Jazz Journal, 1977
“Another Boswell Chronicle”
by JOHN LUCAS
I thought I said all I had to say on the subject with a two-part article, ‘Cats Hepped by Connee’s Chirping’ and ‘Visionary Scoring Put Boswells Over’, in DOWNBEAT October 15th and November 1st 1944. It was my contention therein that few singers influenced the evolution of America’s everyday songs more than Connee Boswell and no singing group had such a hand in shaping our popular music as the Sisters Boswell. They were born, I observed, in the right place, New Orleans – at the right time, some years before the last Storyville professor was driven from Mahogany Hall. And none of their successors, I maintained, ever managed to achieve the real jazz flavour that came so naturally to Connee and her sisters. I later elaborated in The Great Revival by designating a triumverate of Crescent City females – gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, blues singer Lizzie Miles, and jazz/pop singer Connee Boswell; again in The Second Line by demonstrating how the latter anticipated the likes of Ella Fitzgerald. But now it seems the time has come for me to dot my i’s.
There are no i’s, however, in Connee Boswell. (Them there eyes, oh yes!) Nor were there in Martha or Vet, once the latter renounced Helvetia. Here is Miss Constance’s explanation: ‘While working with Bing on the old Kraft Music Hall programme, 1941, I received a typewritten fan-letter that was full of beautiful phrases, lovely words, and a very sincere way of praising my work. My secretary, Miss Langlois, said: “Such a wonderful letter and he didn’t even spell your name correctly!” Sure enough, he had spelled it Connee. It came to my mind that the gentleman had written before and had asked for a signed photograph. I took a second look at my own handwriting. Then and there I knew why he had spelled my name with two e’s. Unless I print or type today, I write my name the same as I did then, hardly ever dot the i. I liked the way it looked in print, so when I left the Crosby show and started making public appearances, I decided to go with the two e’s’.
On longplay, both as soloist and in the company of her sisters, Connee sometimes suffers or is suffered these days as part of a parcel. One recent reissue, for instance, includes a medley from ‘George White’s Scandals’ by Brown and Henderson recorded at New York in October of 1931 with Victor Young and His Orchestra. This selection concludes with Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries sung successively and characteristically by the Mills Brothers, Connee Boswell, Bing Crosby, and the Boswell Sisters. Collectively as well as individually it is a gem, miniscule but burnished, with the girls more than holding their own. Yet in the Boswell jewelbox repose many a one of ampler magnitude. From each of ten LPs containing samples of such wares I have drawn a typical track to constitute a half-hour programme that represents them at their very best. The order is almost altogether chronological and every record is recommended in its entirety.
First comes Heebie Jeebies (Ace of Hearts AH-116) recorded by the Sisters at New York in August of 1931 with Martha as usual on piano, Eddie Lang on guitar, Joe Tarto on bass, and Stan King on drums. The instrumental highlight is a trumpet obbligato ascribed by most critics to Jack Purvis. (Connee neglected to commit herself on this score.) Although the Brothers Dorsey are also much in evidence, the Sisters Boswell make this their own, so much so in fact that Connee was later credited on the label. Despite nods of recognition to Armstrong, even the introduction and coda are recast in the trio’s image while in between all is freshly minted. Connee’s presentation of the verse is at once original and Orleanian, serving notice of a solo version to come (Decca DL-5445) in which one background riff incorporates the same familiar Rhapsody that Duke carved out of Ebony.
