We all know lots of famous bands with at least three siblings—The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, The Jackson 5, The Neville Brothers, The Pointer Sisters, The Isley Brothers, The Staple Singers, The Osmonds, and many more.
And I’ve known lots of bands that I didn’t know were family-centric–The Shangri-La’s (two sets of sisters, one of them identical twins), The Ronettes (two sisters and a cousin, sue me). And it turns out that siblings still harmonize in this century—The Jonas Brothers, Haim, The Staves.
But the golden era of singing siblings was in the tight-harmony 1930s and 40s—The Ames Brothers, The Andrews Sisters, The McGuire Sisters, and – eureka! – The Boswell Sisters, arguably the finest tight-harmony group ever.
Raised in New Orleans, Martha Boswell (1905–58), Connee (1907–76), and Helvetia “Vet” (1911–88) achieved local success in the mid/late 1920s. By 1929 they were appearing 5 nights a week on radio in Los 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 homeless kid named Ella Fitzgerald, who made her stage debut at 17 in 1934 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, and to my 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 Boswell 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 I had thought was an invention of the 1960s (‘bad’, ‘freak). 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 and 30s, 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:
‘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 a lovely 25-minute compendium of clips and interviews.
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.
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. 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
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