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Noon Edition

The Magic of Connee Boswell

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Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.

My spotlight this week is on one of the first true innovators in vocal jazz, Connee Boswell. Boswell and her sisters Martha and Vet were musical sensations in the early 1930s, blending pop and jazz with creative arrangements, relentless swing, and pitch-perfect sibling harmony. But when the Boswell sisters disbanded, Connee struck out on her own, creating a career for herself as a full-throated singer that could tackle blues and jazz with ease and folksy charm. I’ll chronicle Connee’s career on this episode.

It’s The Magic of Connee Boswell, coming up next on Afterglow.

<music - The Boswell Sisters, Heebie Jeebie Blues>
<music - Connee Boswell, Heebie Jeebie Blues>

The Boswell Sisters in 1931 and then Connee Boswell in 1953 with the Heebie Jeebie Blues.


Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, I’m saluting singer Connee Boswell, the lead vocalist and driving force behind the influential 1930s vocal trio the Boswell Sisters.

Connee Boswell was born in 1907, and she and her older sister Martha and younger sister Hevetia or “Vet” were raised in a musical family in the crucible of American music, New Orleans in the early 20th century.

These three white sisters absorbed all of the melting pot of musical influences around them, from European Classical music, to black Gospel music to the budding Dixieland jazz music in New Orleans. As a child, Connee was stricken with polio, which confined her permanently to a wheelchair, but did not diminish her drive.

The three Boswell sisters were intensely musical, playing cello, piano, and violin, and soon singing and writing their own arrangements. They got their professional start in 1925 performing in Vaudeville houses, and later recording a few sides for Victor when a mobile recording unit came to town. That’s what you’re hearing right now—the earliest known recording of the sisters performing Martha’s original song “Nights When I Am Lonely” 

<music, Boswell Sisters - “Nights When I Am Lonely”>

In 1928, the sisters hit the travelling vaudeville circuit. By the end of the decade, they had settled down in Los Angeles after the travelling show brought them there. In the intervening years, their style had matured into something more rhythmic and swinging

In October 1930, they make their first mature professional recordings for Okeh Records. Their voices were still a bit thin, but all of the elements of a Boswell Sisters song were there, including creative arrangements, driving rhythm, perfect harmony, and a solo by Connee.

Here’s Connee Boswell and the Boswell Sisters with the tune “Gee But I’d Like To Make You Happy,” on Afterglow.

<music, Boswell Sisters - “Gee, But I’d Like To Make You Happy”>

The Boswell Sisters in 1930 with “Gee, But I’d Like To Make You Happy,” a recording for Okeh Records.

In 1931 in Los Angeles, the Boswell Sisters had met Bing Crosby, probably the biggest influence on their career. Crosby had just become a radio star on CBS, and with his support, the Boswells found themselves performing on the radio, in films, and recording for Brunswick Records with producer Jack Kapp. Most of the classic Boswell Sisters recordings come from this short period between 1931 and 1934 on Brunswick Records.

The Boswell Sisters’ sound was completely innovative for the time. They would first completely transform the song’s melody, basically composing an entirely new melody. Then they would alter the tempo, slowing down and speeding up while keeping a perfect sense of swing and staying perfectly in sync. There was also the Boswell’s blend—that blood harmony that can’t be taught. At the center was always Connee’s voice, typically highlighted in a solo. You can even hear her doing a little scat singing in this next recording.

Here is the Boswell Sisters in 1931 performing “Shout, Sister Shout,” on Afterglow.

<music, Boswell Sisters - Shout Sister Shout>
<music, Boswell Sisters - Shuffle Off To Buffalo>

Connee Boswell and the Boswell Sisters in 1933, completely transforming the Harry Warren and Al Dubin song “Shuffle Off To Buffalo.” Before that, we heard them in 1931 with “Shout, Sister, Shout.”

Although the Boswell Sisters recorded film and theatre songs like “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” on occasion, their bread and butter were what we might call “southern songs,” or “Swanee Songs,” as they were often called—a reference to the Stephen Foster minstrel tune “Old Folks At Home (aka “Swanee River”).” Since they were from New Orleans, the Boswells found success singing about the moon and stars of the sleepy south or the muddy waters of the delta on songs like “Roll On Mississippi Roll On,” “Down Among The Sheltering Pines,” “Louisiana Hayride,” “It’s Sunday Down In Caroline,” or “Down On The Delta.”

Here’s one of those southern songs now. This is the Boswell Sisters with “Got The South In My Soul,” on Afterglow.

