A Brief History of the Premier All-Women Swing Orchestra
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was a racially mixed sixteen-piece all-women Swing orchestra. The word ‘International’ denoted its diverse ethnic makeup, including African American, Latin, Asian, Jewish, Hawaiian, White and Native American women. It was a formidable competitor to the all-male bands and the most skilled of about 100 all-women orchestras of WWII.
As the orchestra matured and toured nationally, the band attracted professionals. It had excellent improvising musicians executing evocative solos, precision section-work and lively head arrangements. This was the band that forced skeptics to admit that women could play hard-swinging Jazz and hot music, just like the guys.
In battles-of-the-bands they performed opposite Jimmy Dorsey and once bested the popular Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. On tour they shattered box office records in Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Atlantic City, Miami and once performed for 11,000 in Kansas City.
This and other female orchestras were poorly covered by the mainstream music press — Metronome and Down Beat magazines. Their recordings went uncirculated for more than half a century. Exclusion of the International Sweethearts from Jazz History before 1980 has compounded the original prejudice against female-musicians playing Jazz, Swing and hot music.
Despite extensive touring and coverage by the black-owned press, International Sweethearts of Rhythm remained almost completely unknown to white audiences. After the war the ensemble had some success but succumbed to shifting musical tastes, departure of key personnel and the fatigue of years on the road.
Piney Woods School Origins
The ensemble emerged from Piney Woods Country Life School, an educational institution for poor, minority and orphaned youth founded by Laurence Clifton Jones, twenty miles South of Jackson, Mississippi in 1910. The school sponsored a forty-piece brass band and hundred-voice choir as source of income. The Swing Band developed around 1937 playing for local dances and football games and became popular touring regionally.
The Christian-oriented co-educational school offered a full spectrum of training, from typing to carpentry – and still does. The administration took music education seriously but kept genders separated and backed more than one all-male Swing band.
Before about 1940, each musician earned $14.00 per week — or about half of a typical weekly wage plus room and board — amidst the persistent poverty and unemployment of The Depression. “They really cheated us, you know,” commented trombone player Helen Jones. “We were extremely underpaid,” said singer Evelyn McGhee, “but, for me, I was eating three meals a day . . . I should have been very upset.”
It was longstanding tradition in the Southern US for schools, orphanages and colleges to generate income and goodwill via music ensembles. For instance, the Bama State Collegians swing band was affiliated with the Alabama State Teachers College. It became very popular at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and on records. When their leader penned the hit song “Tuxedo Junction” in 1938, it reorganized as the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra.
In May 1941 the International Sweethearts of Rhythm broke free from Piney Woods School under the leadership of Rae Lee Jones (no relation). With financial backers Jones “stole the band” according to some and the group moved to a ten room collectively-owned home in Arlington, Virginia where they lived and rehearsed.
The Independent Orchestra Debuts, 1941-42
Their initial debut in August 1941 was a concert series at the Howard Theater in nearby Washington D.C. Setting attendance records exceeding 35,000, a sixth daily show was added. Their prominent gigs at the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater in Harlem were, in effect, high-profile coming-out parties. Headlining a week run at the Apollo Theater, they were invited back to celebrate New Year’s Eve December 31, 1942.
Newspaper reviews reflected the overwhelmingly positive response. Reporting on the Savoy premier, The Pittsburg Courier wrote, “the crew itself has a punch and tonal quality . . . backed by determination of purpose and a high spirit that goes beyond . . . the glamor and glitter.” The Jackson Advocate declared, “they are preparing themselves to blow as long, loud and fine as any of the others.”
Bear in mind that amidst all this excitement and heady acclaim, the teens aged 14-19 were living in a work-study situation. They were strictly chaperoned by band manager Rae Lee Jones and a college-educated tutor who supplemented their academics.
In the Piney Woods days, the orchestra was reinforced by an understudy band, The Rays of Rhythm and there was continual migration between the two and with similar all-female ensembles. After the Sweethearts split, the understudy Rays of Rhythm orchestra was retooled becoming the main school band.
The musicians traveled in a series of live-in buses. Amenities like electricity, plumbing and a kitchenette alleviated restricted access to lodging and public facilities in the Jim Crow South. Their transportation culminated in a massive “Hi-way Pullman” trailer and caravan sleeping twenty-two, justifying the astounding expenditure of $15,000 for “Big Bertha.”
Profiles of some key musicians may be instructive. For one thing, school superintendent Laurence C. Jones placed high value on ethnic diversity.
Pauline Braddy was a founding member and drummer for the life of the band. She played in the original Piney Woods School brass band and was a second-generation student, “My mother’s people went to that school. You worked your way and they taught you.”
