I’d never heard of the Boswell Sisters before I undertook advanced studies in Ella Fitzgerald. Ella regularly credited Connee Boswell with being the greatest influence on her as a young singer. Ella appeared at the Apollo Theater in 1934, winning an amateur contest by singing “Judy” in the style of Connie Boswell. Who was Connee Boswell? She was the sparkplug of the Boswell Sisters and today is the anniversary of her birth.
The Boswell Sisters grew up in New Orleans, where they were exposed to blues and spirituals. They each played an instrument or three well enough to have begun performing as an instrumental trio: Martha on piano, Helvetia or “Vet” on violin, banjo and guitar, and Connee on cello, sax and guitar. Having begun playing classical and semi-classical numbers on a local radio station, they persuaded the station to give them a daily program as singers.
The trio made their name as the Boswell Sisters from the late twenties to the mid-thirties, when they all got married and the group broke up. Connee continued with the solo career that captivated Ella. According to the liner notes of the collection “That’s How Rhythm Was Born”:
The Boswells were not the first to use their voices in an instrumental way, but they did it more inventively than most. “We didn’t sing everything straight the way other groups did,” Connee once told former Down Beat editor George T. Simon. “After the first chorus, we’d start singing the tune a little different — you know, with a beat, the way jazz musicians would.” There would be sudden tempo or key changes, and variations of rhythmic pattern. They also engaged in “crossover harmony,” whereby the individual sisters didn’t always sustain a fixed position of bottom to top voices, but instead switched positions, sometimes on a single phrase. Connee sketched most of the arrangements, but never wrote them out fully….Within a few years the Boswell Sisters were the hottest vocal group in the country.
Connee had been paralyzed in a childhood accident (not polio, as frequently said) and performed in a seated position, as in the terrific video above where she sits to the left of Martha. The liner notes of “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” conclude with the focus on Connee: “She was especially active during and after World War II visiting military hospitals and showing by her example that a physical disability did not have to mean the end of the road.”
JOHN adds: Scott’s music posts are always interesting; this one is revelatory.
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