Connee helps establish the connection between the two she made: ‘When the Boswell Sisters recorded Heebie Jeebies, we sang the song that was written by Boyd Atkins. We made the arrangement, although not one note was written on paper. It will take a bit of explaining to tell you just how the Boswells did their thing in those days, because we got arguments from all sides, but I’m happy to say that we won. Not, however, without much sweat, tears, and sometimes almost blood. Once we got a good toe-hold, we made numerous arrangements in this manner. We had always done it this way for ourselves, even when we were kids. Our trio arrangements were never read from paper, although we were all musicians and could darn well read music upside-down and backwards. Several years after the Boswells had recorded Heebie Jeebies, I decided that for old times’ sake I would like to do a single on our old favourite, one that Martha and Vet and I had always had always had so much fun singing. As I sat at the piano, working on the musical background, I kept missing the other two girls’ voices. And I kept remembering how enjoyable it had been each and every time I sang this particular song with my two dear sisters. Singing it alone, I found myself rather sad. I then thought that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea for me to do a single, but I’m not really much of a defeatist, so I sez to myself, sez I: “I’ll do the song but not as it is, I’ll change it”. And that’s just what I did. I wrote new lyrics in and out of the chorus, changed part of the music, etc., etc., etc. After I completed my work I found that I could sing said song without reminiscing too much, so I DID record Heebie Jeebies as a Connee Boswell single. The sheet music that was sold after my single rendition, and right up to the present day, has my name as one of the writers. The normal signing of contracts and all that jazz took place, and that’s the story’.
As another example of the trio’s work I would choose There’ll Be Some Changes Made (Biograph BLP-C-3) done at New York in March of 1932 using the same personnel augmented by trumpeter Bunny Berigan, who opens the proceedings with a challenge. The girls are up to it and come on strong from the start. Then, with the Dorseys alternating as accompanists, Connee cuts the tempo and refashions the substance to conform with the basic blues. It is a radical, not a reactionary, departure – and, what’s more, it works wonders as a variation without doing violence to the material. The way the sisters take it up, over, and out is scarcely less inventive and certainly as swinging. All the changes made here are for the good and nothing like them has happened in more than four decades now. There is even a suggestion, reminding us of Connee’s skill with kazoo, of ‘trumpet’ obbligato by one of the girls towards the close of Connee’s solo. Indeed, it is well to remember that back home they had formed a classical trio first and then a jazz trio – Martha remaining on piano, Vet switching from violin to banjo, and Connee shifting from cello to sax. Red McKenzie had nothing on Connee, nor did the Mills Brothers on the Boswell Sisters.
There’ll Be Some Changes Made completely confirms Connee’s proud announcement: ‘We lil ole Boswell gals knew best what was best for us. We had no doubt that there were many fine arrangers, but not for the stuff that we were doing. At that time I’m sure that to the average ear we must have sounded like little green people from outer space. People think of the Boswell Sisters as singers and that is the way it should be. We made our name as singers. We revolutionized not only the style of singing, the beat, the placing of voices, the way-out harmony, but also the musical world in general. At an early in age we thought that in time we would be doing concert work, but I think the call of the beat got us and we started leaning toward pop music. We had loads of fun with our swinging trio. We were billed one time as musicians and in small print it said, ‘They also sing’. Almost every write-up about the Boswell Sisters says that I made all the arrangements. Wrong. I did make some of them and I used to work wee hours in the morning, but Martha and Vet were loaded with talent and contributed much to the trio arrangements. The band background, intros, fill-ins, and special endings were usually planned by me. Some parts were as free as the breeze, while others were kept right in the saddle. To try to explain all this in words would leave one in a large blanket of question marks. I could write pages and pages on how most of our songs were arranged, but that will have to go in my biog. I do want it known, in fairness to my two sisters, that they were very important spokes in the Boswell wheel of success’.
Many tracks by the Boswell Sisters remain to be reissued, not least among them a New Orleans medley with Red Nichols and a Bing Crosby date with Don Redman. But so do many solo sides by Connee, including her finest coupling, Mister Freddie Blues and Fare Thee Honey Fare Thee Well recorded at Hollywood in April of 1938 with a Ben Pollack unit featuring Muggy Spanier. Another grievous omission from the LP lists is a pair she cut with the Brothers Crosby at Los Angeles in December of 1940, Yes Indeed and Tea For Two, again with Spanier’s cornet prominent. And what of that untapped wealth produced in 1935-36 with Manny Klein, Will Bradley, Artie Shaw, Carl Kress, and similar stalwarts? Until such things are made available, who needs more Lee Wiley or Mildred Bailey?
