV! So with my appetite whetted what better way to get the information than from one of the sisters herself? My mission? To get the facts and find out all I could about how these musical geniuses did it, who influenced them, their early years, how they got along… I had no idea how much fun it would be—because Vet related their history and experiences with a wonderful sense of humor (that humor SO evident also in their adventuresome arrangements!)—a humor that enabled them to shrug off the challenges surrounding Connie’s disability to leave New Orleans in 1928 and become—just 3 short years later—world famous.
We sat down on her living room couch and started talking and just got along like the proverbial house on fire. She was funny and oh-so-lively! She didn’t mind pulling out photographs, listening to the records (which she punctuated with body language—like an outstretched arm to coincide with an instrumental riff, or a dance step or two–or she’d remember a passage and sing along). The fact that I was from her old hometown of New Orleans didn’t hurt matters. An instant friendship was formed, and I regularly visited Vet at her home at least annually until her passing 11 years later. And in April of 1987, Vet and Chica visited New Orleans, and I was able to take her to her old home on Camp St. as well as visit with a few old friends. We rolled out the red carpet for her (as well we should have for a jazz legend!) and she loved every minute of it.
Caption: Vet with David McCain and the Pfister Sisters.
I learned the secret of how to speak gibberish…saw a photo inscribed to the Boswells from Bob Hope in 1932 as “the best act I ever followed”…heard about the songs they used to like to sing in New Orleans, like Chile Bean—whose lyric was “lank and leany chile beanie, eeny minie mo—you know I love you so—I love your Ja-Da, oomp! Da da da. (Which they did as “laggle-dank and leggle-deany chiggle-dile beggle-deannie eegle-deeny miggle-diney moggle-do….). When Vet saw the New Orleans musical about the 1920s called One Mo’ Time at the Village Gate in New York, she heard in that show another song they used to do in New Orleans: Papa De Da Da. So many other things, which I’ll just list as they come to me: How Connie was so strong that she could hang out of a window when they played hide and go seek… How they’d park their car outside of black churches to listen to the gospel music…How Vet liked “pig” sandwiches (barbecued pork) and how she was so shy at first that Martha or Connie would have to bribe her with “pig” sandwiches or other means to get her to perform… Talking about the musicians they knew who would come over to their house to play—Emmett Hardy, Leon Rappolo, Leon and Louis Prima, Monk Hazel, Pinky Vidacovich, Nappy Lamare…Singing into “three little horns” when they recorded their first record for Victor… Broadcasting on WSMB…Working with the Dorsey Brothers for the first time and recalling the standing ovation they got from those seasoned musicians when the girls finished their first run-through of their first New York recording, When I Take My Sugar To Tea… Telling me about meeting Huey P. Long in Washington…showing me a certificate he had given individually to each sister making them “Ambassadors of Harmony” and how he had a thing about insisting on making Rocquefort dressing for the salad, having the waiters dash back and forth for the ingredients, then rolling up his sleeves and mixing the dressing in the salad with his bare hands… going over to Europe and meeting her future husband, John Paul Jones, on the boat coming back… While in Europe, standing in the wings with Martha and watching Connie give out with “A Farewell To Arms” with tears coursing down their cheeks, so in awe were they at her performance…Telling me about the practical jokes they played on everyone who came to visit them at their apartment… Meeting Jose Ferrer as a student when they played Princeton University (Jose kept up with Vet in his later years, too)…How they loved a place called the “Ha Ha Club” in New York and the emcee there who would regularly announce a female singer: “OK, everybody out of the can—the broad’s on!” (Said emcee being Pat Harrington, Sr., whose son, Pat Harrington, Jr. became famous as “Schneider” on the popular TV show One Day At A Time). So every time I would go to the bathroom, guess what she’d say?
One thing I remember so well is when I brought up a film short I had found with them—it was the Fleischer cartoon, Sleepytime Down South. I set up the projector and on flashed the three of them humming their theme, Shout, Sister, Shout, with Martha at the piano, Connie next to her, and Vet standing. I looked back at the projector to make sure all was OK, then went back to sit with Vet on the couch to watch it with her. On my way to the couch, I noticed she had tears in her eyes. I sat down next to her and put my arm around her, and she wept quietly for a few minutes. Neither of us was embarrassed (and Vet was a very private person)—but by this time we were very comfortable with each other. I didn’t see it at the time, but after Vet passed away and I started putting things together, I understood just how much she missed Martha and Connie and those special years they had had together when they were such a close and solid unit.
Vet—what a gift your friendship was and continues to be to me.