<music, Boswell Sisters - Got The South In My Soul>
<music, Boswell Sisters - Mood Indigo>

The Boswell Sisters in 1933, featuring a blues solo from Connee Boswell with Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” Some of their frequent collaborators were also featured on that recording including trumpeter Bunny Berigan and trombonist Tommy Dorsey.

By around 1934, a rift starts to form in the Boswell Sisters. Connee’s drive to be a solo artist put a wedge between herself and sisters Martha and Vet. By 1936, the sisters had split for good.

I’ll play now one of the Boswell Sisters’ final recordings from 1936, the Irving Berlin song “Let Yourself Go.” Connee’s desire to be a solo artist are clear on this record. On the second time through the chorus, the tempo slows and the rhythm changes as Connee bursts through the door with a knockout solo line, shouting the melody like a blues diva. Coming from a petite woman confined to a wheelchair, Connee’s voice could wallop. Indiana journalist Ernie Pyle was said of Connee Boswell, quote, “so much noise out of such a little package.”

Here’s the Boswell Sisters in 1936 with Irving Berlin’s “Let Yourself Go,” on Afterglow.

<music, Boswell Sisters - Let Yourself Go>

One of the final recordings of the Boswell Sisters from 1936. That was Irving Berlin’s “Let Yourself Go.”

Coming up after a short break, we’ll hear more from Connee Boswell as a solo singer. Stay with us. 

Production support for Afterglow comes from:

Soma Coffee House and Juice bar, specializing in juices, espressos and Fair Trade Organic Coffee. Serving from downtown at Kirkwood and Grant and on the corner of third and Jordan.  Online at i heart soma dot com

And from

Stephen R Miller C P A, in downtown Bloomington at Graham Plaza, offering personal and small business income tax preparation and financial reporting. Helping clients reach financial goals for over thirty years. 8-1-2 - 3-3-2 - 0-5-5-7

I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow

<music>

Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the Magic of Connee Boswell this hour, the lead singer of the Boswell Sisters. The Boswell Sisters had an influence on every jazz vocal group that came after them, from the Andrews Sisters to the Manhattan Transfer. And Connee Boswell was one of the top vocalists from the 1930s—and one of the only people who can claim to be an influence on the great Ella Fitzgerald. 

By 1936, the Boswell Sisters had disbanded after only five short years of mainstream success. Martha and Vet Boswell had married and settled down, but Connee, following the path of her friend Bing Crosby, wanted to go solo.

However, this was only partially true, because in 1936 Connee Boswell already was a solo star. Starting in 1931, Connee had already begun cutting solo records for the Brunswick label alongside her work with her sisters.

In fact, in 1934, a teenage Ella Fitzgerald won the Apollo Theater amateur contest by singing a Connee Boswell song. Ella later said in interviews that Boswell was the only singer who influenced her, quote “I tried to sing like her all the time...Connee was doing things that no one else was doing at the time.” end quote

Here’s an early solo recording of Connee Boswell with the Dorsey Brothers. This is her in 1932 with “Me Minus You,” on Afterglow.

Connee Boswell - Me Minus You (1932)

An early solo recording of Connee Boswell, minus the Boswell Sisters. That was the song “Me Minus You” recorded in 1932 with Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet.

Many, if not most, of the recordings Connee Boswell made as a solo artist were ballads, and a certain type of sentimental ballad popular pre-World War II that (at least to my ears) doesn’t really resonate today. But a few of these ballads are simply divine, especially some of her work with arranger Victor Young and his Orchestra.

Here’s an example of that from 1939, Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Boswell’s voice in this next song is clear and direct, but the arrangement here is what makes it, especially the walking bassline and the wordless, minor-key delta love call. It’s possibly my favorite harmonization of this Gershwin standard.

This is Connee Boswell with Victor Young and his Orchestra performing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” on Afterglow.

<music, Connee Boswell - They Can’t Take That Away From Me>
<music, Connee Boswell - Stormy Weather>

Connee Boswell, paving the way for Ella Fitzgerald, performing a couple of jazz standards. We just heard her in 1941 with Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Stormy Weather,” and before that in 1939 with George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Both of those recordings were with Victor Young and His Orchestra.

In her solo career, Connee Boswell also kept a close relationship with Bing Crosby, her mentor, peer, and the person who helped open doors for her and her sisters. Boswell would often appear with Crosby on his Kraft Music Hall Radio program in the 1930s and 40s, and they often recorded together for the Decca label. There’s a playfulness in the Bing and Connee recordings that simply cannot be beat.

