Ada Leonard and Her All-Girl Orchestra
An-all girl band popular during and after World War II led by Chicago burlesque and musical theater entertainer Ada Leonard. The band was first organized by Bernice Little in Chicago and featured both compositions and arrangements of trumpet soloist Jane Sager. The group was the first all-girl group invited to tour USO military camps in 1941. In 1944, the band re-0rganized and invited a number of capable soloists including Norma Teagarden and Ethel “Kirk” Kirkpatrick. During the early 1940s, the group alternated between USA camp show tours and smaller theater engagements on the Kemp Time circuit. In 1950 and 1951, Leonard’s band was filmed for a number of Snader Telescriptions in Chicago. Leonard led an all-girl band for her television program on KTTV from 1952 to 1954 (Tucker, McGee).
Babe Egan (b. Mary Florence Cecilia Egan, 1897-1966) and Her Hollywood Redheads
Egan was a violinist and bandleader during the 1920s through the 1930s. She began her career in Hollywood pit orchestras for silent films during the early 1920s. Egan organized her own all-girl orchestra in 1924 under the name Babe Egan’s Hollywood Redheads. The California based group played vaudeville houses and stage shows throughout the West Coast and in Honolulu. They progressed to tour nationally on the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit for many years. The group toured Europe in 1929, billed as the best “girl band” in the world. They continued to work in theaters and picture palaces in the United States during the 1930s. In 1933, they toured Europe with a 16 piece band, which included pianist Dorothy Sauter and saxophonist Geraldine Stanley. The group joined with Thelma White in the 1930s (date unknown) and again in the mid-1940s (estimated date), touring Australia where they recruited several of their musicians. Egan retired from professional life in the 1940s. She died of a stroke in 1966 in Verdugo City, California (Poole).
Bessie Smith (1894-1937)
The first prominent blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She gained the title “Empress of the Blues” for her unprecedented success as a blues singer and entertainer. Smith began busking as a child on the Streets of Chattanooga with her brother Andrew as a singer and dancer. Smith’s older brother Clarence later arranged for Smith to audition with the Stokes troupe, which toured black theaters on the TOBA circuits and tent shows during the 1910s and featured rising star Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Smith continued to work, establishing a reputation for herself in the South and on the Eastern Seaboard as a dancer and singer during the early 1920s. She moved to Philadelphia in the early 1920s to promote her singing career. Her first recordings were made in 1923 by Columbia records for their burgeoning “race records” series. Amongst the many hits recorded by Smith were “Gulf Coast Blues,” Alberta Hunter’s “Down Hearted Blues” and “St. Louis Blues”. She quickly became the highest paid African American entertainer of the 1920s. From 1923 on, Smith recorded over 160 sides for Columbia with prominent musicians including Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Charlie Green and Fletcher Henderson. In 1929, Smith starred in her only film, St. Luis Blues directed by Dudley Murphy, which featured the composition of the same name by W.C. Handy. Fletcher Henderson’s band performed along with the Hal Johnson Choir and prominent musical revue performer Jimmy Mordecai. Although she was dropped by Columbia in 1931, Smith continued to perform musical theaters and night clubs in the 1930s despite the waning of vaudeville. She performed the Apollo in 1935 and replaced Billie Holiday for the show Stars over Broadway. She was contracted to perform John Hammond’s Carnegie Hall From Spirituals to Swing in 1937, but she died from a car accident in Mississippi earlier that year (Allmusic, Grove Music Online, Wikipedia).
