During the big band era, nearly every orchestra (swing or sweet) was comprised of male instrumentalists, a male vocalist (who was sometimes one of the horn players), and a female singer. A traveling big band employing a female vocalist became such a natural part of swing orchestras that it was often forgotten that it was a relatively new innovation. In the 1920s, female singers were only utilized by large ensembles for special occasions and were not considered to be part of a band.
Mildred Bailey was the first major singer who worked regularly with a big band. She was hired by Paul Whiteman in 1929 and spent four years with his orchestra although she only recorded a handful of songs during 1931-32 before going out on her own. By then the idea was catching on. Duke Ellington hired Ivie Anderson in 1931, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra featured Kay Weber during 1934-35, and Blanche Calloway led her own big band.
The brilliant clarinetist Benny Goodman became a professional when he was 12, sat in with Bix Beiderbecke in 1923, and worked with Ben Pollack during 1926-28. He was a highly paid ($300 a week) but bored studio musician during the early years of the Depression. Rather than play anonymously in radio orchestras with just occasional opportunities to play jazz, he dreamt of putting together a swinging big band, one that played jazz but was also commercially successful enough to survive and possibly even prosper.
Goodman put together his first big band in 1934, getting a long-term job playing at Billy Rose’s Music Hall that lasted until October. In the fall, he barely won a contest (by one vote) to have his orchestra work as one of the three bands on a weekly radio series on NBC called Let’s Dance, alternating as the jazz group along with the sweet orchestra of Kel Murray and the Latin band of Xavier Cugat. It was the clarinetist’s first big break in achieving his dream, but he needed to quickly hire a female singer for the job. Goodman had previously led record dates featuring Billie Holiday (her first two recordings) and Mildred Bailey (on Feb. 2, 1934). The first female singer to record with his new orchestra was Ann Graham who sounded fine on “It Happens To The Best Of Friends” (from Aug. 16, 1934), but neither the singer nor that song were heard from again.
Luckily there was an attractive jazz-inspired vocalist who was already working for NBC, Helen Ward. Although she was only 19, Goodman (25 at the time) immediately recognized her talent and potential.
Helen Ward was born on Sept. 19, 1916 in New York City. She had piano lessons and it was obvious from a young age that she had a beautiful voice and a real feeling for popular music. When she was 16, Ward sang regularly with future songwriter Burton Lane who accompanied her on piano. After graduating from high school, she had short stints with the bands of Nye Mayhew, Eddy Duchin, Enric Madriguera, Freddie Martin, David Rubinoff, and Will Osborne, making her recording debut on six songs with the groups of Martin and Madriguera. At that early stage she already had a recognizable and pleasing sound and a relaxed swinging style, impressing Benny Goodman.
The singer became an important part of the King of Swing’s early success. Her ability to swing at any tempo, very accessible voice, warmth, and youthful girl-next-door image were perfect for his band. She was featured with Goodman on the Let’s Dance radio broadcasts, toured with the struggling band to the West Coast, and participated in its historic stint at Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom which officially launched the swing era. Few other band singers of 1935-36 were on her level and fortunately she was well recorded during the period.
Helen Ward is heard singing fairly straight on two numbers with Harry Rosenthal’s orchestra (essentially the Goodman big band without its leader) which preceded her first recording with Goodman, “I’m A Hundred Percent For You” (Nov. 26, 1934). She was well featured on the Let’s Dance broadcasts, many of which were later released on collector’s labels. Of her string of impressive recordings with Goodman, most memorable are “Hooray For Love,” “The Dixieland Band,” “You’re A Heavenly Thing,” “The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea,” “It’s Been So Long,” “These Foolish Things,” “You Turned The Tables On Me,” and her big hit, Johnny Mercer’s “Goody-Goody.” She also recorded two songs apiece with an all-star combo led by Gene Krupa (“Mutiny In the Parlor” and “I’m Gonna Clap My Hands”), a Teddy Wilson group, and the Benny Goodman Trio (classic versions of “All My Life” and “Too Good To Be True”).
Despite all of the successes, Helen Ward surprised the music world by deciding to retire from music in Oct. 1936, making it official in December. Although she was singing with the #1 band and displayed unlimited potential at the age of 20, she threw it all away to marry Albert Marx who in later years would become a major record producer. That decision cut short her career before it had come close to peaking.
