Downbeat, October 15, 1944

“Cats Hepped By Connee’s Chirping”

(First of a series of two articles)

Walt Whitman was right. Most Americans can sing, and many do. Almost all of our native music was intended primarily to be sung. Few singers have influenced the development of America’s everyday songs more than Connee Boswell. Still fewer have left so deep an impression upon the interpretation of songs. No singing group, not even the Rhythm Boys, has had such a hand in shaping our popular music as the Boswell Sisters.

Ma Rainey taught Bessie Smith, and Bessie taught the rest of the blues singers, but their work began and ended with the blues. Louis Armstrong’s inspiration, according to Rudy Vallee, accounts for Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey. They popularized what was, in some degree only, Satchmo’s technique. Cab Calloway extended that same tradition in quite another direction, adding to it considerably, and evolving finally something entirely original. McKenzie, Teagarden, Herman, Mercer, and many others, introduced variations that were distinctive and yet difficult to imitate successfully.

Connee’s influence may be less readily apparent than some, but it has been more pervasive than most. Affecting more than ballads merely, or jump tunes alone, or just the blues, it has permeated every phase of our contemporary dance music. She has never been copied directly. Instead, her influence has been general. Most current singers testify, in one way or another, to the persuasion of Connee’s pioneer work. Won over unconsciously, not like the followers of Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, her converts may never recognize an original source in Connee. This is largely because her singing depends on no pet tricks, on no favorite licks, thus making it almost impossible to identify any single feature of her style taken over by other vocalists. Whatever applies to Connee as a soloist applies also, of course, to all three girls as a trio.

Crescent City Kids

The Boswell Sisters were born in the right place, New Orleans – at the right time, some years before the last Storyville professor was driven from Mahogany Hall.

Martha took up the piano, Vet the violin, and at the age of four Connee was fast becoming expert on the cello. She never altered the classic pattern of her cello music, but she remembers frequently taking the Barcarolle for a piano ride and she recalls singing Martha in swingtime from the beginning.

There was longhair music – Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy – in the Boswell home, 39 blocks from Canal Street. There was a barbershop quartet, too, composed of the parents and an aunt and uncle. There were also three colored women, members of the household, who sang incessantly. Aunt Rhea jived the spirituals, Aunt Sadie crooned them, and Bertha rocked them to the rhythm of her washboard. In the street passed the daily parades. Across the street a phonograph ground out the latest Mamie Smith number. No wonder the three Boswell girls sang, and sang the way they did! It was only natural for them to sing blues on the pop tunes, and spirituals on the blues.

It was from this superb background that the Boswell style took shape. None of the girls ever heard Louis or Mildred or the Rhythm Boys, either in person or via recordings, until after the trio had created an overnight sensation in New York in 1931. They sang like nobody else. Connee still does, although she graphically explains how an unknown boss of a riverboat gang furnished her with the blues melody she later interpolated in the trio’s waxing of Mood Indigo.

Wanted a Fourth

The Boswells had never heard any sort of vocal trio, in fact, so at first they searched about for someone to take the fourth pat in a quartet. Fortunately, I think, they found no one who satisfied their requirements. Imitation on their part, then, was simply out of the question. They were absolutely new. Their tremendous success, both here and abroad, precipitated a whole movement toward girl trios. None of the Boswells’ successors ever managed to achieve the genuine jazz flavor that came so simply to Connee and her sisters. Even today, their records are in a class by themselves.

Connee claims that there is something definitely wrong with the story of her close association with Emmett Hardy, that although she knew Emmett, she can hardly call his playing to mind. She is quite certain that, like Bix, he played not too many notes. Martha has seen a letter from Bix to Emmett, or to his mother, however, in which Beiderbecke acknowledges his debt to Hardy’s inspiration and help. Connee actually knew Monk Hazel better at the time, and the two are great friends even now. Santo Pecora was her earliest idol. She once bought a trombone in hopes of mastering Peck’s tailgate style. Connee, Vet, and Martha were always exceedingly interested in instruments and instrumentation. They have contributed much to that particular element of our popular music.

The Boswell Sisters have never been given proper credit for helping to bring about the advent and subsequent acceptance of swing. Armstrong and Ellington are, at long last, the appreciation due them for their part in the progress of American music from ragtime to swing. Goodman has always been accorded the praise he truly merits for his share. Whiteman is still heralded far more than he deserves, and Pollack far less. Connee and the trio, however, are too often completely overlooked.

Started Many Styles

Since they were kids, the Boswells have been singing licks instead of lyrics and riffs in place of rhymes. The most arresting phrase in Mercer’s Bob White, so much used and abused today, can be found at the conclusion of Connee’s version of September In The Rain. The intro to the trio’s platter, When I Take My Sugar To Tea, bears a striking resemblance to such later jump numbers as Christopher Columbus. Connee, reviving an old New Orleans memory, wanted to feature a full drum chorus on the trio’s Heebie Jeebies. She was laughed out of the idea, told it would never go. Connee was also ridiculed for requesting a half-time chorus in several of the Boswell discs, a feature which a decade afterward made Helen O’Connell a sensation on Jimmy Dorsey’s Green Eyes. Some of the trio’s unison breaks on Way Back Home antedate the basic riffs of One O’Clock Jump. Others were instrumental in initiating the fad for unison singing so prevalent right now. Connee, on Wha’d Ja Do To Me, rattled rice in shakers to obtain a rhumba effect. Again, the ultra-slow ballad tempos of our day can be attributed almost solely to Connee’s persistent insistence upon their value. Yes, the Boswells were well ahead of their time!

One of Connee’s prize possessions is a very critical letter in which some irate listener referred to the girls as “savage chanters!” Today, after the revival of interest in the late Bubber Miley and the success with which Ellington featured Tricky Sam’s growl trombone together with the growl trumpet of Cootie Williams, such a remark would be the highest compliment conceivable.

(The second and concluding article on Connee Boswell by John Lucas will appear in the November 1 issue of Down Beat.)    Continue to Part 2 >

Articles Written About the Sisters