Billie Holiday (b. Eleanora Fagon, 1915-1959)
One of the most influential jazz singers of the twentieth century. Critics frequently site Holiday’s unique vocalization of instrumental jazz phrasing as transformative of American jazz singing. Holiday’s childhood is the subject of much debate. She lived with relatives of her mother’s family in Baltimore until 1929 when she reunited with her mother in New York. To make ends meet and pressured by her mother, Holiday worked in brothels, an experience which most likely informed her aesthetic and musical vision (especially considering the role of jazz piano playing in brothel parlors). She developed her vocal talents with tenor saxophonist Kenneth Hollan during the 1930s in jazz clubs in Brooklyn and Harlem including Pod’s, Jerry’s and Monette’s. Talent scout and producer John Hammond invited her to record with Benny Goodman in 1933, and later arranged musicians Teddy Wilson and Lester Young to collaborate on other recording projects. She joined Count Basie in 1937 and Artie Shaw in 1938. In 1939 she began performing at the downtown Café Society, an integrated club in Greenwich Village where she debuted the anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit” written by New York teacher Abel Meeropool. She recorded the song for Commodore in 1939, which sold surprisingly well to American audiences. She recorded extensively during the 1930s through the 1950s with Columbia, Decca, Alladin and Verve records (among others) including the famous songs “God Bless the Child,” “Fine and Mellow,” and “Summertime”. She continued recording with notable jazz instrumentalists including Lester Young and with larger ensembles including Paul Whiteman’s in 1942. She also appeared in a few films, first in Duke Ellington’s 1935 Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life and later in 1947 with Louis Armstrong in New Orleans. In 1948, she sold out Carnegie Hall, billed as a come-back concert after drug charges and arrests during the 1940s. In 1956, she released the LP Lady Sings to the Blues (Verve) to accompany her auto-biography of the same title. She performed again to sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall in 1956. She died in 1959 in New York from liver and heart disease (alcoholism). Biographers of Holiday’s life often highlight her drug abuse, romantic strife and difficult childhood as constitutive of her unique artistry and musical expression, a common conception for African American female performers of this period (Grove Music Online, Wikipedia).
Blanche Calloway (1904 – 1978)
A jazz and popular music singer, bandleader, and composer active from the 1920s to the 1950s. In the early 1920s, she left Morgan State College to perform in local Baltimore revues. She later performed to critical acclaim at the Ciro Club in New York during the 1920s and made her first recordings with Louis Armstrong as a side-man in 1925. She then starred in musical revues and stage shows during the 1920s and 1930s with residences in Chicago and Philadelphia and tours throughout the territories. She sang, recorded and directed Andy Kirk’s band in 1931 at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia. She also led her own bands through the 1930s, recording in 1931 and 1934-35. Calloway filed for bankruptcy in 1938, effectively ending the band’s tenure. She continued working as a solo performer throughout the 1940s and 1950s and left show business during the 1960s to work as a radio programmer in her home town of Baltimore. Cab Calloway often credited his sister for inspiring his own career path and she is sometimes identified as the first woman to lead an all-man band (Allmusic, Grove Music Online and Vintageblackbeaty).
Clora Bryant (b. 1927)
A jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader most active during the 1940s to the 1980s. She began singing in the Lawton, Oklahoma Baptist church, but took up the trumpet after her brother and played in her high school marching band in Texas. She turned down scholarships to attend Oberlin and Bennett, choosing Prairie View College in Texas instead. In the early 1940s, she toured Texas with the all-girl Prairie View Co-Eds. The group went to New York in 1944 and performed the Apollo Theater in 1945. She toured with other all-girl bands during the 1940s including the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Black Queens of Swing. In 1945 she moved to Los Angeles and contributed to the Central Avenue jazz scene where she first encountered bop. She worked with a number of bands including the house band at the Club Alabam. In 1951 she performed on Los Angeles television with the Hollywood Sepia Tones. She briefly led her own band for a CBS variety television program Three Chicks and a Fiddle with jazz violinist Ginger Smock. After attending UCLA in the 1950s, she furthered her skills in bebop and gained the attention of Dizzy Gillespie. She also performed with Charlie Parker at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California and toured with singers Billy Daniels and Billy Williams. She recorded Gal with a Horn in 1957 and worked briefly during the 1960s, touring with the Billy Williams Revue. She also appeared on television programs including the Ed Sullivan Show. During the 1980s she toured Europe with Johnny Otis and Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham. In 1989, she was invited by Mikhail Gorbachev to play in the Soviet Union. During the 1980s and 1990s, she published articles on jazz and co-edited the book Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles, and London, 1998). (Grove Music Online, Wikipedia, Denison Alumni Association)
Dave Schooler and his 21 Swinghearts
A “sweet jazz” ensemble active during the 1930s and early 1940s. The group, led by pianist and arranger Dave Schooler, became known for swinging the classics and recorded a number of jazz classical themes from famous works by Mozart, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. Part of their performance strategy entailed the surprising transformation of sweet or classical musical repertoire to smaller ensembles of instrumentalists who could perform in the hot jazz or Dixieland style. During their existence, the group toured vaudeville and stage show circuits throughout the United States. During the 1940s they also recorded a number of Soundies including “Pavanne”, “Night Ride” and “Tchaikovskiana” (McGee).
