Whoopee, new discovery!! I returned from jaunt to the US with a treasure chest of CDs. I’ve been slogging through them slowly and methodically and thematically and chronologically (as is my compulsive wont). This week I got to the pile of Vocal Jazz Groups.
There have been remarkably few really important vocal jazz groups, and a couple of the more popular ones don’t speak much to me. I have touted here the a cappella jazz scene, (The Real Group, The Idea of North, Pust) especially the Scandinavians, but I’ve been trying to expand my horizons backwards. Among the CDs I’ve been studying are The Four Freshmen (1960s–snore) and The Mills Brothers (too tame).
Eureka! The Boswell Sisters!!
Raised in New Orleans, Martha Boswell (1905–58), Connee (1907–76), andHelvetia”Vet” (1911–88), they achieved local success in the mid/late 1920s. By 1929 they were appearing 5 nights a week on radio inLos Angeles. From 1930-35 they recorded in NYC with support of the leading jazz luminaries of the era (Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman), appeared in movies (The Marx Brothers, depression-era extravaganzas), had 20 hit records, and inspired a street kid named Ella (who made her stage debut at17 in1934 singing two of their songs).
In 1936, all three sisters got married. Martha and Vet retired from show biz, leaving wheelchair-bound (some sources say polio, some say childhood accident) lead singer Connee to follow a reasonably successful solo career for the next 25 years.
They have been called one of the very best vocal jazz groups ever, maybe THE best. I’ve been listening for a week now, and I’m of the mind that that’s no exaggeration. Their vocals were often so hot that the girls were assumed to be black. They scat with the best of them, and do some knock-out imitations of instruments or nonsense sounds. But most important, their 3-part harmonies are tighter than Aunt Bertha’s girdle. They make CS&N sound like YY&Y. Their arrangements are constantly chock full of unexpected shifts in tempo, major/minor mode, key, and tone, flipping cheekily from dead serious to insouciant comic and back. They have a wicked and sometimes rather racy sense of humor.
Here are the Mills Brothers, also early 1930s, ohsobland in comparison.
Here are The Andrews Sisters, who started their careers in the mid/late 1930s as Boswell Sister imitators. As charming as they are, and with all their stage presence, the Andrews Sisters’ music is unspectacular, predictable in comparison to our Boswells. Well, and while we’re on the Sister Act page, here are the incredible Ross Sisters, whose vocals are certainly respectable, but whose fame lies elsewhere. Check them out, a hair-raising experience is guaranteed.
Enough talk, let’s give you some fine music to listen to.
Here’s one of their most famous songs, ‘Crazy People’. It’s fun, it’s fine, it’s very, very impressive technically.
Crazy people, crazy people
Crazy people like me go crazy over people like you
Goofy people, daffy people
Daffy people like me go crazy over things you do.
First of all, it’s a very cheeky song. Using derogatories in a positive sense was, to my mind, an invention of the 1960s. There’s nothing ironic about ‘hip’ or ‘cool’. But ‘freaks’ and ‘bad’ are ironic. Our sisters here are praising a state of frenzy (in love). It seems to me that this is a loosening of corset restraints that only occurs in the 1920s, especially in dance and jazz music.
What else do we have here? The airtight harmonies. Connee’s solo at 17″. The vocal instrumentals at 30″. The syncopation at 45″. The cut-time section starting at 1’00″—if you listen closely, you’ll hear at least two more shifts in tempo within that section! Connee’s scat at 1’20”, leading into a magical shift on the chorus from major to minor. Some very dark, soulful harmony singing towards the end, then a precise wah-wah finish.
I want to tell you, sports fans, you listen to The Mills Brothers, Lambert Hendricks & Ross (admittedly a different bag, not close harmony), Manhattan Transfer and The Real Group (okay, they come close), you don’t find that kind of value for your money all in 2’01”.
Here’s another one of big hits of The Boswell Sisters, ‘Everybody Loves My Baby‘, cut from the same cloth as ‘Crazy People’. Try to count the number of different tempi they employ here. It’s like counting jellybeans in a jar.
Here’s another cut, ‘I Hate Myself (for Being Mean to You)‘. Note the bouncy opening, followed by the mock-tragic intro. Check the lyrics: “I slap my face for saying the things I do…”, “I’m gonna send myself a telegram and tell myself what a fool I am”, “If you stay away another day, I’ll kiss myself goodbye…” And the pastiche of wild, incongruous elements (instrumental and vocal) in the middle of the song, each one a gem in and of itself.
