It was the craziest thing. I found them on YouTube. Of all places.
Listening to the Mills Brothers on YouTube that day was for me, truly little blip of joy. The music was delightful, but what I clicked next was really divine.
The Boswell Sisters singing Crazy People. I had never heard of the singers or the song. But I haven’t been the same since that moment. Here they are (left to right) Connie, Vet and Martha, The Boswell Sisters of New Orleans:
That was two and half minutes of sheer joy that was both buoyant and almost symphonic in it’s precision and complexity.
How do you define something extraordinary? Should you even try? When something is right and good and true, the real thing, be it a painting, a novel or the love of your life you just know. You just feel it.
Lover of harmonic singing…or not. Lover of jazz innovation…or not. Lover of musical stylings of the 20s and 30s…or not. There are simply some artists—Judy Garland, Eric Clapton, Django Reinhart, you’ve got your own favorites I’m certain- who demand your attention, whose immense talent and sheer artistry can’t be denied. They just ARE. The Boswell Sisters.
A quick round up: The Boswells were musical innovators, arrangers extraordinaire, and the finest close harmony singers of all time. The three Boswells-Martha, Connie and Vet, created an almost otherworldly sound I’d waited a lifetime to hear. I’d love for you to think I am the only one with such exquisite taste but far from it. The Boswells were the most popular singers in the country and attained worldwide fame for five frenetic years until 1936 when all three sisters married and the group abruptly disbanded. They were feted and beloved by everyone from Prince Albert of England (later George VI who insisted on slipping into every single one of their 1933 performances at London’s famed Palladium) to a young vaudevillian named Bob Hope who said to have intoned, “they were the best act I ever followed”. Ella Fitzgerald said the only singer who ever influenced her was Connie Boswell. The Andrew Sisters, who ascended only after the Boswells stopped performing, began as unabashed Boswell imitators, so much so the Minnesota natives originally sang with a southern drawl, according to Maxene Andrews.
And that was it.
They were there, top act in the country and just as suddenly not. All three sisters married, Martha and Vet immediately retired. Connie went on to a respectable solo career. Save for a single unplanned on stage reunion about 20 years later, they never performed together again. At least in public. There’s a mystery here, of course, a real one worth savoring, but I’ll save that for later.
But for all that, it was an actually a throw away line that knocked me to my knees.
“You know,” my mother said, “I listen to the Boswells and I can just see your grandmother dancing to the radio. “ My lithe and beautiful Little Gram, the dancer in the middle between her different, but equally talented sisters Bess and Rose. My own family’s mercurial and linked threesome.
That was it then.
It was said once of the Boswells “They together clicked like a Geiger counter in a mine.” Such was the power of the unspoken rhythms and pulse of the three sisters. My grandmother and my great aunts didn’t sing but their lives together were complex and woven together as the Boswells.
They all lived all together in one house: my aunts. my great grandmother, and two sons upstairs, My grandmother and grandfather and three children below. My Aunt Bess was a seamstress of such self-taught skill that it was said that she could glimpse the latest styles through shop windows, then return home and recreate each intricate style stitch by stitch. Her marriage to a handsome but itinerate man was somehow broken—he was absent always, it was never spoken of. She remained behind, raising two sons, cooking and cleaning and helping to care for them and for her aged mother. Brilliant and bookish Rose gave up dreams of school and marriage to work in an office to help support them. My tiny and quietly vivacious grandmother married her childhood sweetheart—they had three children. My dashing grandfather dreamed of starting anew and apart, bringing my grandmother and their children everywhere from gritty Pittsburgh to sunny California in attempts at a new beginnings. But try as he might to escape they were always pulled back to the crowded house in Detroit. The sisters needed to be together. The sisters needed to be apart.
In thinking back, I don’t know who was happy and who was not. I don’t know what was fair and what was not. I don’t know, if things had been different, what might have been.
But at the core, my grandmother and my great Aunts were three sisters who cared for each other truly and deeply. They too were a trio.
And so to the mystery. What happened to the Boswells after they all married in a flurry ending effectively bringing to an end the Boswell Sisters in 1936?
Here’s the short answer,
Cynthia C. Lucas, as passionate and knowledgeable about the Boswells and their music as anyone in the world, once, told me to listen to Connie Boswell singing George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me. “ http://youtu.be/9fLuoUBdKnw
And there it was. Connie Boswell, now a soloist, a woman who lived to perform, begins this slow, reflective and almost mournfully lovely rendition by humming the opening bars of “Shout, Sister, Shout” the Boswell theme song for their radio show. The shout in this case is a whisper, but there it was, a message of heartfelt longing to her sisters.
But sometimes the end is the beginning. The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, has anchored her latest album, “IT’S THE GIRLS!” with a spot on cover of the 1931 Boswell hit of the same name A super cool rock guy Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen begins his new book “EMINENT HIPSTERS” with an in depth chapter on one of his earliest musical loves and influences: The Boswell Sisters. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have the world jamming to jazz standards of the 20s and 30s, including the Boswells, through their performances on HBOs Boardwalk Empire and packs ‘em into NYCs Iguana twice weekly. Will Friedwald, one of the most highly regarded and knowledgeable Jazz writers in the country writes in The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 2014) of the Boswells: “They did for group harmony what Bing Crosby did for popular singing and Louis Armstrong did for Jazz improvisation.” Dan Garrison of Joshua Tree Productions, and one of the finest writer/historians around, readies a PBS documentary on the Boswells, CLOSE HARMONY.
And last by no means least, Vet’s own granddaughter the amazing Kyla Titus, pens the just published THE BOSWELL LEGACY the definitive biography of the sisters revealing the roots of early jazz lore while exploring hidden history of her illustrious family. The true exploration of the mystery is here. A compelling, tour de force, the book swirls the reader into the inner world of the sisters and resonates. The book simply rocks. And rolls. And we all know what it means when finally; at last, bow ties are cool.
All this and long overdue applause to the chorus who’ve been studying and championing the Boswells for eons: James Von Schilling, professor and author of an early essay on the Boswells Hearing the Boswell Sisters (Popular Music and Society), the lovely and talented Jan Shapiro, chair of the voice department at Berklee College of Music, early champion of the Boswell sound revival, the brilliant Cynthia C. Lucas, the brains and heart behind http://www.Bozzies.com a immense source of information on the Sisters, Jazz historian and researcher David McCain, close friend of Vet Boswell’s and one of the sweetest men on the planet.
We can’t relive the lives of the Boswells nor can we relive the lives of my grandmother and great aunts. But we can look back lovingly, with a bit of an ache, and try to understand. And always, to listen.
This is dedicated with love then, to Martha, Connie and Vet, To Bess, Ann and Rose. With a hug of course, to my own two sisters, my own trio, Lisa and Shari.
For more information on the Boswells, or to purchase copies of Kyla Titus’ excellent THE BOSWELL LEGACY, please go to www.theboswellsisters.com
Check for further information at www.bozzies.com