Benny Goodman, who had earlier toyed with the idea of marrying Helen Ward before deciding it was too early in his career, was in a spot. By late 1936 virtually every swing band had a female singer and, while he led the most popular swing band in the world, Ward’s departure left a major hole. The clarinetist looked at CBS radio this time and found Margaret McCrae who he utilized on some radio broadcasts in November. McCrae recorded three songs with Goodman on Dec. 30, 1936 (including “Never Should Have Told You” and “This Year’s Kisses”) but, for unknown reasons, she soon left the Goodman band and returned to CBS, never recording again in a jazz setting.
The next Goodman vocalist was Frances Hunt (1915-93). She was an excellent singer and lasted with Goodman for six months but her only recording with BG was “Goodnight My Love.” A member of Lou Bring’s band before accepting an offer from Goodman, in August she left Goodman to marry Bring. Hunt did appear on some of Goodman’s radio broadcasts, recorded two numbers with Teddy Wilson and six with Ben Pollack (all in 1937), and later on worked with Ray Noble, appeared in the 1939 movie You’re A Sweetheart, and sang for the USO during World War II.
Her successor, Betty Van, is even more obscure than Margaret McCrae or Frances Hunt. She recorded one number (“Afraid To Dream”) with Goodman and just lasted a month. Van had been singing on the radio since she was 17 and toured with Kenny Baker’s orchestra before joining Goodman. After she left, she was active for a few years, working with Vido Musso, Sonny Dunham, Charles Dant’s NBC Orchestra, and Jack Teagarden’s big band. Betty Van permanently retired from singing in July 1942 to get married.
While Betty Van was still with Goodman, the clarinetist discovered another singer. Martha Tilton was part of the Myer Alexander Chorus that appeared on three of Goodman’s Camel Caravan radio shows in August 1937. When he heard her doing a singing commercial on the show, he knew that he wanted her in his band.
Martha Tilton was born Nov. 14, 1915 in Corpus Christi, Texas. After three years in Kansas, she grew up in Los Angeles. Her family was musical with her mother playing piano, her father singing at family gatherings, and her younger sister Liz Tilton also becoming a singer. Martha Tilton sang as a teenager with Sid Lippman’s Band at the Coconut Grove and with Hal Grayson’s orchestra during 1933-36. She worked with Three Hits and A Miss during 1936-37, was with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra for a few months, and had an uncredited role as a singer in the movie Topper.
A pleasing performer who always had a smile in her voice, Martha Tilton was less jazz-oriented than Helen Ward, sticking to the melody and the lyrics of each song, but she swung and Goodman appreciated her presence. She was with the clarinetist for two years, appearing on over 80 recordings including “Bob White,” “It’s Wonderful,” “Please Be Kind,” “Feelin’ High And Happy,” a hit version of Duke Ellington’s “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and “The Lady’s In Love With You.” Not all of the songs she was given to sing were gems, but Tilton had the ability to make any tune sound not only tolerable but quite listenable.
Like Ward, Tilton had an opportunity to record with the Benny Goodman Trio (“Silhouetted In The Moonlight”). But more significant was that she was also part of an extended recording of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” with the Benny Goodman Quartet that included a stirring klezmer-style trumpet solo from Ziggy Elman. That idea would be adapted for her biggest hit, “And The Angels Sing” (from Feb. 1, 1939) which had originally been a Ziggy Elman instrumental piece called “Fralich In Swing” before Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics for her.
Martha Tilton was part of the famous Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert of Jan. 16, 1938, performing “Loch Lomond” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” and she appeared on dozens of radio broadcasts. She was a fixture with Goodman until May 1939 when he temporarily broke up his orchestra. Still only 23, she used the hiatus as a hint that she should go out on her own.
Tilton’s decision, unlike Helen Ward’s, was a good one. She had been with the Benny Goodman Orchestra when it was at the peak of its popularity and had a big enough name to enjoy a busy and varied solo career. Tilton appeared on Paul Whiteman’s radio shows, dubbed the singing voices for various non singing actresses in movies (including in the film Ball Of Fire where she sang “Drum Boogie” for Barbara Stanwyck with Gene Krupa), made some radio transcriptions in 1941, recorded “Dreamin’ Out Loud” with Artie Shaw, and had her own radio show. Nicknamed “Liltin’ Martha Tilton,” she was the first artist to be signed to the new Capitol label in 1942. For seven years Tilton recorded regularly for the label with her strongest selling records including “I’ll Walk Alone,” “I Should Care,” “How Are Things In Glocca Morra,” “That’s My Desire,” “I Wonder, I Wonder, I Wonder,” “A Stranger In Town,” “A Fine Romance,” “Connecticut,” and “I’ll Remember April.”
