The Boswell Sisters (or How Three Little Girls From New Orleans Changed Popular Jazz Singing)

Singing sisters have been a staple of popular music for decades. From the Poynter Sisters in the 80’s going back to the Andrews Sisters of the 40s and several others in between, musical sisters have put out plenty of hit records. But before anyone ever heard of those groups there was what may have been the first sister act in jazz – The Boswell Sisters. Although they have been forgotten by quite a few jazz listeners, I guarantee a treat if you click through.

Martha and Connie Boswell were born in Kansas City in 1905 and 1907, and were joined by their sister Helvetia (Vet) in 1911 after the family had moved to Birmingham, Alabama. Soon after, the family moved to New Orleans, where the girls (and their older brother) were given lots of exposure to music. By their early teens they were proficient at playing classical on multiple instruments. But, as would be expected, they came under the influence of the jazz that permeated the New Orleans of the day.

After some local singing (and a couple of locally recorded Victor discs from around 1925) the girls followed in the footsteps of their father and began touring the Vaudeville circuits, which got them into California by the late 1920’s. By 1930 they had gotten radio exposure, had provided anonymous vocals on musical films and finally started cutting records, which marked the beginnings of their fame.

It was around this time that they settled on their sound. Connie (who later changed the spelling to Connee) was the middle sister who had the best singing voice. She sang in a fairly low register (and handled almost all of the solo parts) while Martha and Vet harmonized. They always performed with Connie seated (often next to Martha at the piano) with Vet standing close behind them. The reason was Connie’s inability to walk due to at least partial leg paralysis – a condition that was never a secret, but never publicized either. Although it was officially attributed to Connie having suffered a childhood accident (involving either a streetcar or a coaster wagon), the real reason seems to have been a childhood case of polio, which the family apparently wanted to keep under wraps. In either case, those mobility problems did not slow down either Connie or her sisters as they hit the big time and headed for New York in 1931.

Musically, Connie seemed to be the driver, and would dictate arrangements to a young Glenn Miller, who was one of the circle of top musicians who surrounded them in New York. She once noted in an interview that she worked up her arrangements starting at the final chorus and figuring her way backwards to the beginning. That circle of musicians, by the way, also included names (now familiar to readers here) like Bunny Berigan, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. Connie recalled that many of those records from the early 30’s were recorded between midnight and 4 am, after “the boys” had finished playing at local clubs and had sobered up a bit.

By now, we have examined quite a few of the new stars who were breaking into the top musical ranks of the very early 1930s – a time when popular music was in transition from the bouncy (and often gimmicky) 1920s into the swing era that took over, and ran unimpeded until after WWII. The Boswell Sisters’ records were not the run of the mill, and as often as not they contained combinations of tempo changes and key changes that never let things get stale. Their arrangements were quite advanced for the time and the Boswells were among the very few performers whom the song publishers allowed those kinds of liberties with the material. Odds are, the end of a given Boswell disc sounds quite a bit different from the beginning, with some parts of the middle sounding different yet.

This July, 1931 recording of It’s You is a great example of this, and is a treasure chest of Boswell Sisters goodness. There is the violin and guitar of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang working in the up-tempo background, the segue into a slow bluesy solo by Connie, some great instrumental breaks (including Tommy Dorsey’s trombone), a section that goes into a minor key, and finally another rush to the end.

From the 1940’s on, we have become used to listening to female singers who use a natural voice, sung close to a microphone. That was not the case when the Boswells were singing, a time when most women sung in a style that came about by the need to fill a vaudeville auditorium without a mic. Listen to anything by Jeannette MacDonald, then come back and tell me that the Boswell girls were not something new and special.

By 1932, their fame was enough to garner an invitation to appear on the Paramount film The Big Broadcast, along with other notable fresh faces like Cab Calloway, The Mills Brothers, along with their friend (and sometimes collaborator) Bing Crosby.

This video of Crazy People is from that film, and displays the kind blend that only siblings can create, along with some wordless vocalizing. Martha was an accomplished pianist and played while she sang on the early performances. Between 1931 and 1936 The Boswell Sisters were one of the most popular musical acts in the land, and never failed to entertain in a way that bridged popular music and genuine jazz.

