Ella Fitzgerald made no secret of her admiration for the Boswell Sisters, and for Connee Boswell in particular. “When I was a girl,” said Ella, “I listened to records by all the singers, white and black, and I know that Connee Boswell was doing things that no one else was doing at the time. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just check the recordings and hear for yourself.”
Cornelia Foore Boswell was born 107 years ago today. She and her sisters Martha and Helvetia (Vet) were raised on Camp Street in New Orleans, which the family moved to from Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. They performed as a trio at Crescent City theaters and on radio in the early Twenties, and made their recording debut in 1925. Connie’s favorites included the blues singers Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith.
Gunther Schuller devotes a footnote to Connee in his sweeping historical survey, The Swing Era, and says that Connee was a “pioneer among white singers in using jazz inflection and phrasing, a horn-like approach to singing, a rhythmically spontaneous off-the-beat syncopated swinging style, and even what we might call a black-influenced jazz diction.”
When I was in New Orleans in May, I was delighted to happen upon an exhibit devoted to the Boswell Sisters at the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street. The exhibit closed in October, but there’s a slide show and memorabilia galore on their website. Click here to access the collection.
As the HNOC exhibit catalogue admits in its opening paragraph, New Orleans “had all but forgotten the Boswell Sisters,” notwithstanding the international fame they enjoyed through the mid-Thirties. In 1936, all three sisters married and Martha and Vet abruptly retired from their music careers, but Connee, who sang from a wheelchair throughout her career due most likely to an early childhood bout with polio, carried on until her death in 1976.
Here’s the trailer for a new documentary that Connie’s Wikipedia entry says is scheduled to air on some PBS stations this month. (I couldn’t find a hint of it, but if you do, let us know.)