Dinah Shore (born Frances Rose Shore, 1916-1994)
A popular music, jazz singer and actress most active during the 1940s and 1950s. Shore was raised in Nashville, but moved to New York in the 1930s to pursue a singing career. Her first performances occurred on radio programs during the 1930s, such as the Ben Bernie Show and the Eddie Cantor Show. During the 1930s and 1940s, she performed with several big bands including Xavier Cugat’s and the Leo Riesman Orchestra. She recorded a number of the 1940s top ranking popular hits including “Blues in the Night”, “I’ll Walk Along”, “I Hear Rhapsody” and “Yes, My Darling Daughter”. She continued a solo career in the mid-1940s, while also appearing in a few films, including 1944’s Up in Arms and 1946’s Till the Clouds Roll By. During the 1950s, she transitioned from radio formats to television with her own show, the Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1951-1963), which led the way for several jazz/popular music led variety programs. She returned to television in the 1970s with a daytime talk show and continued performing through the 1980s. She died in 1994 of cancer (Allmusic, Grove Music Online, Wikipedia).
Dina Washington (B. Ruth Lee Jones, 1924-1963)
A blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, popular music and gospel singer. Washington was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama but raised in Chicago where she was inculcated in the gospel music traditions of the south side. For a time, she played piano and led Sallie Martin’s gospel choir. As a young woman, she began performing both the blues under the name Dinah Washington and continued with gospel music under her birth name. Lionel Hampton invited her to join his band after hearing her at the Garrick Stage Bar in 1946. From 1949 to 1955, her recorded material consistently reached the tops of the rhythm and blues charts including “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, “Baby, Get Lost” and “Cold Cold Heart” along with the iconic “What a Difference a Day Makes” (1959) now familiar to audiences all over the world. During the 1950s she toured internationally and headlined the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. She died in 1963 from an overdose of sleeping pills (Grove Music Online, LastFM, Wikipedia).
Dorothy Donegan (1922 – 1998)
A jazz and classical pianist. She also played bop, swing jazz, and classical music. Donegan grew up in Chicago and began studying piano when she was eight. She graduated from DuSable High School, having studied under Walter Dyett, who coached many notable Chicago musicians including Dinah Washington, Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons. She later studied at the Chicago Musical College and then the University of Southern California and became a protégé of Art Tatum. She performed in Chicago clubs including the Garrick Stage Bar and the London House during the early 1940s and became the first black musician to perform Orchestra Hall in 1943. She is one of the few African American women to appear as an instrumental soloists in 1940s films; She appeared in Sensations of 1945 with Cab Calloway, Gene Rodgers and W. C. Fields. She performed consistently throughout her life with residences in prominent jazz clubs such as Embers in New York. She also led international tours and headlined European jazz festivals in the 1980s. Compared to her live performances, her recorded six albums remained relatively unknown until the 1980s. She remained vocal about the detrimental effects of sexism and racism in the jazz and popular music industry through her life. She died of cancer in 1998 in Los Angeles (Wikipedia, Grove Music Online).
Eddie Durham’s All-Star Girl Orchestra (1940s)
A predominantly black jazz band led by arranger and instrumentalist Eddie Durham during the 1940s. Durham worked his way up from minstrel shows and territory bands to lead prominent all-girl groups during the 1930s and 1940s. He was the arranger for the International Sweethearts of Rhythms from 1941-1943. Durham’s All-Star Girl Orchestra contained many professional instrumentalists who participated at various times in the three most prominent black all-girl bands of that decade; the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Darlings of Rhythm and the Prairie View Co-eds (Handy, Tucker, Grove Music Online).