Notice also that these girls could swing like nobody’s business, in a time before this was a common way to put across a jazz performance. The swing style was a major departure from the bouncy, even, ONE-two One-two beat that had dominated the previous decade. Instead, it was a smooth, streamlined 4-note beat that stretched out the One and the Three while shortening the Two and the Four (for a Daaa-da-Daaa-da effect). If It Ain’t Love from April, 1932 shows the girls’ ability to swing at a relaxed tempo, something else that was unusual in those years (where things tended to be either breakneck barn burners or undistinguished ballads). The Boswells undoubtedly softened the ground for later musicians like Benny Goodman who grabbed onto the swing craze and made a career of it.

For those who might insist that this is not real jazz because of a lack of improvisation, the response is to listen more closely. Unlike most other “close harmony” groups, the Boswells sung with an understood moment-to-moment freedom among themselves to go for another note if the one that was planned did not feel or sound right. Each had a very high “musical IQ” and could make such changes on the fly in a way that made things sound just right. We should also note that their native deep southern accents made for a style of musical pronunciation that still sounds fresh.

Was That The Human Thing to Do is a February, 1932 recording, but a very different version than another that was released at the time. This version takes on a bluesy, relaxed tone (with a detour into a low, minor-key segment), and is a really lovely song they way they put it together. Jack Kapp, the owner/producer at Brunswick and later Decca Records tried everything to get the girls to sing more conventionally, but it was a losing battle.

When Kapp could get his way, major hits would result, like 1935’s The Object of My Affection. Kapp was right in one sense, as it became the trio’s only No. 1 hit record of their career. However, it is also not as musically adventurous or interesting as much of their work – the girls try their best to swing, fighting the band every note of the way. But this record is still is far more interesting than almost any other vocal hit that year. It is certainly far more listenable today than anything put out by the other white female singers of the time, like Ruth Etting or the oodles of long-forgotten band singers.

So why, if they were so popular, have so few people heard of them today? There were a few reasons that started with Martha and Vet getting married and deciding that show business was a lower priority than marriage and family life. Also, musical styles changed a lot during the 1930’s, and jazz from the early part of the decade did not age that well on its own without newer stuff to bring it along, and there would be no new stuff from the Boswell Sisters after 1936. Also, their peak of popularity was during the worst parts of the Great Depression, a time when record sales in general had fallen off a cliff, so their records were always kind of a rarity compared with stars that recorded both earlier and later. Finally, Connie had cultivated a solo career during the sisters’ active years and kept on with it afterwards, so it seemed that everyone was happy with the way things worked out. Except for we fans, of course.

But the Boswell Sisters were certainly influential, especially given the trio’s short life. The Andrews sisters (whose first record was in 1937) were quite successful at adapting the Boswells’ sound to simpler, more conventional arrangements, and bringing that combination into the 1940’s. And no less a jazz diva than Ella Fitzgerald looked to Connie Boswell as the inspiration for her own vocal style. If you are at all familiar with her early work, it is not hard to hear a bit of Ella in Connie’s solos, including the way each of them would often start a note with a little vocal slide or flip rather than hitting it straight-on.

I will leave you with this little gem – Every Little Moment, from 1935. Although the piece starts out a little on the vanilla side, if finishes off with a swinging treatment few singers of any era have been able to match.

I know, six songs in one of these pieces is a lot. Sorry, not sorry – I could have easily tripled this number (and surely driven almost all of you either far, far away or as deeply into the rabbit hole as I went.) All in all, they only recorded maybe 100 records during their brief career. Their contemporaries like The Mills Brothers and Cab Calloway spent decades on stages and in recording studios – undoubtedly mostly due to their having wives at home who kept their homes waiting for them after long tours, a luxury that female groups (especially in that era) did not have.

One of the great treats for me in writing these features of old jazz performers is that I can still get exposure to new music. Not new in the sense of it being freshly dropped onto streaming services by tattooed, pink-haired post-millennials, but new as in I have never heard any of it before. I can assure you that going forward, no old jazz playlist of mine will be without the presence of three young girls from N’awlins, named Martha, Connie and Vet.

10 thoughts on “The Boswell Sisters (or How Three Little Girls From New Orleans Changed Popular Jazz Singing)

  1. Love this entry on the Boswell Sisters! Plenty of info here I didn’t know. You know the Andrews Sisters were pretty accessible in my early years of exploring jazz and swing, especially with all their movie appearances, but very little to find on the Boswell Sisters. I only really became aware of them in the great CD reissue era of the 1980’s, when all those music license holders were scouring their back catalogs for possible product to try out on the “new” CD format. That’s when their stuff started appearing to me, mostly on deeply discounted CD’s. You’re correct that there were more sister acts that had regional and limited popularity, but the Andrews Sisters were so popular in their era, they controlled a lot of media space! Glad for this Boswell Sisters redux!

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    • Thank you! I have concluded that music from the 1930-1935 era remains largely invisible to so many. The “nostalgia audience” has been gone for a long time, and it was probably not a big audience anyway, both because relatively few records were out there and because it was associated with so many being poor and hungry. And to the next big cohort (the WWII generation) it was old fashioned, while the later Andrews Sisters were not. It has been a treat for me to dive into the Boswells’ work.

      I had heard of them but knew almost nothing about them – I had assumed them to be more of a 1920’s jazz age holdover than the vanguard of something new. They came up by way of comparison when I had been researching the Mills Brothers some time ago, and those two groups were really on the cutting edge in the early 30s. Then I came across a really early Andrews Sisters record and was reminded that I had been intending to look into the Boswell Sisters, and, well, here we are. At first I found their multiplicity of styles within a single record to be offputting, but the longer I listened I started to go with the flow, and have been enjoying the heck out of their stuff.

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      • J.P., to show you how ridiculous it was, mostly because of the lack of information available; when their CD’s started showing up in the 80’s, I thought they were “B Team” also-rans to the Andrews Sisters, I didn’t know they were pre-cursors to the whole “sister vocal group” movement, and basically set it up for the Andrews Sisters to become popular. This was 15 years before you could find out quick information on the internet, and the only way you could get info would have been to spend an afternoon searching the periodical file at the library.

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      • I remember those days, and it was a hard job trying to put vintage music into its proper context. Many of those budget reissue albums (whether on vinyl or cd) lacked decent liner notes, so unless you got to a library and checked out a book on the music from that era, you had to guess about a lot. I am sure I saw Boswell Sisters reissues along the way, and likely came to the same conclusion you did. Or, naively concluded “never heard of them, probably not any good.”

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  2. And another group I’ve never heard of. Yes a big difference between the Boswell Sisters and Jeanette MacDonald.
    Amazing how fame is fleeting, and I hadn’t really considered how female artists would have had less support at home during those times.
    Thanks for this introduction, I listened to all the songs!

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    • Thank you! I think the early 30s is a lot like the early 50s, in that there is so much really bad to average stuff out there that the gems have trouble finding some light. I find Jeannette MacDonald almost unlistenable, and do not understand how she was so popular at the time. But then again I am now and her fans were then. And it really is odd, given how popular they were, that everyone has heard of the Andrews Sisters while so few have heard of the Boswells.

      I didn’t get into the family situation of the Boswells, but by the time they broke up, Martha had been married for some time and Vet had been married for about a year, but had kept it a secret. Connie got married to (to their manager) and is the only one who did not have children. I think one woman who really wanted to perform could make it work, even then – but when it was three instead of just one, the odds became almost impossible.

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    • 100 records over 5 years was not really a lot back then – it was not like now where people spend a year working on an album. Many would often do a lot more than that. Performers would make union scale during the recording time, but there were no royalties for artists until later in the 40s, so the only way to make money in records was to make lots of new ones.

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  3. “The Object of My Affection” really does sound like the Andrews sisters with a bit of swing. What a remarkable story, and your explanation makes perfect sense why the Boswell Sisters weren’t more well-known. Given the 1930s and the pressure to be the stereotypical woman of the time, it’s commendable they made as much music as they did. Also, I’m always so impressed when a musician can play and sing at the same time (Martha), especially with harmonizing. Glad you included as much of their music as you did.

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    • Glad you liked it. The part that amazed me was the way Connie did what she did while dealing with her disability in an era when there were no accommodations for that sort of thing. That probably also limited the kinds of film roles they could take on.

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