I have a thing for swing. Give me a dose of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, or Glenn Miller and my day is made. I also have a love of early jazz – that of Duke Ellington , Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. And can’t leave out Peggy Gilbert and her All-Girl Band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, or Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears.
Why, just a few of the all-girl bands that travelled the country by rail, bus, and auto during the 1930s-40s and riffed and roared their way into people’s hearts. Don’t call them novelty acts, a phrase they fought at the time. These women were terrific musicians, fantastic business women, and the music was HOT.
Let me give you an introduction:
Peggy Gilbert and Her All-Girl Band
While tenor sax was her instrument of choice, Peggy began by playing piano and violin, accompanying both her mother and father in their own musical groups. After high school, she formed her first all-girl band, The Melody Girls, who played at the Martin Hotel in Sioux City with performances aired on the local radio station. After moving to Hollywood, she played back-up in other female bands, eventually founding her own band and touring the Hawaiian islands.
The 1930s saw her leading her own bands, playing in famous ballrooms such as the Cotton Club and The Palomar. During World War II, she toured Alaska in an all-female show. After the war, as the men came home and took up their previous positions, girl bands faded in popularity, and she took a job as a secretary in the Musician’s Union.
Never done with jazz, at the age of 69 she founded The Dixie Belles. The band performed swing and jazz music, appearing on the Johnny Carson Show, television shows, and jazz festivals all over the country. While touring in the 1930s, she met and fell in love with Kay Boley, a vaudevillian. The two lived together until Peggy’s death in 2007 at the age of 102. Kay died a mere 2 months later.
Peggy was a staunch advocate for women musicians. A documentary film narrated by Lily Tomlin is available for film festival screenings. To read her full story, visit this fabulous website: http://www.peggygilbert.org/.
International Sweethearts of Rhythm
The Sweethearts were the first integrated all-female band in the country, and were popular not only in the 1940s, where they played such esteemed halls as the Apollo Theatre, but also maintained that popularity for decades after. The group met and began playing while enrolled at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi in 1938. The principal of the school, Dr. Laurence C. Jones, had seen Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears play; this gave him an idea to get a touring group together. By 1941, the Sweethearts turned professional. Anna May Winburn, who had been playing with a male band, took over as bandleader. The band featured some of the best female musicians in the country, and in 1944, Downbeat magazine named them “America’s No. 1 All-Girl Orchestra”.
An integrated band faced a lot of hurdles during the era of Jim Crow. The Sweethearts toured by bus, and while in the South, segregation laws prohibited the women from staying in hotels and eating at restaurants as a group. The women ate and slept on the bus instead. During World War II, a letter-writing campaign by African-American soldiers in Europe led to the Sweethearts joining the USO and played in France and Germany.
The group disbanded in 1946 and members went their own ways. But their music lives on, as does their grit in the face of prejudice toward women in a male-dominated jazz world, and as an integrated band.
Give them a listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpNjAmQmq90
Here’s a fantastic panel interview with members of the group: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Cjmg8Jepvw
“The Blonde Bombshell of Rhythm”: Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears
Svelte, sexy, and oh, so talented! At the age of seven, under her birth name of Odessa Cowan, she was hailed by the black newspaper The Chicago Defender for her dance performances. When Ina was a child, the US Census listed her family as “Negro” and “Mullato”, though it appeared she chose to “pass” throughout her career. A vaudeville producer discovered her when she was a teen, and in the 1930s she had performed on Broadway, including as a featured dancer and singer in the Ziegfield Follies. At 18 years old, she was named bandleader of a newly-formed all-female band, the Melodears.
For five years, she managed and toured with the Melodears, dishing out hot jazz and a flashy performance, changing her gowns multiple times during each show (with reportedly 400 gowns to choose from), and tap dancing and flirting with the audience. The Melodears was one of the first all-girl bands to be filmed and recorded, including a gig in “The Big Broadcast of 1936” that also featured Bing Crosby.
In the 1940s, she disbanded the Melodears and fronted an all-male band. In the 1950s, all-girl bands still held on to some popularity and Ina joined the television age with her Emmy-award winning five year stint on “The Ina Ray Hutton Show.”
Give her a listen:
Doin’ the Suzie Q: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeL9YgTu5Js
So give a hand to these great performers, and let’s get their music rediscovered.
Know of another girl-band or female performer you want to applaud? Leave a comment with the information!