Here’s Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell in 1940 with the Sy Oliver tune “Yes Indeed,” on Afterglow.

<music, Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby - Yes, Indeed>

Connee Boswell and Bing Crosby in 1940 with “Yes, Indeed.” That was Bing’s younger brother Bob Crosby and his orchestra accompanying.

Although Connee Boswell mostly recorded pop ballads in her solo career, when she was paired up with the right jazz orchestra (like Bob Crosby’s, Sy Oliver’s, or Woody Herman’s) she could still swing. These jazz recordings are fewer, but among her most exciting recordings in her solo career. I’ll play some now.

First, here’s Connee Boswell with Bob Crosby and his Bob-Cats in 1937, performing the “Gypsy Love Song,” on Afterglow.

<music, Connee Boswell - Gypsy Love Song>
<music, Connee Boswell - Begin The Beguine>

Connee Boswell and Sy Oliver’s Orchestra in 1951 performing Cole Porter’s “Begin The Beguine.” Before that, we heard her with Bob Crosby and his Bob-Cats performing “Gypsy Love Song.”

During World War II, Connee Boswell became a fixture on USO tours. Since she was confined to a wheelchair because of polio, she became an icon to soldiers disabled from battle. However, after the war, he career didn’t flourish like other swing era stars such as her protege Ella Fitzgerald. Instead, she had a handful of recordings in the 1950s and retired by 1957 and passed away from cancer in 1976, almost exactly one year before the death of her friend Bing Crosby.

To end this hour, I’ll play one of her final recordings featuring her alongside clarinetist Artie Shaw. This is Connee Boswell with “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire,” on Afterglow.

<music, Connee Boswell and Artie Shaw - Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire>

Connee Boswell with Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five in 1952 performing “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire.”

And thanks for exploring the magic of Connee Boswell with me this week on Afterglow.


Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University, and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.

Production support for Afterglow comes from:

Soma Coffee House and Juice bar, specializing in juices, espressos and Fair Trade Organic Coffee. Serving from downtown at Kirkwood and Grant and on the corner of third and Jordan.  Online at i heart soma dot com

And from

Stephen R Miller C P A, in downtown Bloomington at Graham Plaza, offering personal and small business income tax preparation and financial reporting. Helping clients reach financial goals for over thirty years. 8-1-2 - 3-3-2 - 0-5-5-7

Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.

I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow

Connee Boswell

Connee Boswell was the first and only major influence on Ella Fitzgerald. (Public Domain)

My spotlight this week is on one of the first true innovators in vocal jazz, Connee Boswell. Boswell and her sisters Martha and Vet (aka, The Boswell Sisters) were musical sensations in the early 1930s, blending pop and jazz with creative arrangements, relentless swing, and pitch-perfect sibling harmony. But when the Boswell Sisters disbanded, Connee struck out on her own, creating a career for herself as a full-throated singer that could tackle blues and jazz with ease and folksy charm. I chronicle Connee's career in this episode.


The Boswell Sisters' Early Years

Constance Boswell (who first went by “Connie” and later the unusual spelling Connee”) was born in 1907, and she and her older sister Martha and younger sister Helvetia or “Vet” were raised in a musical family in the crucible of American music, New Orleans in the early 20th century.

These three white sisters absorbed all of the melting pot of musical influences around them, from European Classical music to black Gospel music to the budding Dixieland jazz music in New Orleans. As a child, Connee was stricken with polio, which confined her permanently to a wheelchair, but did not diminish her drive.

The three Boswell Sisters were intensely musical, playing the cello, piano, and violin, and soon singing and writing their own arrangements. They got their professional start in 1925 performing in Vaudeville houses, and later recording a few sides for Victor when a mobile recording unit came to town, including an original song by Martha called "Nights When I Am Lonely."

In 1928, the sisters hit the traveling vaudeville circuit. By the end of the decade, they had settled down in Los Angeles after the traveling show brought them there. In the intervening years, their style had matured into something more rhythmic and swinging.

In October 1930, they make their first mature professional recordings for Okeh Records, recording songs like "Gee, But I'd Like To Make You Happy." Their voices were still a bit thin, but all of the elements of a Boswell Sisters song were there, including creative arrangements, driving rhythm, perfect harmony, and a solo by Connee.

Bing Crosby and Brunswick Records

In 1931 in Los Angeles, the Boswell Sisters had met Bing Crosby, probably the biggest influence on their career. Crosby had just become a radio star on CBS, and with his support, the Boswells found themselves performing on the radio, in films, and recording for Brunswick Records with producer Jack Kapp. Most of the classic Boswell Sisters recordings come from this short period between 1931 and 1934 on Brunswick Records.