Harlem Playgirls (1930s-1940s)
A swing band active in the Midwest and throughout the United States from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s. Organized by Minneapolis-based drummer Sylvester Rice in 1935 and drawing from members of the popular Dixie Sweethearts, the group toured TOBA circuits, performing in picture houses, jazz clubs, ballrooms and variety theatres. In the tradition of prior all-girl bands led by musical theater stars, headliners Eddie Crump and Baby Briscoe both led the band as dancing, singing front women. Briscoe had gained prominence in New Orleans and had worked with Lil Hardin Armstrong‘s all-girl band and Joe Robichaux and his Rhythm Boys. Trombonist Lela Julius and saxophonist Vi Burnside were two of the group’s leading soloists. The group appeared at the Apollo Theater in New York in 1937 and competed in the prestigious battle of the bands contest at Chicago‘s Savoy ballroom against Johnny Long’s group in 1938. Many members later went on to perform with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Prairie View Coeds. (McGee, Driggs, Wikipedia)
Hazel Scott (1920-1981)
An internationally known, American jazz and classical pianist, composer and singer. She was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago to Alma Long Scott, a musician and band leader. Her family moved to New York City when she was four. Recognized as a child musical prodigy, the young Scott was awarded scholarships to study classical piano at the Juilliard School from the age of eight. As a teenager, she performed piano and trumpet with her mother’s “Alma Long Scott” all-girl jazz band, which sometimes featured Lil Hardin-Armstrong. By the age of 16, Scott performed regularly for radio programs gaining a reputation as the “hot classicist” because of her jazzed renditions of famous classical repertoire including the “Hungarian Rhapsody, no. 2” (Liszt) and the “Valse in D Flat Major, op. 64 no. 1” (Chopin). Her early musical theater appearances in New York included the Cotton Club Revue of 1938, Sing Out the News and The Priorities of 1942.Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Scott performed in various dance halls and nightclubs including the Roseland Dance Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra. From 1939 to 1943 she was a leading attraction at both the downtown and uptown branches of Café Society. Her performances created national prestige for the practice of “swinging the classics”. In addition to Lena Horne, Scott was one of the first African American women to garner non-stereotypical roles in major Hollywood pictures, performing as herself in several features, notably I Dood It (MGM 1943), Broadway Rhythm (MGM 1944), with Lena Horne and in the otherwise all-white cast The Heat’s On (Columbia 1943), Something to Shout About (Columbia 1943), and Rhapsody in Blue (Warner Bros 1945). In the 1940s, in addition to her film appearances, Scott was featured in Café Society’s From Bach to Boogie-Woogie Carnegie Hall concerts (1941 and 1943). She was the first African American woman to host her own television show, The Hazel Scott Show, which premiered on the DuMont Television Network in 1950. Shortly after, she was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee at a time of continued racism in the advertising industry and economic hardships for jazz musicians in general. Scott remained publicly opposed to McCarthyism and racial segregation throughout her career. She continued performing live and appeared in several television programs during the 1950s. She moved to Paris in the late 1950s, appearing in the film Le Désordre et la Nuit‘ (1958). She maintained a steady but difficult career in France, touring intermittently throughout Europe until returning to the US in 1967. She continued to play occasionally in nightclubs, while also appearing in daytime television. Scott recorded as the leader of various groups for Decca, Columbia and Signature, among them a trio that consisted of Bill English and the double bass player Martin Rivera. Her Relaxed Piano Moods (1955 Decca) featured Charles Mingus on bass and Rudie Nichols on drums. She died of cancer in 1981 in New York City (Chilton, McGee, Wikipedia).
