Over the course of five years during the darkest days of the Great Depression, the Boswell Sisters enlivened the world of popular music with their crazy, but intricately crafted vocal arrangements. They had grown up in New Orleans in the early years of the 20th Century and were steeped in the mélange of blues, classical, and gospel sounds that coursed through the city’s consciousness.
Friends and family remembered them, when they were just girls, breaking into song at the same time in the same key from separate rooms of their Camp Street home. They took instrumental lessons from the unfortunately named Professor Otto Finck who endured their irrepressible pranks only because of their obvious virtuosity. All on their own the three sisters could have formed a uniquely American band of piano, cello, violin, banjo, and saxophone.
But once they began playing and singing “that noise” called “jazz,” they attracted the best young musical talents to what must have been the hottest house parties in Uptown – much to the dismay of their father, and the neighbors.
During their professional debut at the Orpheum Theatre in 1925 the place was packed with their classmates who had been excused from school to cheer them on. Their big break came by accident in the shape of a form letter sent to all the talent at the Orpheum inviting them to a “try-out” in Chicago. But when it was time for the Sisters to audition they were too nervous to play the instrumental piece they had prepared, so they fell back on performing a familiar, “close harmony” vocal, which caused one musically challenged manager to complain, “Don’t you girls do anything but sing?”
But sing they did, and because they came of age during “the Roaring Twenties,” they were able to take full advantage of historic new freedoms for young women who wanted to work and travel and express themselves. So the early years of their career played out like a saga of depression-era America as they struggled through a grueling Vaudeville tour of dust-bowl Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, then joined the Westward exodus of economic refugees as they journeyed cross-country by car to California in an attempt to get so far away from home they wouldn’t be able to return until they succeeded. Sometimes they were poorly paid, so they went hungry, and once they stole food for a birthday dinner. And, if it’s possible, they grew even closer as their harmonies became more extra-ordinary, their performance schedule became more demanding, and certainly because Vet and Martha frequently had to physically carry Connie due to a childhood disability that made it difficult for her to walk.
Finally their persistence and brilliance paid off, in true rags-to-riches fashion, as they progressed from “ghost-singing” for the stars on the early Hollywood talkies, through endless rounds of radio programs and late-night recording sessions, to acclaim in New York City and two triumphal tours of Europe. And during this time their innovative music was being shaped by, as well as influencing, the rise of the recording and radio industries. They perfected the state of the art techniques of “syncopated” and “microphone” singing, and even performed on the first television broadcast.
With the enthusiastic backing of brilliant bands that included the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Joe Venuti, and too many others to mention, they recorded some of the most seriously wild yet precisely charted arrangements of Tin Pan Alley’s sturdiest standards, from Shine On, Harvest Moon toAlexander’s Ragtime Band. But the sheer exuberance and eccentricity of their renditions ultimately put them at odds with record producer, Jack Kapp, who demanded that they “stick to the melody.” His determination to commercialize their act drove him to hire the most conventional arrangers to keep the Sisters from embellishing their tunes. Even though Bing Crosby had taken them under his wing and they were much admired by fellow musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald their career suddenly ended, in classic screwball-comedy fashion, with a series of misunderstandings and multiple marriages.
While their body of work is rich with their characteristic high spirits and great good humor, there is also a touch of poignance in this story of three nearly forgotten, but nonetheless genuine, American geniuses who may have peaked at the wrong time, retired too early, were badly mis-managed, or had such original ideas that they could never be properly packaged for the masses. The Boswell Sisters haven’t yet earned anything near the acclaim that they deserve – but this documentary will create welcome new interest in a trio that has inspired swing, country, pop and rock vocalists from the Andrews Sisters to The Manhattan Transfer, Bette Midler, Wynonna Judd, Diana Krall, Fiona Apple, and the list keeps growing …
And, indeed, their music will enchant anyone who has an ear for “close harmony” sung from the heart.