Annette Hanshaw (Manhattan, October 18, 1901 – Manhattan, March 13, 1985) was born Catherine Annette Hanshaw. A number of her family members were in vaudeville and she was brought up to love the entertainment business although she studied art and design and wanted to be an artist and portrait painter. She was an exceptionally beautiful girl and had a lovely singing voice that came across wonderfully clearly over the radio and on records at the local stations she would sing for. A demo record she made was heard by Pathe Records executive Herman “Wally” Rose and after taking one look at her with her fantastic dimpled cheeks and stunning figure he was smitten, realizing that he had a nationally marketable potential superstar. Quickly, she began a recording career and radio performances and touring shows that brought her almost overnight to the top of her profession. At one point she was more popular than other better known singers of the mid 1920s including Ruth Etting.
It was widely believed that she was only 16 years old when she began her recording and radio programs and she tried consciously to limit her personal appearances in vaudeville and shows because of her tremendous stage fright. She lived in constant fear that her voice would give out or she would sing a bad note and disgrace herself but she was earning so much money she couldn’t afford to stop doing it. She was urged to sing in different voices and under at least fifteen different names depending on the kind of song she was singing or the record label she was singing for. She had huge numbers of singing aliases therefore and had hit songs under a wide variety of names on many different labels. Sometimes she imitated Helen Kane (inspiration for the Betty Boop cartoon character) and sang in a baby voice. Sometimes she sang sentimental ballads. Often she became known for jazz age up-tempo tunes which she sang with a calm voice, occasional jazzy interpolations and a good sense of how to fit in well with a complex orchestral arrangement.
In addition, Annette’s performances were enhanced by her great beauty which was used to sell sheet music by putting her face and form fully on the cover. Pictures of her graced sheet music shops like the one owned by her aunt and uncle and sold her records — it is said that within five years of her coming on the scene with her first recordings for Pathe, she had sold 30 million records and started appearing regularly as a guest on radio programs from 1929. She also starred on a radio show which featured Annette Hanshaw: The Personality Girl on the Maxwell House Show Boat from 1932 to 1934.
Her first released recordings in 1926 were hits and included a really swinging version of a Buddy De Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson dance classic called the Black Bottom. Backed with a red-hot combo of now legendary musicians, she got to work with Red Nichols on the cornet, Miff Mole on the trombone, Jimmy Lytell on the clarinet and Irving Brodsky on the piano, plus other studio musicians and the result is a number that is still wondrous today. The flip side Six Feet of Papa, with the same jazz ensemble, was yet another classic much admired today.
There followed a slew of popular recordings, often under alternate names and featuring great jazz personnel. A switch to Columbia Records in 1929 produced better quality recordings wherein one could hear the fantastic combination of elaborate arrangements and orchestra jamming. You Wouldn’t Fool Me Would You? followed in 1929 and featured Tommy Dorsey on trumpet, Ben Selvin on violin and Rube Bloom on piano. Over the next few years she would work with the most famous musicians of her time including the young Benny Goodman on clarinet. Manny Klein on trombone, Joe Venuti on violin, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet, Perry Botkin on guitar, Eddie Lang on guitar and Jack Teagarden on trombone. She even worked in a Hawaiian style with Hawaiian guitarist Frank Ferrera. Often at the end of a song or a radio program she would announce in her trademarked style “that’s all!”.
Without really realizing it, Annette had become one of America’s first recording teen idols even though she wasn’t really a teenager and had simply been marketed as one. To adolescent boys who bought her sheet music just to get her image in color she was the girl next door. Her songs featured her singing the melody calmly without a lot of scat singing or interpolation and then the incredible backing musicians would cut loose whenever possible and jazz up the record. She was a quick study and learned to keep to the melody or bend it a little to fit the complex orchestrations but she never considered her work to be of the significant merit of a real musician such as Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters, a prominent contemporary of Annette.
By sticking as much as possible to recording and minimizing her personal appearances and not appearing on Broadway or in the movies, Annette developed an aura of mystery about herself. In her recordings one can hear that she is being urged to put more emotion into her vocals but they come across as laid-back, as if the music swirling around her in all directions doesn’t concern her at all. The laid-back sound was hot in the later twenties and early thirties and it is no accident that the number one male recording star was seemingly easy-going Bing Crosby and the number one female recording star for a time was Annette.
Working against her success was the fact that she was an introvert by nature, and had no real interest, apart from the money, in being considered a national treasure. She reportedly enjoyed the company of people in the business and respected the outstanding musicians she loved to work with but she was never egotistic and thought that all of her records were terrible and that she would be found out as someone with no real musical talent. She avoided listening to her recordings, now considered great classics of twenties pop and early jazz, calling them “dreadful and corny.” Nonetheless she married the man who had discovered her for Pathe and quickly retired from the business to raise a family. Her husband died in 1954 and she eventually remarried. She died in New York of natural causes at the age of 85 in Manhattan.
Today Annette Hanshaw has a bit of a cult following in England but is unremembered in her native America. Her recordings however repay a visit as they reveal the swinging syncopations of the jazz age performed by some of the greatest musicians and jammers who ever lived. They also provide the roots of the big band sound which will be developed by the musicians on these recordings. And providing the anchor on these songs for all this raging musical talent is the sweet voice of Annette Hanshaw.
For an ultra-rare look at Annette Hanshaw singing, have a look at We Just Couldn’t Say Good-Bye. In this clip her signature exit line “That’s All” is heard and one can see her famous beauty and the dimples, plus the slightly jazz inflected reading she gives to this great old tune. She was seldom seen on film and here appears ill at ease, although the flashes of smile and girl next door qualities are evident. A wonderful rare clip!!:
The School of Anthropology of the University of Arizona holds the following Annette Hanshaw sheet musics:
AIN’T SHE SWEET 1927 – by Jack Yellen, Milton Ager. Cover photo ANNETTE HANSHAW, EXCLUSIVE PERFECT RECORD ARTIST
I’M SURE OF EVERYTHING BUT YOU 1932 – by Charles O’Flynn, George Meyer, Pete Wendling. Cover ANNETTE HANSHAW.
JUST ONCE TOO OFTEN 1934 – by Joe Young, Charlie Tobias, Sam H. Stept. Featured by ANNETTE HANSHAW.
I’VE GOT AN INVITATION TO A DANCE 1934 – Marty Symes, Al J. Neiburg, Jerry Levinson. Featured by ANNETTE HANSHAW.
WHAT ABOUT ME? 1934 – Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz. Featured by ANNETTE HANSHAW
WILD HONEY 1934 – George Hamilton, Harry Tobias, Neil Moret. Featured by ANNETTE HANSHAW
WINTER WONDERLAND 1934 – Dick Smith, Felix Bernard. As featured in BILLIE BURKE’S ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Successfully featured by ANNETTE HANSHAW.
YOU FIT INTO THE PICTURE, YOU BELONG-BELONG-BELONG 1935 – Bud Green, Jesse Greer. Cover is a portrait with ANNETTE HANSHAW, next to Whistler’s Mother, the Mona Lisa and other paintings.