Ina Ray Hutton (b. Odessa Cowan, 1913-1984) and her Melodears (1930s)
An all-girl vaudeville style jazz band active during the 1930s led by variety entertainer and jazz dancer Ina Ray Hutton, sister to popular and jazz singer June Hutton. Hutton was born Odessa Cowan in Chicago, Illinois to Marvel Ray, a local pianist and leader of an all-girl band. Hutton’s mother claimed Native American ancestry and raised her children on the South Side of Chicago, in a historically black neighborhood, where Cowan studied jazz and modern dance with renowned African American dance teacher and choreographer Hazel Thompson Davis. She began dancing and singing in stage revues at the age of eight. In the 1930s she appeared on Broadway in George White’s Scandals and The Ziegfeld Follies. In 1934 she was asked by vaudeville agent Alex Hyde to lead an all-girl orchestra, the Melodears, which featured trumpeter Frances Klein, pianist Ruth Lowe Sandler, guitarist Marian Gange, trumpeter Mardell “Owen” Winstead and trombonist Alyse Wells during its existence. Hutton and her Melodears were one of the first all-girl bands to be filmed for Paramount shorts including Accent on Girls (Paramount 1936)and Swing Hutton Swing (Paramount 1937 and Hollywood feature films including The Big Broadcast of 1936 (Paramount 1935) under the management of national booking agent Irving Mills. The group disbanded in 1939. In 1940 she led an all-male orchestra that was featured in the film Even Since Venus (1944); it was disbanded in 1946. During the 1950s, she returned to the all-girl format for variety television programs including the Ina Ray Hutton Show which aired on a local Los Angeles station. She retired from music in 1968 and died in 1984 of complications from diabetes, aged 67 (McGee, Blackpast.org)
A vaudeville style all-girl jazz band active in Chicago and the United States from 1925 to 1937. Managed by William Morris, the group performed frequently for variety theater, vaudeville and picture houses, often billed as the opening stage show before double features. They headlined the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, Glorifying the American Girl, an act featuring 12 white baby grands as well as various combinations of brass bands, strings and woodwinds. The group specialized in jazz, Tin Pan Alley, light classical works and Dixieland. They were celebrated for their versatility as most members, including star soloist and “trick trombonist” Paula Jones, doubled on both “novelty” (accordions, banjos) and symphonic instruments. The group toured Europe, South Africa, Asia and Australia. The band appeared in several film shorts including The Band Beautiful (Vitaphone 1928) and Syncopating Sweeties (Vitaphone 1928) and Maids and Music (Pictoreels 1937) (McGee).
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm
A predominantly African American swing band active from the late 1930s through the 1940s. The group emerged from a girl’s band at the Pinney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi during the mid-1930s. It since developed into a professional touring group led by Anna Mae Winburn and featuring professional musicians of various races and ethnicities. The group, promoted as an “international” aggregation, promoted a mix of “black and brown” races and performed within the TOBA circuit for black audiences. However, they frequently contracted non-black women into their ranks, and were therefore required to adopt various strategies to promote both the “internationalism” of the group while also disguising the race of non-black members for Southern audiences. In the mid-1940s the group toured Europe for USO military camp personnel. Throughout their existence, they performed some of the most prestigious musical theaters of the era including the Apollo Theater in New York, the Regal Theater in Chicago, and the Howard Theater in Washington, DC. Notable arrangers of the group were Jessie Stone and Eddie Durham who also orchestrated some of their recordings such as “Don’t Get it Twisted” (1946 Vic. 40-1046). The group featured some of the best female musicians of the day such as Vi Burnside, Roz Cron, Tiny Davis, Pauline Braddy and Helen Jones, many of whom worked in other prominent all-girl bands including the Harlem Playgirls, the Dixie Sweethearts and the Melodears. The group is the only non-white all-girl group to be filmed during the 1940s, appearing in both Soundies and the feature-length independent film That Man of Mine (1946 Alexander Productions) directed by Leonard Anderson and produced by William Alexander (McGee, Tucker, Handy, Grove Music Online).
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (b. 1917-2010)
A popular music and jazz singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist. Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York to Edwin Fletcher Horne, Jr., a supposed prominent New York kingpin and Edna Louise Scottron, a professional actrice. Horne’s family constituted part of the upper middle class black bourgeoisie, which constituted part of W.E.B. Du Bois so-named “Talented-Tenth.” Her parents descended from African American, European and Native American ancestry. As a child, Horne moved frequently and lived with various family members including her grandparents, father and uncle. She joined her mother intermittently, who toured in a black theater troupe during the 1920s and 30s. At the age of 16, Horne joined the chorus of the Cotton Club in 1933 and featured in the Cotton Club Parade in 1934. She toured with various bands during the 1930s and 1940s including Nobble Sissle’s and Charlie Barnet’s, a white band. Horne left Barnet’s band due to the stresses of touring in an integrated unit, especially for Southern audiences. Horne also appeared in two low-budget musical films during this period: the musical feature The Dukes is Top (1938) and Boogie Woogie Dream (1941), a short subject featuring pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. Upon establishing herself as a New York nightclub and radio performer, Horne was invited to perform for Café Society in the early 1940s. Soon after, she moved to the West Coast to headline in a variety revue. There she was scouted by various film studios, including MGM. Horne became the first black actrice to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood film studio. She subsequently performed specialty acts in number of MGM films including Panama Hattie (1942), Broadway Rhythm (1944), and Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). She also featured in all-black cast musical films Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (Twentieth Century Fox 1943). At the height of the Red Scar, Horne was blacklisted during the 1950s and therefore experienced greater difficult finding roles. She chose to revive her nightclub persona, performing many prominent theaters during the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, Canada and throughout Europe. She also recorded during this period, including her best selling Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria in 1957 (RCA Victor), which became RCA’s best selling album by a female artist. Horne continued working as guest artist for television variety programs including appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show during the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1960s, she had become more outspoken about civil rights and took part in the March on Washington in August 1963. She continued performing throughout the 1970s and 1980s and won several awards for her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway and continued in Adelphi Theater in London. She continued recording and performing sporadically into the 1990s, disappearing from the public eye in 2000. She died in 2010 of a heart attack (Monti, McGee, Horne, Grove Music Online, Wikipedia).
Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898-1971) and her All-Girl Band
Lillian Hardin was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised by her grandmother, Priscilla Martin, a former slave. As a child, she studied piano and various styles of music from hymns to spirituals and classical music. She also absorbed popular musical influences of the day from blues to ragtime, but was discouraged from playing them by her religious Grandmother. Hardin attended Fisk University for one year before returning to Memphis in 1917. Shortly after, she moved to Chicago to live with her mother and stepfather. She landed a job at Jones Music Store, owned by prominent booking agent Jennie Jones. Hardin was hired because of her expert reading skills, which enabled her to demonstrate musical pieces to store customers. An unexpected visit by Jelly Roll Morton profoundly altered her musical approach, motivating her to embellish both new and well-known pieces. Upon hearing of her reputation, clarinetist Lawrence requested an audition for his New Orleans Creole Jazz Band. She accepted, earning 22.50 a week for performances at Chicago’s Deluxe Café and Dreamland nightclubs. Hardin was recruited by Kind Oliver to perform a six-month engagement in San Francisco in 1924. Soon trumpeter Louis Armstrong joined the band and the two married in 1924. She returned to Chicago to perform various revues at the Dreamland and later worked with Louis Armstrong in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Hardin exerted great influence on Armstrong, encouraging him first to join Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1924 and eventually to lead his own group. Hardin recorded several times with Armstrong’s hot five and hot seven units, including sessions for OKeh and Vocalian between 1925 and 1928. She also recorded with the Red Hot Jazz Babies in 1924. In 1926, she organized the New Orleans Wanderers for Columbia Records. In the late 1920s, she obtained a teaching certificate from the Chicago Teaching College and a post-graduate degree from the New York College of Music. She continued working in Chicago and New York and toured and recorded with several groups including Johnny Dodds’ and Freddie Keppard’s. During the 1930s, she organized her all-girl group, a band that performed nationally for a NBC radio program and recorded and toured throughout the Midwest. She also worked and recorded for several vocalist including Alberta Hunter, Blue Lu Barker, Peetie Wheatstraw and Henry “Red” Allen. Hardin worked briefly as a tailor before returning to performing with local Chicago musicians during the 1950s. She also led a number of European tours during the 1950s with residences in Paris clubs including the Metro Jazz in 1952 and 1953. In 1962, she began writing her autobiography but never finished this project. Hardin died in 1971 while performing a memorial concert to Louis Armstrong (Dahl, Placksin, Wikipedia, Grove Music Online).