Her solo feature was a show-stopping Drums Fantasy: “You painted the sticks with that fluorescent stuff, and the cymbals and the rims, and then they put on the black light. I played with white gloves. It broke the thing up all the time.”
Helen Jones was the star trombonist and an excellent soloist for the life of the orchestra. She was also the adopted daughter of school superintendent, Laurence C. Jones.
Willie Mae Wong (aka “Rabbit”) played baritone and alto saxophones: “Music became my life. It wasn’t just another school subject. It was a means of being with the orchestra.”
Her mother was half native-American and yet Willie Mae was raised in a partly-Black and partly-White family. She wasn’t even a musician when recruited at age 15, and in her own opinion was sought out as a diversity hire.
Her true last name was Lee. But deemed insufficiently exotic it was changed to Wong. I’m speculating that her nickname “Rabbit” arose because she played alto, like Ellington’s star saxophonist Johnny Hodges (nicknamed ‘Rabbit’) and she somewhat resembled him.
Anna Mae Winburn was hired in early 1942. A professional singer and “Mistress of Ceremonies” she had fronted all-male orchestras across the Midwest including her own Cotton Club Boys — until that orchestra was raided by an outfit from the East.
On stage she was poised, charming and glamorous, directing the band and singing fine blues in the Jimmy Rushing manner. More experienced and mature than the others, she was a stabilizing and somewhat maternal figure within the group. Winburn was the first in a series of ‘outside’ professionals hired in coming years to fortify the ensemble.
Viola “Vi” Burnside was the heart and soul of the orchestra. After 1944, her muscular tenor saxophone voice was a structural armature that supported the ensemble. She was often compared favorably to Lester Young but was not derivative.
Ernestine “Tiny” Davis was a dynamic singer, trumpeter and performer. She and Burnside were both veterans of the all-black, all-women Harlem Playgirls orchestra.
Rosalind “Roz” Cron was a gifted alto saxophonist. A Jewish prodigy from Boston, she was known for her great tone and former association with Serge Chaloff. She migrated from Ada Leonard’s All-American Girl Orchestra in 1944, “learned alto phrasing,” and was assigned to leading the saxes. Cron always took pride in having been the first Caucasian bandmember hired.
Evelyn McGhee was an excellent ballad singer by all accounts. For instance, Billie Holiday headlined one of the tour packages but enthusiasm for the Sweethearts’ singer provoked jealousy from Lady Day. The Jackson Advocate commended McGhee:
“. . . one of the few singers in the world who has learned the secret of literally pouring herself into the mike. She sings so intimately to the audience that she has the crowd won over, as individuals, from the very opening strains . . .”
A Highly Rated Orchestra, 1942-45
In late 1942, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm shattered the box office records set by Louis Armstrong and Count Basie in Chicago at the Regal Theater. They broke attendance records in Atlantic City, Cincinnati, Miami and at the Plantation Club in Los Angeles
At first, they were attached to larger all-women revues, touring with better-known acts like comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, tap or comedy dancers, harmony singers “Three Brown Sisters” or “Six Abdullah Girls” acrobats.
Becoming a stand-alone headliner, they performed opposite Jimmy Dorsey and held their own in battles-of-the-bands attended by up to 10,000. They eventually toured 39 states playing a circuit of theaters, conventions, college dances, night clubs, armories, dance halls and all-day outdoor frolics.
The Sweethearts began segueing onto domestic USO stages and recorded for Armed Forces Radio (see Media Links, below). They made brief excursions into Mexico and Canada, further justifying the moniker ‘International.’ During one grueling stretch they were booked for sixty back-to-back ‘one-nighters’ through Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, playing for 4,000 in Memphis, Tennessee.
By early 1944 the orchestra was demonstrating strong commercial draw, skill, drive and spirit equal to the best all-male African American swing bands. Tracking their progress, a Black-owned newspaper, The Chicago Defender rated them highly among the top twenty dance bands, ranking them below Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton and Harlan Leonard but above Claude Hopkins, Coleman Hawkins and Earl Hines.
Roz Cron who transferred from the Ada Leonard Orchestra found the demeanor of non-white audiences a noteworthy contrast:
“. . . when the Sweethearts started playing the audience would come in dancing down the aisles to their seats. Black audiences were always like that. But if you’d go to hear Tommy or Jimmy Dorsey or Ada Leonard people just ‘walked’ to their seats and sat down.”
Almost all of the surviving audio by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm originated with the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS). The orchestra made high-spirited appearances in 1944-45 on the program “Jubilee,” aiming to entertain African American troops and performances were recorded in Los Angeles and Paris, the latter on the second day of the tour (see Media links).