For to their distaff counterparts Connee Boswell was what Bing Crosby had been to the Rhythm Boys, only more so. (The late piano-playing Martha was the trio’s Harry Harris and Vet is Al Rinker, brother to the Rockin’ Chair Lady.) And like Bing, with whom she worked wonderfully well in the period preceding World War II, Connee soon went on to become a solo stylist and a major influence. From the outset she was recognized as a peer by jazzmen such as Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti, Dick McDonough, Artie Bernstein, and Chauncey Morehouse. A consummate musician like her sisters, she possessed an extra creative force responsible for most of the group’s routines as afterwards for her own. Endowed by nature with rare qualities carefully cultivated from childhood, she developed early a clarity of enunciation and a warmth of tone and an ease of delivery that seem even now incomparable. To the old question, who is truly a jazz singer, she unconsciously supplied the simplest answer: the one who swings. Above all Connee was and is a swinger. Her rhythmic sense is a miracle, enabling her to employ syncopation and introduce tempo changes to remarkable effect; her melodic sense, akin to Fazola’s or Eddie Miller’s, attest to New Orleans origins; and her harmonic sense, nurtured through collaboration with her sisters, permits her to compensate for their absence by overdubbing herself as she does in the call-and-response duet on her recording of Someday Sweetheart (Decca DL-5445). Connee is not so much the trombone of Santo Pecora to which she once aspired as the trumpet that Nick LaRocca, Paul Mares, Wingy Manone, Sharkey Bonano, Johnny Wiggs, Leon and Louis Prima, and most likely even Emmett Hardy never quite achieved. She also sings!
Her best duets were recorded not with herself but with Bing Crosby at Los Angeles, John Scott Trotter conducting, Basin Street Blues from September of 1937 (Joker SM-3053) and That’s A Plenty somewhat later (Decca DL-8493). Both are New Orleans standards, of course, the work of Spencer Williams and Lew Pollack respectively. Abe Lincoln busts Basin Street wide open with a trombone introduction, after which Connee takes the familiar Teagarden-Miller verse with Bing replying, swings into the chorus as Crosby sings trombone to her cornet, yields to a genuine and stunning cornet solo by Andy Secrest, returns in proper duet fashion as Bing adds harmony, and after his coda shares the tag with Crosby. Nothing could do this but That’s A Plenty, outfitted for the occasion with lyrics smacking happily of Johnny Mercer. Here too the pattern of the procedure is eminently sensible and effective: ensemble introductions, Boswell leads with Crosby answering, Bing calling to Connee’s response, duet with Connee on top, Boswell solo, Crosby solo, double-time instrumental, Connee alone, Bing alone, and ensemble conclusion. All done with ease to perfection years before ‘Satchmo and Bing’, years too before Connee’s recording of Make Love To Me (Victor LPM-1426) to the tune of that old New Orleans classic Tin Roof Blues.
Almost simultaneously thirty-five years ago Ella Fitzgerald and her idol issued their most successful singles, A-Tisket A-Tasket and Martha. Connee cut the latter (Decca DL-7026) with the Crosby Bob Cats about five years after Yank Lawson, then with Ben Pollack, rescued the helpless girl during one of Galveston’s worst catastrophes. But the three sisters had been singing the aria M’appari tutt’ amor from Flowtow’s opera since hearing in childhood the famous Caruso recording. Of her acknowledged favourites, Bessie Smith and Enrico Caruso, it was the Neapolitan tenor who affected Connee more forcibly. From him she learned techniques fundamental to the formation of her style, and having paid her dues in the interim she repaid her debt with Martha. The arrangement, taken down by Dean Kincaid at Connee’s dictation, opens with Yank bursting forth from the ensemble. During the vocal chorus that follows as well as the one toward the end Fazola slips free of the horns, while in between both Miller and Lawson take driving solos. Fittingly at the close comes another burst from Yank. Not even her Giannina Mia (Victor LPM-1426) long afterward could match Martha for sheer exuberance.
