Masters of Louisiana Music: The Boswell Sisters

“Who influenced me? There was only one singer who influenced me. I tried to sing like her all the time, because everything she did made sense musically, and that singer was Connie Boswell.”

—Ella Fitzgerald

They were special. They were unique. And although they were born elsewhere, Martha, Connie, and Helvetia “Vet” Boswell were pure New Orleans.

Martha Boswell

July 9, 1905 – July 2, 1958

Connie Boswell

December 3, 1907 – October 11, 1976

Vet Boswell

May 20, 1911 – November 12, 1988

“No one has ever been able to construct, balance, and execute a song exactly the way they did.”

—Dennis Yancey, jazz writer

“There is hardly a Boswell Sisters record that does not yield some audacious dismantling and reassembling of the component parts of their materials.”

—Dick Sudhalter, author and cornetist

“Licks instead of lyrics. Riffs instead of rhymes.”

—John Lucas, Downbeat contributor

“A distinctive harmonic blend, dramatic changes in key and tempo, breaks, scat singing, a Boswellian variant of Pig Latin, all of it delivered with split second precision.”

—John Wilson, New York Times writer

“Their music hit me right between the eyes and what hit me was their originality. There was just no one like them.”

—David McCain, Boswell authority

“The biggest thing that people don’t understand about them is that they invented the vocal jazz group. It was an indigenous New Orleans musical form. It couldn’t have come from anywhere else.”

—Holley Bendtsen, singer with the Pfister Sisters

The Boswells were pioneers in the early days of network radio and it was radio that made them famous. Hollywood brought them to the screen in three full-length motion pictures. They hobnobbed with the stars of the day: Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, George Gershwin, Kate Smith. They took part in one of the most important milestones in media history—the first sound and video television broadcast, on July 21, 1931. And they did it all by singing their own original brand of New Orleans jazz.

There are Boswell fans as passionate about their music today as at any time during their greatest popularity. But their numbers have shrunk to diminutive proportions. For the most part, Americans are simply unaware of who the Boswell sisters were and what they were about.

“They deserve better,” says Vet “Chica” Minnerly, the daughter of Vet Boswell, who is writing a biography of the sisters which she hopes will help to turn things around. Most interesting, Chica thinks, was the influence of the girls’ strong willed mother. It was her positive, embracing approach to life, says Chica, that made the sisters the great success they became.

COULDN’T PLAY HOPSCOTCH

The Boswell parents first settled in Kansas City, where Martha was born in 1905 and Connie in 1907. Helvetia, named after the makers of a familiar canned milk product for children, was born in 1911 in Birmingham, Alabama.

It was around that time that Connie was involved in an accident that permanently injured her spine. As David McCain tells it, some kids put her in a coaster wagon that went down a hill and hit a telephone pole. Connie was thrown out. At first, she couldn’t move at all. These were the days when infantile paralysis was a major threat and through the years it was reported that polio was the cause of Connie’s disability.

Her mother was very forward thinking concerning the treatment. She wouldn’t allow the doctors to put braces on Connie.  “Massage and just her own intuition got her functioning again,” says McCain, “but her lower extremities just never developed as they should have.”

This was not the family’s only tragedy. Three other children died early in life, a son and daughter shortly after they were born, and an 18-year-old son, an accomplished violinist, succumbed to the flu during the great epidemic of 1918.

It was in 1914, with Martha nine, Connie seven, and Helvetia three-years-old, that the family moved to New Orleans. Father Alfred Boswell, a one time circus performer, had become a successful businessman and was appointed manager of the New Orleans branch of the Fleischman Yeast Company.

The family was always musical. Alfred and his wife Meldania were excellent singers. He and his brother Charles liked to brag that they were two brothers who had married sisters. The second couple moved to New Orleans. The foursome frequently performed as a vocal quartet in their home at 3937 Camp Street.

After Connie’s accident, her mother focused on what other family members recall as a natural musical talent. “I couldn’t play hopscotch,” Connie said in a magazine interview, “so Mom started me on cello.”

The other girls moved quickly into music as well. All three were trained in the classics by a German music professor in New Orleans, Otto Finck. Martha took piano, Connie continued on cello, and Vet studied violin.

