I’ve been thinking about Connie (or Connee) Boswell for the last few days. This was one wonderful provocation, found on eBay.
I wasn’t around in the era when a pretty girl would come up to my / our table in a night club, take a flash picture of us, and return with copies — a great momento of an evening out. But here’s a piece of paper that evokes that experience:
Yes, Connie Bowell in 1942. It would be impossible to look anything but pleasant if she were on the scene.
But my thoughts wandered to the larger question. The Boswell Sisters were the most hip singing group on the planet — with deference to the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, the Andrews Sisters, and a long line of male and female singers, as inventive as they are. But they aren’t as well-known as they should be. In their time, they were admired and respected by the most innovative musicians in the business, including Bing Crosby and the Dorsey Brothers. But the Sisters didn’t stay in the limelight for decades (they would have been astonishing on television every Sunday night). Musically, they also present a paradox. The casual listener, only mildly attentive, can say, “Oh, that’s another vocal group with a nice beat.” But I think that the recordings and performances the Sisters left for us are so rich with information, with textures, that listeners find themselves overwhelmed: the music is too dense to be properly ingested as a pleasant background.
That performance swings as hard as anything recorded up to 1932: I would put it head-to-head with the Bennie Moten band or anything else you’d like to name. Of course, the Sisters had several other things that made them less well-regarded than they might be. They weren’t tragic; they were Caucasian; they were popular; they were women.
Connie Boswell went on to great success in the decades after the Sisters (Helvetia, “Vet,” and Martha) decided to retire from performing in 1936. But she, too, suffered from the curse of being apparently stable and popular. There was a more famous singer — her name was Ella Fitzgerald — who said she owed everything to Connee. And Ella said it over and over to anyone who would listen.
Connie was one of the most soulful singers ever. Her opening choruses are masterpieces of deep feeling and respect for the memory; her voice a thrill. Her second choruses show what a superb improviser she was . . . straight from New Orleans but with her own deep swinging identity.
I don’t want to suggest that Connie, Vet, and Martha “suffered” — but I think in a society that didn’t insist its women singers be beddable, a world that didn’t see race or gender but just heard the music, they would be heroic figures today. They had SOUL.
May your happiness increase.