Peggy Gilbert (born Margaret F. Knechtges, 1905-2007) and her all-girl band’s
Peggy Gilbert was a bandleader, arranger, saxophonist, and multi-instrumentalist. She led various all-girl bands for several decades, most prominently during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Gilbert grew up in Sioux City, Iowa within a musical family. Her parents, John Knechtges and Edith Ella Gilbert were both professional musicians and taught Peggy the piano and violin in the classical music tradition. She toured as a child dancer and sometimes performed with with her father’s band. During high school, Peggy picked up the saxophone because of her interest in big band and vaudeville style jazz. She also organized the Lake Okoboji band, her first popular band, in mid-1920s, which performed at local ballrooms. She soon initiated her first all-girl band, the Melody Girls which included fellow musicians from the Lake Okoboji band as well as family members. The group established themselves at the Martin Hotel, performing two shows a day, which were broadcast nightly on local radio station KSCJ. Gilbert continued to lead the group in local theaters and resorts and became a pioneer performer on both radio and television. In 1928 she moved to Hollywood, where she appeared in sound films and toured with the Fanchon and Marco vaudeville shows. In 1933 she founded her own West Coast all-girl jazz band, variously named with changing appellations including “Peggy Gilbert and Her Metro Goldwyn Orchestra” and “Peggy Gilbert and her Symphonics”, etc.. She led the group and also performed saxophone, vibraphones, piano, and vocals. During the 1930s and 1940s, Gilbert’s all-girl band performed in prominent Los Angeles nightclub such as the Cotton Club and the Cocoanut Grove. During the 1940s, she continued working with all-girl bands and toured Alaska with a USO troupe. She also contracted female musicians for films and began to advocate for local women musicians. In the 1950s Gilbert broke into radio and television programs. In the 1970s, at 69 years old, she organized her last all-girl band, The Dixie Belles, consisting of seasoned musicians from the vaudeville and big band era. The group performed locally in dance halls and for jazz festivals as well as for television programs including the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1985 the band recorded Peggy Gilbert & The Dixie Belles (Cambria Master Recordings). Peggy Gilbert lived until the age of 102 and died in Burbank, California (Poole, Placksin, Wikipedia).
Peggy Lee (b. Norma Deloris Egstrom 1920-2002)
A jazz and popular music singer, songwriter, composer, and actress who garnered considerable success from the 1940s through the 1960s. Her performing recording career however, spanned over six decades. She was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, the seventh of eight children to parents of Swedish and Norwegian American ancestry. She suffered a difficult childhood after the early death of her mother. As a young girl, she began imitating her favorite bands and vocalists as heard from national radio programs. She made her radio debut at age 14 and soon had her own show in Fargo, North Dakota. Station manager Ken Kennedy of WDAY encouraged Egstrom to change her name to Peggy Lee. Her radio performances as Peggy Lee led to performances with regional bands in Fargo, Minneapolis and later Chicago where she gained a local following in 1940. In 1941, Bennie Goodman heard Lee at the Butterfly Room in Chicago and invited her to join the band. She soon recorded a number of hits with the group including “I Got it Band and that Ain’t Good” (1941) and “Why Don’t You Do right” (1943). She featured with Goodman’s band in two Hollywood films, Stage Door Canteen (1943) and the Powers Girl (1943). During the mid-1940s she left Goodman to get married and raise children. She soon returned to performing and recording with her husband, guitarist Dave Barbour. In 1945, Capital signed her for a solo contract; many of her Capital recordings reached the charts during the late 1940s including the hits “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me).” During the 1950s she scored a number of crossover jazz hits, most famously “Fever” in 1953. Television provided a fruitful vehicle for her musical persona as both the host of variety programs and as featured guest on musical shows including the Paul Whiteman’s Goodyear Revue and the Jimmy Durante Show. She also began to appear in music related films, including the remake of The Jazz Singer (1953) and Pete Kelley’s Blues (1955) for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar award. Lee extended her repertoire to pop to rock during the 1960s and 1970s working with artists as diverse as Buffy St. Marie, Randy Newman and Burt Bacharach. She won over new and old audiences with her theatrical version of Lieber & Stroller’s “Is That All There Is?” in 1969. Her autobiographer, Miss Peggy Lee was published in 1990. She recorded singles for Atlantic, Polydor UK and DRG as well as LPs for Masters before she effectively lost her voice from a stroke in 1998. She died of a heart attack in 2002 (Allmusic, Wikipedia, Lee, McGee).