In the past two decades all Connee’s recordings have been made in New York City. Accompanied by the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, which grew out of the Bob Cats and into the World’s Greatest, she recorded in 1953 another number associated with New Orleans (Decca DL-5445). Singin’ The Blues, by Original Dixieland Jazz Band pianist J. Russell Robinson, has Con Conrad lyrics that nobody ever sang like Connee Boswell. She opens all alone, then Yank’s trumpet joins her, followed by Bill Stegmeyers clarinet and Lou Stein’s piano and George Barnes’ guitar. As the ensemble takes over, Lou McGarrity’s trombone comes on strong. Then back it goes to Connee ‘till my baby comes home till my baby comes home, singin’ the blues till my baby comes ho-oh-ome’. It is almost Bix, Tram, and Lang set to words.
Satchmo, Bing, and Hoagy all had a go or six at Stardust; but for me the words of Mitchell Parrish receive full value, equaling the lovely Carmichael tune, only when sung by Connee Boswell. As demonstrated by the record she made in the ‘50s with a studio orchestra under Sy Oliver’s direction (Decca DL-8356), her faith in this song is so strong that she can take it nearly straight. Which is not to say she does not swing like Satchmo or Bing from a capella beginning to ritardando end!
The first CB LP designed from scratch as an entity was the 1957 ‘Connee Boswell and the Original Memphis Five in Hi-Fi’ (Victor LPM-1426). Led by clarinettist Jimmy Lytell, featuring pianist Frank Signorelli and trombonist Miff Mole and trumpeter Billy Butterfield in place of Phil Napoleon, the group included New York bassist Gene Traxler of Clambake Seven memory and New Orleans drummer Tony Spargo of Original Dixieland fame. Among the treasures it contains is a definitive projection of the Austin-McHugh swinger When My Sugar Walks Down The Street###ensemble introduction, Connee backed by Jimmy with rhythm, ensemble chorus, Connee plus ensemble, ensemble chorus, kazoo solo by Tony not Connee, Connee over ensemble riff, and out on ‘Sugar . . . when my sugar . . . when my sugar walks down the street’. Note especially how, with sustained ooooo, she announces in advance her final re-entry. She wails and coos together, part instrument, part vocalist. Beale Street this is not, but jazz it has to be.
Taking her cue from Ella in Haydn-Mozart reciprocity, Connee next and last recorded two songbooks, The Golden Era of Irving Berlin (Design DLP-68) and The Rodgers and Hart Song Folio (Design DLP-101). Both were cut with Warren Vincent conducting, perhaps because his mother came from New Orleans. The second features a gathering of reeds and the first a trombone choir consisting of Bobby Byrne, Bart Varcelona, Phil Jacoby, and Will Bradley. Mundell Lowe on guitar, George Duvivier on bass, and George Wettling on drums grace the rhythm section presumably on each. Connee renders its composer a fiftieth anniversary tribute by treating Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which she recorded originally with Bing, to an easy rock that gives it fresh impetus as she takes the verse in stop time and then tops it with an improvised chorus.
Her handling of I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, from the Rodgers-Hart show ‘Too Many Girls’ of 1939, is exactly the reverse and still more revolutionary. The breakneck tempo employed throughout is justified by that feeling of complete jubilation, affirmed by tune and words alike, which taking it up with no sweat whatever imparts. And when she comes back swinging after an orchestral interlude, Connee husks the lyrics to the heart or pares them to the core, dropping superfluous verbiago and thereby emphasizing the important words – even altering dramatic masterpiece in the closing chorus, where she abstracts and distills the song’s very essence and her own. Not at all that she cannot hack it at this speed: she did that easily enough the first time through. But like Louis and the other great jazzmen, Connee has come toward career’s end to rely more and more on silence. Yet she also uses her gifts of old, modulation, variation of every sort – combining word and voice-sounds in a single shout, sister, shout until the fade-out.