The Boswell Sisters’ sound was completely innovative for the time. They would first completely transform the song’s melody, basically composing an entirely new melody, like on the Harry Warren song "Shuffle Off To Buffalo." Then they would alter the tempo, slowing down and speeding up while keeping a perfect sense of swing and staying perfectly in sync.

There was also the Boswell’s blend—that blood harmony that can’t be taught. At the center was always Connee’s voice, typically highlighted in a solo or scat singing on songs like "Shout, Sister Shout." The Boswell Sisters had an influence on every jazz vocal group that came after them, from the Andrews Sisters to the Manhattan Transfer.

Although the Boswell Sisters recorded film and theatre songs like “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” on occasion, their bread and butter were what we might call “southern songs,” or “Swanee Songs,” as they were often called—a reference to the Stephen Foster minstrel tune “Old Folks At Home (aka “Swanee River”).” Since they were from New Orleans, the Boswells found success singing about the moon and stars of the sleepy south or the muddy waters of the delta on songs like “Got The South In My Soul,” “Roll On Mississippi Roll On,” “Down Among The Sheltering Pines,” “Louisiana Hayride,” “It’s Sunday Down In Caroline,” or “Down On The Delta.”

Connee Goes Solo

By around 1934, a rift starts to form in the Boswell Sisters. Connee’s drive to be a solo artist put a wedge between herself and sisters Martha and Vet. By 1936, the sisters had split for good after only five short years of mainstream success. Martha and Vet had married and settled down. But Connee, following the path of her friend Bing Crosby, who also split from his group The Rhythm Boys, pursued a solo career.

Their final recording sessions as a trio came in 1936. Even though Connee was also the featured solo singer, on these final recordings like the Irving Berlin song “Let Yourself Go,” her desire to be a solo artist is clear in her delivery. On the second time through the chorus, the tempo slows and the rhythm changes as Connee bursts through the door with a knockout solo line, shouting the melody like a blues diva. Coming from a petite woman confined to a wheelchair, Connee’s voice could wallop. Indiana journalist Ernie Pyle was said of Connee Boswell, quote, “so much noise out of such a little package.”

However, to say that Connee Boswell went solo in 1936 is not entirely true. Because by 1936, Connee was already a solo star. 

Starting in 1931, Connee had already begun cutting solo records for the Brunswick label alongside her work with her sisters. In fact, in 1934, a teenage Ella Fitzgerald won the Apollo Theater amateur contest by singing a Connee Boswell song. Ella later said in interviews that Boswell was the only singer who influenced her, saying “I tried to sing like her all the time...Connee was doing things that no one else was doing at the time.”

Boswell's early recordings for Brunswick were mostly with the Dorsey Brothers, featuring Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto saxophone, and Bunny Berigan on trumpet. This includes songs like the 1932 song "Me Minus You." 

Most of the recordings Connee Boswell made as a solo artist were ballads and a certain type of sentimental ballad popular pre-World War II that do not really resonate today. But a few of these ballads, especially some of her work with arranger Victor Young and his Orchestra, are simply divine, including their 1941 rendition of Arlen and Koehler's "Stormy Weather" and their 1939 rendition of the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Young's arrangement on "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is especially lovely, featuring a walking bassline and a wordless, minor-key "delta love call" from Boswell.

Although pop ballads tend to dominate her solo recordings, when she was paired up with the right jazz orchestra (like Bob Crosby’s, Sy Oliver’s, or Woody Herman’s) she could still swing. These jazz recordings are fewer, but songs like "Gypsy Love Song" with Bob Crosby among the most exciting recordings in her solo career.

In her solo career, Connee Boswell also kept a close relationship with Bing Crosby, her mentor, peer, and the person who helped open doors for her and her sisters. Boswell would often appear with Crosby on his Kraft Music Hall Radio program in the 1930s and 40s, and they often recorded together for the Decca label. There’s a playfulness in the Bing and Connee recordings like "Yes, Indeed" or "Basin Street Blues" that simply cannot be beaten.

During World War II, Connee Boswell became a fixture on USO tours. Since polio had confined her to a wheelchair, she became an icon to soldiers disabled from battle. However, after the war, he career didn’t flourish like other swing era stars such as her protege Ella Fitzgerald. Instead, she had a handful of recordings in the 1950s and retired by 1957 and passed away from cancer in 1976, almost exactly one year before the death of her friend Bing Crosby.

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