They appeared in a dozen short films probably intended for playback in the commercial coin-operated ‘Soundies’ market and a couple of obscure commercial 78-rpm discs. But essentially, their music disappeared for more than 50 years and was generally unavailable until about 2000.
Arrangers and Music Directors
Noteworthy (male) professionals were hired as music directors and arrangers imparting polish, professionalism and panache. First was arranger and composer Eddie Durham.
Eddie Durham had done similar arranging and directing for the Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Ida Ray Hutton orchestras. The choreographed horn-waving, for instance, was his innovation. He wrote forward-leaning state-of-the-art Swing charts.
During two stints in 1941-42, he was deeply impressed by their dedication, motivation and discipline: “We started at ten in the morning and quit at nine at night.” He admired their excellent stage presentation, dramatic lighting effects and seven sets of stage gowns.
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm held a strong allegiance to the Count Basie sound, possibly a result of Durham’s coaching and arranging. But he left twice in protest because the musicians were underpaid, getting only $32/week, about half of union scale. Durham ran his own wartime “All-Girl” ensembles before and after his engagement with the Sweethearts.
Jesse Stone served as music director of the orchestra in 1942-43. A towering figure in the Southwestern Swing territories, he was a veteran Kansas City impresario and arranger who pioneered Jazz on the radio in the Midwest.
Like Durham, Stone wrote music that “carefully integrated the more professional players with the less professional ones” and charts that offered riffs and repeated passages for head arrangements to emerge. Like Durham, he too eventually departed because owner-manager Rae Lee Jones refused to properly pay her employees.
Stone later became a noteworthy figure in Rhythm & Blues and early Rock music, mentoring Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Laverne Baker and his songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley. In the 1960s he was married to former Sweethearts singer Evelyn McGhee (then playing drums) and they partnered in a musical act.
Maurice King succeeded Stone in 1944. Well-liked, a good teacher and arranger, he served as music director until 1948.
Touring the ETO for USO, 1945-46
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm toured the European Theater of Operations (ETO) for the USO (United Service Organizations) departing the USA on July 15, 1945 barely two months after VE-Day, returning in January 1946. They gave concerts for GIs in Paris broadcast on Armed Forces Radio and entertained troops across occupied Germany.
Typically giving two performances daily six days a week, The Sweethearts received an overwhelming response. A journalist described the jubilant reaction at the Seventh Army Recreation Center in Mannheim, Germany:
“It was too much to ask the men to sit quietly to listen to the songs . . . So, the men simply got up from their seats and danced to their hearts content in the aisle. The theater was rocked in good old American fashion as it has never rocked before.”
The tour’s high point was probably the Karlsruhe Germany Concert House show for the 334th Infantry Division. The program is worth noting because once a USO show was approved by military censors it had to remain fixed unless modified by written resubmission.
The orchestra opened with their theme song “Fascination,” playing “Limehouse Blues,” “Eager Beaver” and “Confession.” Roz Cron sang “Love Will Live Forever.” Featured artists were vocalist Evelyn McGee, a tenor saxophone solo by Vi Burnside, the black-lit “Drums Fantasy” of Pauline Braddy and a vocal harmony quartet including Braddy and Winburn. The show-stopping climax featured the rowdy singer and trumpeter, “Tiny Davis – 245 lbs. of Solid Jive and Rhythm.”
The Sweethearts may have been wearing khakis, but they were living high during the USO tour. Wong served as band treasurer and “reporter,” mailing correspondence home:
“. . . we have a trio of GIs assigned to us [driving the trucks and jeeps] to see that we are well cared for . . . We played the Olympia Theater in Paris and the program was broadcast. We get the best of everything . . . we live at the finest hotels. . . We don’t have to turn a hand.”
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were among the very few non-White USO units entertaining the troops. Sadly, only a tiny percentage of Camp Show performers were African Americans or people of color, perhaps less than 3%. In fact, the Sweethearts Tour was a direct response to voluminous and sustained requests from the Black troops. The added overseas destinations were merely aspirational.
Post-war Era, 1946-49
Further overseas excursions were hoped for but never realized. There was a 90-day coast-to-coast tour under the continued musical direction of Maurice King and they made some commercial discs.
But by 1946 the fatigue of years on the road had taken a toll. Vi Burnside departed to run her own combos, deflating band spirits. Other key members “aged out” or “married out,” concluding their music careers.
Nevertheless, noteworthy new personnel were hired, such as tenor saxophonist Geneva Perry and Julliard graduate Carline Ray. Ray was a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist with a full, low singing voice who played a significant role during 1946-47.
