Duke Ellington called Ivie Anderson his “good luck charm.” The “Liltin’ Miss Martha Tilton” was the “Sweetheart of Swing” with her own radio show. And the first ‘girl singer’—teenaged Helen Ward—created a sensation singing in front of Benny Goodman’s #1 band. Always dubbed ‘girl singers’ regardless of age—whether gutsy and gritty or angelic—these stellar vocalists were not just another pretty face. Many went on to successful careers as solo artists.
‘Girl singers’ were good for business in the glory days of the big dance band scene. With their gal-next-door looks or nightclub sophistication, they provided sex appeal on the bandstand for the college boys and GIs buying tickets for a night of dancing. Bandleaders weren’t always eager to add a female vocalist to their all-male ensembles, and when they did, ‘girl singers’ were often relegated to warbling a chorus or two at the mic, then stepping back to let the jazz band carry the tune.
Helen Ward was an NBC staff singer when Benny Goodman hired her for his weekly Let’s Dance radio show, just months before jump-starting the Swing Era. Before her early departure from the band in 1936, the dark-haired singer with all-American good looks cut several hit records with Goodman. Her vocals gave a terrific lift to the whole band. She specialized in putting warmth and swing into the medium tempos that Goodman took on almost every tune—even ballads. A heartthrob for thousands of young men who followed the band, Ward created the model for every ‘girl singer’ who followed.
Barely five feet tall and a blue-eyed blonde, Martha Tilton was personable and charming, and a perfect choice to replace Helen Ward in the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Appearing on the first Spirituals to Swing concert in Carnegie Hall, she brought down the house. Tilton went on to appear on Paul Whiteman’s radio show, toured with Artie Shaw, and had her own radio show—The Liltin’ Martha Tilton.
A popular GI pin-up in the war years, Tilton shipped off to the South Pacific for a series of USO shows led by Jack Benny. Then back home in the states, Martha became one of the first artists to be signed by Johnny Mercer’s hip, independent label—Capitol Records.
Billie Holiday spent much of the late 30s on the road singing with the Count Basie Orchestra, and then Artie Shaw. She was just 22 and hungry for steady work in March of ’37 when she debuted at the Apollo with the Basie Band. Newspaper critics gave Billie’s opening night rave reviews—including one who wrote, “When the ‘rhythm-wise’ redhead
swings ‘I Cried for You,’ the Apollo, the audience and even the lighting fixtures truly belong to her.”
Traveling with a busload of musicians was not a life that came easy to Billie Holiday— but Count Basie’s offer of $14 a day sounded like big money in the lingering years of the Great Depression. As Billie said, nobody told her she’d be traveling 500 miles a day and performing one-night stands for months at a time. The raggedy bus they dubbed the Blue Goose was either sweltering hot or freezing cold. And once Billie paid for a place to stay, got her hair fixed and gowns pressed, there wasn’t much left over to take home to her mother.
Touring with Artie Shaw’s band was even tougher. Being the only black woman on a bus full of white men was not only uncomfortable, but dangerous when traveling in Jim Crow territory. Billie spent most of her time with Shaw’s band hiding in the back of the band bus, surviving on takeaway sandwiches from greasy spoons.
Catching Helen Humes sing the blues at Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom convinced producer John Hammond that she’d be the ideal replacement for Billie Holiday in the Count Basie band. Later that year, Helen Humes found herself standing next to Hammond at his historic Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert.
John Hammond and Basie lifted Humes out of the territory band circuit and into the big time. After her 4-year stint with Basie, she launched a lucrative solo career, morphed into an R & B diva, and then in the late 50s returned to mainstream jazz. Helen Humes could sing it all. Some called her the greatest ‘Helen’ of all the girl singers of swing. But she was never far from the suggestive, bluesy songs that began her career.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, vocalists Nina Ferro, Topsy Chapman and Stephanie Nakasian join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to recall female singers of the Swing Era— from Ella and Billie to Martha Tilton, Ivie Anderson and Helen Humes. Also on our radio show, rare interview clips with Ella Fitzgerald, Martha Tilton and Helen Ward telling their own stories.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Martha Tilton, Radio Mirror Magazine, 1946 Image courtesy marthatilton.com
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick