The Boswell Sisters: Syncopation Harmony Queens by David Soren

Martha Meldania Boswell (1905 – 1958), Constance (Connee) Foore Boswell (1907 – 1976) and Helvetia George Boswell (1911 – 1988) were musicians and music-loving amateurs who performed as a sister act for friends in New Orleans. The family was from Kansas City but moved early on to Louisiana. After winning an amateur contest they were picked up by WSMB radio in New Orleans, then on radio in Los Angeles in 1929 and 1930 and finally with NBC in New York on a program called Pleasure Hour. More radio shows followed culminating in the 1934 Woodbury Hour for Woodbury Soap, starring Bing Crosby.

I between their radio engagements they did big-time vaudeville and even played the Palace in 1931 and 1932 and starred at the London Palladium in 1933. They were not a particularly visual act due to the fact that Connee had suffered from polio and remained crippled. Thus they were particularly suited to radio or, when they performed, they were usually in position when the curtain opened and Connee would be sitting down often high up on a stool fitted out with side wheels so that she could be wheeled into her place and so that the others could have good microphone balance with her. She always wore a long gown so that her audiences would never see her weak legs or think of her as having a disability.
Connee (lower left), Martha and Vet Boswell

The Boswells were noted for a unique singing style which paved the way for the swing music of the Andrews Sisters in the later 1930s and especially the 1940s. Musically trained, they did their own arrangements, usually worked around a simple piano part which could be amplified to include a small orchestra later on. Often the best musicians of the time were pleased to work with them because of their ability to innovate musically. Their arrangements were usually worked up around Martha, the eldest, who played the piano. Connie played the saxophone and cello and Vet could play violin and banjo. They also dabbled with other instruments as well.

Fo a time they were members of the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra but being surrounded by black jazz musicians influenced their musical style and gave it New Orleans soul so that they became admired by black musicians and well as white pop afficianados. Apparently they did not think that they were making music history but were simply enjoying playing with music, arranging complex singing parts, creating stop and go parts to their songs whereby they might go fast, then slow, then fast again. They even experimented with Latin rhythms and laid the groundwork for swing music with syncopated beats. Initially, the public did not know what to do with their new sound and they remained largely unknown throughout most of the 1920s.

Because they sung with a Louisiana accent or drawl and slurred their words, some radio listeners thought that they were black and others were offended by the jumping around of the time signatures of the songs saying that they were destroying conventional popular music. Connee had been the principal musical arranger for the group although each sister participated; she also performed all of the solos. Jack Kapp was the key A and R man for Brunswick Records in New York and he was the one who signed them to a long-term contract produced Connee’s later single efforts. It was he who had the idea to put the Boswells together with prominent Brunswick record session men and their new signees Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. The results on those 1930s Brunswick Record issues are innovative dynamite and the pop music world was never the same again. The Boswells were perfect for radio and recording sessions as they needed little rehearsal time and could keep pace with the very best of studio musicians. Consequently, the interplay of voices and musical instruments, group scatting around the melodies and darting in and out of the tune with the musicians is a hallmark of early popular recorded music. group broke up in 1936 when the youngest Boswell Vet (Helvetia) wanted to stay home with her husband and her new baby. Connee married their manager Harry Leedy in 1935 and had a successful solo career. Despite her handicap, she was able to continue performing, especially on radio and with recordings. She was in demand to guest on radio shows with stars such as Bing Crosby because she was wonderful at quick-learning duet singing parts, often with harmony, something few other pop singers could do. With her classical training Connee could also scat sing and sing around the notes of a song, because she understood the structure of the music she was singing, with the result that her recordings of the works of great American composers such as Irving Berlin have remained classics.

When Connee went solo on Brunswick and later Decca records, her producer was usually Jack Kapp who used to battle with her to stick to the melody of the songs she was singing. Consequently, when Ella Fitzgerald was beginning her career in 1934 at New York’s Apollo Theatre she cited Connee Boswell as her major singing influence.

For those who have never heard them, songs such as It’s The Girl are a terrific introduction featuring scat-singing vocals, syncopated rhythms and the musicianship of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang and Mannie Klein. One of their most famous “stop and go” numbers was Roll On Mississippi Roll On which featured lightning-fast rollicking passages and weird dirge-like interruptions.

In this clip of their song Crazy People (1932) one can see how with just a piano accompaniment from Martha, they build up their three part harmony. Connee solos here and does scat singing. You hear their unique New Orleans sound, and you learn what a “stop and go” song is with its sharply distinct syncopated rhythms:

The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has the following sheet music from The Boswell Sisters:

ROLL ON , MISSISSIPPI, ROLL ON 1931 – Eugene West, James McCaffrey, Dave Ringle. Cover BOSWELL SISTERS (MARTHA, CONNIE, VET)

I DON’T KNOW WHY (I JUST DO) 1931 – Roy Turk, Fred E. Ahlert. Featured by THE BOSWELL SISTERS.

IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL (AND YOU WERE MINE) 1932 – Arthur Freed, Harry Barris. “Successfully featured by CONNIE BOSWELL”.

THERE’S A CABIN IN THE PINES 1933 – by Billy Hill aka George Brown. Cover BOSWELL SISTERS (MARTHA, CONNIE, VET).

BLACK EYED SUSAN BROWN 1933 – Herb Magidson, Al Hoffman, Al Goodhart. “Successfully introduced by THE BOSWELL SISTERS”


IF I HAD RHYTHM IN NURSERY RHYMES 1935 – Jimmie Lunceford, Saul I. Chaplin, Sammy Cahn, Don Raye. “Successfully introduced by CONNIE BOSWELL”.

Name: Boswell