March is Women’s History Month. While you can probably rattle off several of the male players of the big band era, how many female vocalists can you name? If you’re not sure of any, a good stab in the dark would be “Helen.” Helen Forrest, Helen Humes, Helen O’Connell, and Helen Ward were among the top vocalists of the day, which means your name pretty much had to be Helen to make it big. Well that’s not quite true, your name could also have been Martha (Tilton), Ella (Fitzgerald), Kitty (Kallen), or…the list goes on.
Read up on the three female vocalists (or “girl singers” as they were called) highlighted below who sang with the best the big band era had to offer, and keep in mind there were many more.
Anderson joined Duke Ellington’s band in February 1931 and stayed until 1942. The night she joined Duke Ellington in 1931, the band broke all attendance records. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, Ellington calls her his good luck charm, and she was one of the best—if not the best—vocalists with the band. It is Ivie Anderson who recorded “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” with Ellington in 1932.
Forrest was nicknamed “the voice of the name bands.” Why? Because she was the female vocalist for three of the biggest big bands of the time—Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James. Forrest sang with Shaw’s band from 1938 until the band dismantled in November 1939. In December of that same year, she started working with Benny Goodman, making 55 studio recordings with him. She stayed with Goodman until 1941, when she joined Harry James, with whom she stayed until 1943. In 1942 and 1943, she was voted the best female vocalist in the United States in the Down Beat magazine’s poll.
Early in her singing career, “Lady Day” worked as a big band singer. She started out with Count Bassie in 1937, recording hits like “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” In early 1938 she left (err, actually was asked to leave) the band. No worries, though, she soon found a gig with Artie Shaw, a job that made her one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra. After a little less than a year, Holiday left the band and was replaced by Helen Forrest (maybe there really is something to that “Helen” thing).