Martha Tilton made some later records (including in 1952 with Les Brown), worked regularly on radio into 1953, was occasionally on television, and appeared in The Benny Goodman Story in 1955, singing “And The Angels Sing.” She had bit parts in five other films including 1975’s The Queen Of The Stardust Ballroom and sang occasionally in public (usually with a big band) as late as the mid-1990s. Tilton had a friendly relationship with Benny Goodman through the years and they had occasional reunions including at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and at his 40th anniversary Carnegie Hall concert in 1978 where she sang “Loch Lomond.” At the time that she passed away on Dec. 8, 2006 at the age of 91, she was the last survivor of the original concert.
Although she was not involved with the historic 1938 event, Helen Ward had two connections to Benny Goodman’s famous concert. Her second husband Albert Marx recorded the entire performance, making two copies, one of which he sent to Goodman. It sat in the clarinetist’s closet for a dozen years before it was rediscovered in 1950. Ward’s third husband, the innovative engineer Bill Savory, worked on making the first transfers of the timeless music from disk to tape to LP master, resulting in its initial release in the early 1950s.
Helen Ward had planned to be permanently retired from singing when she left Goodman in Dec. 1936 but changed her mind on a regular basis for decades. She had been in the right place at the right time with BG, but during much of the rest of her life she seemed to have bad timing, at least as far as regaining her former fame. During 1937-42, while not being connected with a specific band or even singing regularly, she made occasional appearances as a guest on recordings. There were sessions with Teddy Wilson (including “There’s A Lull In My Life”), the Gene Krupa big band (“Feelin’ High And Happy”), Bob Crosby (“Day In, Day Out”), Harry James, the Joe Sullivan septet, violinist Matty Malneck’s combo, and Harry James (“Daddy”).
In 1943 Helen Ward and Albert Marx were divorced and the 26-year old went back to singing fulltime for a period. She recorded some V-discs with Red Norvo and became Helen Forrest’s replacement with the Harry James Orchestra. Although she was again being featured with the most popular big band of the time, few realized it because of the musicians’ recording strike. Other than on some surviving radio broadcasts, that association with James’ big band was completely undocumented. It is a pity because, unlike some of her contemporaries, Ward was singing new material rather than endless remakes of her hits.
And then, just when Helen Ward should have been working on her solo career as the big band era was ending, she returned to obscurity. Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford and Martha Tilton were very active but where was Ward? She had a reunion with Benny Goodman as a guest on his radio show in 1946 and appeared on Eddie Condon’s television show a few times in 1949 but made no recordings (except for one song under a pseudonym on a Lee Castle date) during 1943-51. In 1952 she just recorded “Goody Goody” with Wild Bill Davison. Time was passing and she was slipping away into history.
With the release of Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, the King of Swing decided that it was time to try to bring back the swing era. He formed a new big band and hired Helen Ward as his singer. She recorded five numbers with Goodman’s orchestra including “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and “I’ll Never Say ‘Never Again’ Again,” still sounding very much in her prime; after all, she was still just 35. But a joint tour by the Goodman Orchestra with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars flopped due to Goodman being jealous of Armstrong’s success. He dropped out, Gene Krupa became its leader to fulfill its commitments, and it soon broke up.
The rest of Helen Ward’s career was anti-climatic. She recorded an album in 1953 on which she was accompanied by an orchestra conducted by Percy Faith. In 1956 she made appearances on sessions led by Larry Clinton and Peanuts Hucko, and there was a second project with Hucko. Ward appeared on a television show with Wild Bill Davison in the mid-1960s and in 1969 she sang three songs from the Benny Goodman era on a recreation record with Billy May. In 1979 at the age of 61 she made her final recordings, an album called The Helen Ward Songbook Vol. 1; there was never a second volume. She also started writing an autobiography but it was never completed.
Helen Ward passed away on Apr. 21, 1998 at the age of 81. Still thought of today as one of the finest singers of the 1930s and one of the best of the Goodman band singers (later competitors include Helen Forrest and Peggy Lee), it was over 61 years after she had tossed away her chance for much greater fame.