Self-taught jazz drummer Fagle Lieberman (or Liebman) signed up in 1947. A veteran of USO touring she had played for more than three years in the Ada Leonard All-American Girl Orchestra as had saxophonist Betty Rozner who also joined.
But larger post-war social and cultural trends doomed the orchestra. For one thing, almost every female-staffed ensemble failed by 1947. The touring dance bands in general declined due to changing musical tastes, rising costs and new suburban lifestyles.
Final dissolution came in Summer 1949 after the death of manager, Rae Lee Jones. Though she had proven a canny show business entrepreneur, Jones consistently underpaid the musicians. Her dubious, or perhaps malfeasant financial management left neither the promised Social Security benefits nor equity in the Arlington home. Yet despite the raw deals, in later years former Sweethearts expressed only fondness for Rae Lee and Laurence C. Jones.
Several musicians continued as professionals. Anna Mae Winburn ran her own combos and orchestras, sometimes billed as the International Sweethearts. Tiny Davis made records and co-ran the all-female Helldivers Band, touring Latin America for the U.S. State Department and operating a Chicago nightclub for decades.
Roz Cron continued a lifelong career in music saying, “It was a ball.” Drummer Pauline Braddy recalled, “We were a bunch of crazy kids. I never realized we were supposed to be famous until it was all over.”
Sources, Summaries and an Indictment
The perennial exclusion of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm from the hot music chronicles indicts for malpractice the mostly-male endeavor of Jazz History. It’s no accident that all the books about this orchestra and their cohort were written by women after the early 1980s.
The definitive doctoral-level research by D. Antoinette Handy in The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (1983) offers the most complete narrative. The comprehensive 258-page book includes a bibliography, appendices, footnotes, index and photos. Handy’s research probed the documentary record and contemporaneous black-owned press. She conducted extensive interviews and corresponded with former members, concluding:
This group of youngsters who enrolled at Piney Woods Country Life School only a few years earlier with no more than the desire to get a basic education and learn a trade . . . were now participating in popularity contests with such jazz stalwarts as Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Sherrie Tucker’s landmark book, Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (2000) digs deep. She interviewed and came to know many of the musicians well, conveying a personal touch. But profiling this and similar ensembles, Tucker seems preoccupied with reconciling their unconventional gender, racial and cultural roles with pre-feminist and Jim Crow America.
“The Girls in the Band” (2011) is an excellent video documentary blending historical imagery, music and interviews celebrating the panoply of all-women ensembles.
American Women in Jazz: 1900 to the Present (1982) by Sally Placksin provides a clear view of the orchestra. One of the best books on the subject, her excellent narratives draw vivid details from oral histories and interviews.
Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen (1984) by Linda Dahl is a deft summary of the topic and the orchestra. She commends the:
“. . . deeply swinging quality of their music and the clean, even work of the sections (and, Vi Burnside’s tenor drive) . . . thanks to years of playing experience, the band achieved a polished sound and became known for its tight section work and rhythmic bounce.”
Post-Script: The Swinging Rays of Rhythm, Understudy Band
The Swinging Rays of Rhythm was the understudy and training ‘farm team’ at Piney Woods School known informally as the ‘Junior Sweethearts of Rhythm.’ When the International Sweethearts broke away The Rays fulfilled their bookings. By mid 1941 the retooled band was generating $3000 per month.
The sixteen- or seventeen-piece Swinging Rays of Rhythm caused quite a stir in Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Kansas, in Oklahoma City and at the Dallas State Fair. The Chicago Defender rated it the sixteenth most popular dance orchestra, the only all-female ensemble in the ranking.
They were soon playing USO-Shows. The Rays traveled to New Orleans for a personal audience with Ella Fitzgerald. In September 1942 they were coached by bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines who also ran his own ‘all-girl’ bands.
There are no surviving recordings, so we can only assume the ensemble was similar to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and probably one of its closest competitors. But they would have lacked the assertive soloists, polish and tight unity that the senior group had gained by years of intensive performing.
After 1953, Myrtle Young, a former member of these and other ensembles, launched and maintained a latter-day Rays of Rhythm in the Pittsburg area. It was one of several all-women combos reemerging in the 1950s staffed by musicians from the wartime orchestras.
Galvanizing, Sweet Georgia Brown, Oh, Lady Be Good, One O’clock Jump out-chorus
Diggin’ Dykes, Tuxedo Junction, Honeysuckle Rose
NPR on “America’s Sweethearts”
Thanks for images and video production to Ian Scott-Parker.