Phil Spitalny (1890-1970) and his All-Girl Orchestra/Hour of Charm Orchestra
Phil Spitalny was a Russian born pianist, composer, and stage band/orchestra leader most active during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. He achieved national fame leading the Hour of Charm all-girl orchestra from 1934 until 1948. Spitalny first established himself within the record and film industry leading stage bands for Victor Records (the Victor Recording Melody Masters) during the 1920s. From there, he organized a professional “girls” orchestra, which auditioned thousands of women in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh and drew its musicians from the country’s leading music schools and professional organizations. Each woman excelled in classical, popular and swing and often performed more than one instrument. They toured nationally franchised theaters and film houses throughout the United States during the 1930s and 40s. In 1935, the orchestra came to know as the Hour of Charm due to their weekly performances on coast-to-coast radio broadcast for CBS. The program remained on air for 14 years, first on CBS and then NBC with General Electric as national sponsor. During their tenure, the group featured several musicians whose first names became household names. “Evelyn” Kaye Klein and “her magic violin” was promoted as the group’s virtuosic violin soloist and “Jeannie” and “Maxine” (Marlowe) were two prominently featured vocalists. Yet their diverse repertoire provided featured spots wherein smaller groups of instrumentalists would play hot and swing, such as drummer Viola Smith and saxophonist Gypsie Cooper. As the group developed their heavily feminized performative image into the 1940s, they gradually incorporated more light classical works as well as choral arrangements. The film and radio industry further supported the myth that these women were collegiates or temporary fill-ins for military men, in place of professional touring musicians. They appeared in both Vitaphone shorts as well as feature length films; including Phil Spitalny and his Musical Queens (1934), Sirens of Syncopation (Vitaphone 1935) and When Johnny Goes Marching Home (1943 Universal). The group continued to headline vaudeville theaters and picture palaces throughout the late-1940s (McGee, Tucker, Wikipedia (“Phil Spitalny”).
Thelma White (b. Thelma Wolpa, 1910-2005) and Her All-Girl Orchestra
Thelma White began leading her all-girl swing band during the 1940s after having already established her professional career as a Broadway revue performer and comedic film actress. At the age of two, she debuted as a “living doll” in her family’s Nebraska circus show. By Age ten, she was dancing as part of The White Sisters vaudeville act. The group eventually landed prominent jobs with the Ziegfeld Follies and Earl Carroll Revues during the 1920s. White moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s, working in revues which frequently provided supporting bills for feature films. Her first film was A Night in a Dormitory (1930) co-starring Ginger Rogers. She landed a number of small parts for short subjects and further developed her comic repertoire. White’s most famous role was for Tell Your Children (1936) better known today as Reefer Madness, a low-budget propaganda film about the dangers of marijuana. During the 1940s, White was recruited to lead an all-girl band, consisting of prominent musicians from prior all-girl bands including Ina Ray Hutton’s and Rita Rio’s. White also worked USO camp shows with smaller West Coast units led by Peggy Gilbert. Thelma White and her All-Girl Orchestra entertained troops for military camp bases and appeared several times in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands with notable USO performers like Carmen Miranda. In between USO tours, White’s band also produced Soundies including “April in Paris” (1946) and “Zoot” (1946). These films helped promote the swing-based capabilities of female musicians while arousing interest in White’s boogie woogie/dance band aggregation. After the war, she continued acting in B-movies. She died of pneumonia in 2005 (McGee).
Valaida Snow (1904-1956)
A jazz musician, arranger, dancer, singer and entertainer. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Along with her sisters Alvaida and Lavaida, Snow learned several instruments from her musical mother including cello, banjo, trumpet, bass, mandolin, violin and accordion. By the age of 15, Snow chose to concentrate upon the trumpet and singing and soon landed headlining roles in musical revues including Sissle and Blake’s In Bamville (aka The Chocolate Dandies) in 1924. Snow continued touring musical theaters through the 1920s, working in Barron Wilkin’s Harlem cabaret show and the Will Maston Trio. She also toured Europe with Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds revue, where she began to attract attention in London and Paris. In 1926 she also toured the Far East. Her performances at Chicago’s Sunset Café drew the admiration of Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong, who claimed that she was the second best trumpeter next to him. By the early 1930s, she was starring in Sissle/Black’s Rhapsody in Black. The show’s national success motivated Snow to move to Hollywood where she appeared in a number of films with husband and dancer Ananias Berry (of the Berry Brothers). She recorded several singles including her hit “High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm.” After headlining the Apollo theatre, Snow returned to Europe where she performed in dance halls and for French films. She was performing in Copenhagen in 1941 when she was arrested for drug charges and later returned to the United States. However, some accounts claim that Snow was captured and interned in a Nazi camp and later freed in a prisoner exchange. She continued performing in 1943 but her career gradually deteriorated during the late 1940s. In 1956, she died backstage after playing the Palace Theater in New York of a cerebral hemorrhage (Allmusic, Miller).