The Melody Maker, July 8, 1933

“Bothering the Boswells”

A Furore at the Palladium
Back Stage Troubles Successfully Overcome
Off-hand Treatment of American Artists By Bookers


As I write, Ellington is in Glasgow, and, no doubt, causing a sensation there. But London has for the moment forgotten him in a frenzy of Boswellism. The Sisters’ star is definitely in the ascendant.

Last week I told you how I met the girls and their manager, Harry Leedy, at the Park Lane Hotel, and how they were mobbed by enthusiastic admirers at the Ellington concert.

After the affair at the Trocadero Cinema they were hustled off to Hastings in Jack and Mrs. Hylton’s cars. At the Ellington concert there they received another ovation.

During the ensuing week they “did” London and settled down a bit. Meanwhile, Harry Leedy skirmished with all the foolish people who, instead of helping him, happened to hinder him.

Why is it, by the way, that so many who have to deal with these American artists always try to bluster them into submission? What a ridiculous way of doing business! Surely, since they invest large sums of money in bringing them over it is in the interests of their own pockets to see the artists are happy and comfortable and working at their best? I would also like to add something about common courtesy to “strangers within our gates,” but that, I fear, would be just wasting time.

Act Nearly Jibs

At every turn Leedy was hampered by people being “difficult,” for no other apparent reason than that they cannot see two points of view.

Had Harry Leedy been on his native heath, so to speak, he would have dealt with these people without difficulty. But in a strange country, with strange laws and customs, the advantage was against him. At one time things had reached such a deadlock that it was doubtful if the girls would appear at all.

But Harry Leedy would not have put the Boswells on top of the world (and kept them there) had he not been more than usually determined. (One would not think so to look at him. He is small, pale-faced, and has an impressive array of teeth. His manner is too easy-going, quiet, and good-natured to give any hint of the inflexible determination which lurked behind that toothy grin. But more of this anon.)

On the Saturday the girls decided they wanted to rehearse, complete with piano, gramophone and all their records.

Not knowing our peculiarly English trick of going off to play golf on Saturdays, it seemed as if they were going to be unlucky.

Jimmy Green, of Chappell’s, heard about their difficulty, and got a move on. The Bond Street piano salesrooms were kept open specially all day Saturday. The assistant left in charge was fully prepared for all eventualities, and was a model of courtesy. There was an exact copy of the Palladium piano available, a gramophone, and all the records, and arrangements had been made so that the girls could have stayed there until midnight if they wished.

Good work, Jimmy! Thank goodness somebody was around with some intelligence and courtesy.

Untrained Voices

I was there during that Saturday afternoon rehearsal, and was thus the first person in this country to hear the Boswells actually sing.

There is something uncanny in the way these girls work. They never make arrangements for themselves. Occasionally they dot out guide parts for the accompanying orchestra, but more often than not, for the special solo instrumental bits, Connie sings the effect she wants and the boys fake it. There exists between the Boswells and the Dorseys and Co. a perfect understanding.

Connie is an expert arranger, and so, for that matter, are the other two. They were originally taught, as children, piano (Martha), cello (Connie), and violin (Vet). Connie and Vet subsequently took up saxophone and banjo respectively – the idea being that thus they had either a “straight” or a “dance” trio. They never had any training whatsoever in singing, although they can all sight-read vocal parts, a comparatively rare accomplishment.

Martha – the Pianist

Martha plays piano to accompany the trio; Connie sits facing the audience and behind Martha; Vet stands between the two with her hands resting on their shoulders. She leans slightly forward so that the three heads are close together and equidistant from the microphone.

The way they work out an “arrangement” is fascinating. One of them plays from an ordinary piano song company, singing the melody. The other two chip in with uncanny instinct on the right harmony and distribution.

Then will come a two-bar gap that needs a “fill.” So extraordinary is the telepathic understanding between the three that quite likely they will unanimously sing, in harmony, the same break without any previous hint as to what form it is going to take!

Or else one of them will invent a “fill” and the other two harmonize with it.

Often, too, they will switch the parts around, each being equally at home with the other’s line. This except for the solos, which are invariably taken by Connie.

Their diction is marvelous, and their precision likewise. Some of the very fast passages (such as in “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”) would be tongue-twisters for a single individual talking, let alone three singing.

But most remarkable of all is their sense of balance. The three voices blend with perfect equality of tone, quality, timbre, pitch and volume. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that Connie has four times the volume of the other two. The restraint she displays is all the more extraordinary because it is so exactly judged.

Yet another surprising feature is their memories. Old numbers, such as “Heebie Jeebie Blues,” which they have long since discarded in America, they recall word and note perfect. The only reason they wanted the records was for a bit of lyric here and there. They never falter for a moment with the musical end.