The girls began playing classical music around town when they were still very young. David McCain says the earliest clipping he’s seen was around 1916 and involved Martha on piano, Connie on cello, and their brother Clyde, who died a few years later, on violin. In 1919, all three of the Boswell sisters appeared at the Old Opera House in the French Quarter as angels in an Easter passion play entitled Veronica’s Veil. Later that year the historic building burnt to the ground.

Herr Finck arranged concerts for the girls, but their interest soon went beyond the classics. Vet learned the banjo and though Martha stayed mostly on piano she learned to play sax as well. Connie picked up the saxophone, piano, and guitar.

From the beginning, the girls worked together to keep Connie’s paralysis from being noticeable. Initially, without even a wheelchair, Vet and Martha would carry Connie from place to place. “Their attitude was that everybody has a disability of some kind,” says Vet’s daughter Chica. “Some are just more noticeable than others. If you were sitting down next to Connie talking, you never even realized she couldn’t walk. You never realized she was in any sense what people might call handicapped. It just was not something that you thought. You couldn’t. Not with Connie.”

NO ORDINARY GROUP

Since their parents sang, it was a natural for the girls to take up singing themselves. As a trio they developed their own style of close harmony. It was soon clear that this was no ordinary group.

“The harmony came to them very naturally,” says Holley Bendtsen. “It was just in them. They all said they could start singing in separate corners of the house and chime in together and nobody would be off key.”

“When you’re very close, like the Boswells were,” says Chica, “it’s just like identical twins. One would start a sentence and the other would say, ‘Oh yeah, you mean…’ It was almost simultaneous.”

With three attractive young ladies growing up there, the house on Camp Street became a popular gathering place. The boys who came to the Boswell home included some of the top young white jazzmen of the day—Tony Parenti, Leon Rappolo, Louis and Leon Prima, and the legendary white cornetist Emmett Hardy, who Martha admired both musically and romantically.

“They would have to roll up the rugs on Saturday night,” says Holley Bendtsen, “and then all the young men would be courting the good looking three girls who wanted to play music. They would jam and people would dance.”

Meanwhile, the sisters were absorbing all the other music around them, gospel, blues, the sounds they heard coming out of black bars and clubs close to their neighborhood.

“The biggest influence on Connie Boswell, who was the biggest influence on the Boswell sisters, was Mamie Smith,” explains Bendtsen. “And Louis Armstrong. And Caruso. Those are the three influences she always named. Mamie was a smoother, more nuanced blues singer than Bessie Smith. And Louis was the first great jazz singer. He was the first huge influence on them as a group.”

By the mid-’20s, the sisters were a familiar act in New Orleans. They appeared at the Orpheum Vaudeville House, they sang at movie theaters between films, at school events, and often at the New Orleans Athletic Club, known as the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club at the time.

In 1925 they made their first recordings, on portable equipment brought to town by Victor Records. Two sides were issued, both originals, “Nights When I’m Lonely” performed by the trio, and “Cryin’ Blues” sung by Connie with Martha on piano.

Despite some offers, their father balked at the idea of the girls going on the road, but in 1928 he gave in and allowed them to go to Chicago. From there they embarked on a vaudeville tour that took them West to Oklahoma and Texas and finally to San Francisco. There they met a man named Harry Leedy who became their manager and eventually Connie’s husband.

They went to Los Angeles where they got a full time radio job on station KFWB. “I’d solo,” Connie said, “the three of us would sing, and then we’d have a half an hour of instrumentals.”

In 1930 they made four sides for the OKeh label with Martha on piano. One of the tunes, the “Heebie Jeebies,” had been done in 1926 by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. It was probably the first recorded scat vocal. Connie said she first heard the song coming out of a bar on Tchoupitoulas Street known as the “Tumble Inn.” It was recorded twice by the Boswells and they considered it their lucky tune.

Harry Leedy took one of the new records to New York and landed the girls a spot on a coast to coast radio show. It was 1931 and the sisters also had a successful stint at the Paramount Theater on Broadway.

The sisters got work with the fledgling CBS Radio Network. They started with an unsponsored 15-minute sustaining program. Connie had her own program on alternating nights. Their fame spread quickly and sponsors were soon available. The Boswells were so popular, says Bendtsen, that within a year there were eight groups trying to imitate them, five white and three black.