Here are a few more of my favorites, for your listening edification:
‘Was That the Human Thing to Do?‘
‘We’re in the Money‘, a Great Depression anthem
‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo‘, with lyrics as subtly suggestive as an Ernst Lubitsch film
Here’s an interesting trailer for a yet-to-be released documentary about The Boswell Sisters.
Listen to what they do with a well-known standard, Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek‘. According to Wikipedia, “They were among the very few performers who were allowed to make changes to current popular tunes during this era, as music publishers and record companies pressured performers not to alter current popular song arrangements.” Change it they do. Not as adventurous as some of the other cuts here, it’s still an education in itself for vocal groups 80 years later. (By the way, HaBanot Nechama, a very talented young Israeli chick trio also with very tight harmony and lots of humor and lots of shifting gears, do sound to me like they’ve been doing their homework here.)
Here’s another one, albeit light, but we can’t not mention it, ‘Rock and Roll’. I admit I thought Alan Freed had coined the term in the early 1950s to describe the new music. But it turns out that early in twentieth century the phrase was used to describe the movement of a ship on the ocean, but it carried connotations of both sexual fervor and the spiritual fervor of black church rituals.
I assume a lot of very serious, politically conscious ladies and gents will find ‘Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)‘ objectionable, but I think there were three tongues in three cheeks when The Boswells were singing this:
I’ve got a mission, it’s just a simple thing
I’ve only one ambition, to have the right to bring you
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night
It’s my desire to do as I am told
To have what you require, and never have it cold, dear
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night
Though wedding bells sound sad and dirgy
Though wedding ties may spoil the fun
Without helping hand of clergy
Oh, I’m afraid it can’t be done
It isn’t formal, but with a wedding ring
It’s natural, it’s normal to give you everything from
From coffee in the morning
To kisses in the night
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)
045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’
My good friend and I discovered the Boswell Sisters about six years ago. It was due to reading about Ella Fitzgerald debut and the fact that she stated that she sang one of her favorite Boswell Sister songs, we immediately had to know who these Boswell Sisters are. Well we purchased every thing we could get our hands on that they or Connee had recorded and obsessively listened to every single song over and over and I still have not grown tired of them. I am glad that you too have had the Boswell Experience. Spread the word.
Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!
“Here are the Mills Brothers, also early 1930s, ohsobland in comparison.”
Them’s fightin’ words!!!
the Mills Brothers were pioneers of early vocal groups, and if you consider the fact that most of their early recordings were done with nary a manufactured instrument, other than the occasional tenor guitar, then I think you should reexamine their early 1930’s recordings. I won’t disagree with anyone who says that they became too commercial or “shmaltzy” in the 1940’s and 50’s, as many artists tend to do later in their career.
Another early vocal group that I can recommend you explore are the Delta Rhythm Boys (who are probably remembered most for their take on “Them Dry Bones”) – these boys also had some amazing vocal arrangements to standard songs of the day (late 30’s – early 40’s).
Also, if you are exploring the “vocalese” phenomenon, you mustn’t forget some additional pioneers – Eddie Jefferson, Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart (Slim and Slam), and King Pleasure, who worked alongside stars like Annie Ross, Dave Lambert, and others (a decade before the advent of Lambert Hendricks and Ross).
You don’t find The 1930s Mills Bros bland in comparison to Les Boswells? I’ve been exposed to all the early folks you mention, but I can’t say I know them well.
After Kurt Elling’s (failed) attempt to convince me that Mark Murphy is a vocalist of major stature (compared to his own), I’m reevaluating some of my attitudes towards forerunners. Is Chuck Berry really a more interesting guitarist than Keith Richards, just because he invented the style? I’m not sure.
Thanks for this – great piece, and I need to check out more Boswells.
I’d suggest, if you haven’t heard the Hi-Lo’s and Mel Torme’s group the Mel-Tones (the album Back In Town), it’s time to do so… Both similar period and style to the Four Freshmen but, for my money, much more hip & interesting arrangement-wise.
I think, this is my favourite of them
Thank you for the re-post of the Boswell Sisters!
They were the childhood idols of the Kayne Sisters, (my mother and my aunts)!
The Kaynes perfected their sound in the early 1940’s and accompanied the USO overseas during WWII. Their biggest thrill was to meet Connee in Los Angeles after the war when she came back stage to compliment them on their harmonies, which were also “tighter than Aunt Bertha’s girdle.