Supernatural Team Work

Such super team work could never be learned. Apart from the natural great musical talent which is obviously present, there is also a telepathic communication between the three of them which is a little supernatural. All the tuition, practice and rehearsal in the world could not duplicate this. Which is, perhaps, why all Boswell imitators can never be anything else except Boswell imitators. It’s “that little extra something the others haven’t got”!

I sat enthralled listening to them rehearse. Then it occurred to me that I was “taking the edge off” their first public appearance, so I tore myself away.

~ ~ ~

The next day was Sunday, and Leedy had eventually, after much discussion, agreed to play at Datchet. (It should be explained that the Café de Paris, London, also owns a beautiful up-river resort called the Pavilion Club, situated about twenty miles out of London at a little village called Datchet. The Café de Paris hopes to tempt its week-night customers to the sunny riverside at week-ends. Unfortunately, it is rarely sunny.)

Again I was hanging around, and the Sisters, to the eternal credit of their Southern courtesy, batted not an eyelid when they saw me loom on the horizon.

The girls and Leedy first had dinner out on the terrace. They were enchanted with the beauty of the spot. When it came for them to sing they were terribly nervous – it was their first appearance in England. Harry Leedy went a pale yellow; Connie was least disturbed.

They all feared a lukewarm reception from the notoriously blasé crowd which frequents such expensive and exclusive places. But they need not have feared.

They were a riot! The elegant crowd “rose” to them, and clapped and shouted and yelled for numbers by name. “Give us a hot number,” they shouted, because Connie, not wanting to give them something they would not understand, had sung a sentimental ballad. Of course, they (the audience) didn’t know what they meant by “a hot number.” Connie had put enough “style” and exquisite phrasing into “Farewell to Arms” to last the discerning critic a whole evening.

But the girls knew that what they meant was something fast, so they gave them “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”

If the girls had been nervous about starting, they had more to worry about in finishing. The audience would not let them go. Never before has there been such a night at the Pavilion Club, either for numbers or for enthusiasm.

~ ~ ~

The next day was, of course, their debut proper at the Palladium.

From eleven o’clock in the morning until late afternoon they rehearsed, trying to get the orchestra to accompany adequately.

Then there was a short, sharp tussle with the stage setting. Harry Leedy insisted on having the plainest velvet drapes. “The girls are the show,” he said, “not the scenery.”

The next bit of trouble was that the mikes were off for most of the first number, coming on with a loud click right in the middle of a phrase! Had the audience not been so enthralled I am sure they would have tittered. It would have killed a lesser act stone dead.

And then there was that orchestra.

Most of the arrangements used were those prepared for the Dorseys and their gang. Can you imagine the treatment the exquisite Tom-Dorsey-solo-bits received? It would have been laughable had it not been so tragic.

It was dreadful. So long as the girls limited their accompaniments to Martha’s piano playing I was happy. But as soon as the orchestra commenced supplying “hot rhythm novelty accompaniments,” I groaned inwardly. The Palladium is doubtless the best music hall pit band in the country, but it cannot play stuff like this and should not be expected to. The girls will be well advised to stick to piano accompaniments all the time, even for Connie’s solos. And that goes for most other places, too.

Apart from this, and a mysterious spot light that wobbled about from the prompt corner, there was no further hitch. Unless, of course, one likes to including the ringing down of the safety curtain when the applause was at its height. (The girls were last turn on before the interval.) It seems to me to be more important to satisfy 95 per cent of the audience than to adhere to a rigid time schedule (which had, as its original reason, the pleasing of the audience by speeding up the performance). In this case, however, the vast majority of the audience had no desire to be “pleased” in that particular way. This happened at both houses.

Nevertheless, despite all this, the girls put up a tremendous performance, and their reception rivaled that of Ellington. Connie’s “Farewell to Arms” held the house enthralled. What superb artistry!

The reception to each number was enormous. If the audience showed any particular favour it was for the old numbers like “Human Thing To Do.” In my opinion, even more old gramophone favourites could have been used. The British public, unlike its American counterpart, likes to hear the old stuff (providing it’s good!) over and over again.

At any rate, look at it however you like, Monday night was a triumph for the Sisters.

So much so that you would perhaps think that they would be supplied with such a little convenience as a dresser. But no; they had to dress themselves Monday night, and get a friend to run around town to find one on Tuesday.

~ ~ ~

After the second house they dashed back to the hotel to change into evening dress. Then to the Café de Paris. It is perhaps hardly necessary to say that they were again a sensational success. The place was packed to the doors in spite of the fact that the cover charge had been raised to 21s.

After the Café de Paris they tore off to a private party given by Mrs. Somerset Maugham, wife of the famous novelist, at which some very distinguished personages were present. That was a thrill for them!

~ ~ ~

It is not yet known whether they will play the second week at the Palladium. There is still some hitch in the negotiations. We hope, for everyone’s sake, that they will.

Articles Written About the Sisters