It was around this time that the Boswells were signed to a long term contract by Jack Kapp  of Brunswick Records. This began a pattern of recording that lasted through much of their career.

They would do their Paramount shows, then head to the recording studio for sessions that ran from midnight to around 4 a.m. The same pattern continued when the girls began working for CBS. Musicians who appeared on those broadcasts and in the recording studios significantly included the men who would become the nation’s top bandleaders when the swing era really got underway—Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Bunny Berrigan among them.

IN THEIR HEADS

When you hear the complexities of the Boswell Sisters recordings, it’s hard to believe that nothing they did was written down. Somehow, they managed to keep it all in their heads. Connie was the primary arranger “but the sisters really did work together on it,” says Chica. “I think it was Connie 40 per cent and Martha and Vet 30, 30.”

If the arrangement called for a section for the sidemen to play, Glen Miller was the man who would put it on paper. “They were a tremendous influence on his later music,” says Bendtsen. “If you listen to how tight the horns are in his charts, it’s them.”

The Boswells loved the jazzmen who backed them and the feeling was mutual. Musicians like guitarist Eddie Lang, violinist Joe Venuti, trumpeters Manny Klein and Jack Purvis, bass player Joe Tarto and drummer Stan King were playing with the Dorsey Brothers orchestra which did much of the accompaniment. Martha Boswell was usually the pianist.

Connie was the primary soloist as well as the principle arranger. “There were one or two places where my mother would sing a solo part but she never wanted to,” says Chica, “Martha started out doing more solos but Connie was just mellower.”

In October, 1932, the Boswells, who had been named Louisiana’s “Ambassadors of Harmony” by Governor Huey Long, came home for a brief holiday. They were written up by every newspaper in town. At one of their old haunts, the New Orleans Athletic Club, a crowd of 1,200 gave them a standing ovation. To provide an extra day for them in New Orleans, Werlein’s music store put a Wurlitzer piano on the Crescent City Limited so they could rehearse on their way back.

They wowed their European fans during two tours of England and the Continent. At an appearance in Holland in 1935, the audience was so enthusiastic the band had to play the Dutch national anthem to stop the applause.

The trio broke up in 1936, officially because all three of the girls had married, but more probably for another reason. Connie (then changed to Connee) had worked solo through the years in parallel with the sister act. She wanted to get on with her own career, while Martha and Vet were ready to call it a day.

There had been only a brief time in the national spotlight for the Boswells. “They were in a special early era,” says David McCain. “Swing was really coming into its own then in ’36. Maybe it had something to do with their being mostly radio artists. They were just three girls on a stage and all they did was sing.”

The Boswells’ success came between two great movements in American music, the Jazz Age and the Swing Era. They absorbed the best of one and played a major role in shaping the other. But the half dozen years when they were on top were also some of the most bitter the nation had ever experienced. The Great Depression, with its breadlines, its hobo camps, and its images of hungry children with distended bellies doesn’t offer much to nostalgia buffs in the way of glory. Indeed, for many families, there’s a lot that even today they might want to forget.

It just happens, though, to be the time when three very pretty girls from Uptown New Orleans were at the peak of their form. With their talent, and grace, and translucent joy in just doing what they were doing, they offered a sense of life and hope in some of our darkest hours. Maybe now it’s time to remember, and give credit where credit is due.

Note: Researcher David McCain has been assisting Vet Boswell’s daughter Chica Minnerlee with what will likely be the definitive biography of the Boswell Sisters and which hopefully will be completed before the end of this year. Chica knew her aunts well when she was growing up and her book is expected to include a great deal of information that has never before appeared in print.

Almost all of the Boswell sisters recordings are currently available along with some interesting air shots from their radio programs. The most complete collection is a five-volume CD set on the Danish label Nostalgia Arts. My personal favorite is a superbly remastered single CD of 25 cuts on the British Living Era label. For a sense of what the Boswells might be doing if they were still around today, try the latest CD by the Pfister Sisters, Change In The Weather on Mambo Goddess.

SELECTED CDs

The Boswell Sisters Collection: Volumes 1 – 5 (Nostalgia Arts)

Airshots And Rarities 1930 – 1935 (Retrieval)

Cocktail Hour (2 CDs) (CRG)