The identity of a woman is a constantly changing dynamic. In history, women were classified as second class and unequal to their male counterparts. Most of their jobs were traditionally limited to the kitchen and having children; they could not vote, get equal pay, or even own land of their own. In the beginning of the 20th century and particularly the Roaring Twenties, however, things began to change. More Americans lived in cities and the average wealth doubled. Women had more freedom than previous generations as they now had the right to work and had higher paying jobs. A trigger that led to the independence of women was universal suffrage. While some states did allow women to vote, it became federal law with the 19th amendment. They wanted to be seen as individuals and with this freedom came a new form of music. Popular music of this time was a propelling force in the Women’s Liberation Movement and orchestras composed of all women were formed. In the 1920s all girl orchestras were formed and the identity of women has never been the same since.
But before that, at the beginning of the 20th century and even before Helen May Butler (1867-1957) billed herself as the "Directress of Helen May Butler's Ladies' Military Band and dressed in full regalia in her role. In 1904 her own composition Cosmopolitan America became the "Official Campaign March of the National Republican Party" and was published in several editions by the Tolbert R. Ingram music company in Denver, Colorado. More than 17000 copies of the work were printed. The song was also featured at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. While this group was a marching band and not a popular or jazz orchestra, it was a pioneering move by this female Sousa who was a favorite of President Theodore Roosevelt. The University of Arizona School of Anthropology is proud to have the original sheet music for her composition. She studied violin with the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster Bernard Listerman and learned to play the cornet. In 1898 she formed the U.S. Talma Ladies' Military Band in order to play in public venues but at this time there were no such female concert bands. They performed from coast to coast, achieved a high degree of musical discipline and excellence and rivaled or bettered the best such bands of their time. She became known as the "Female Sousa" and married the band's entrepreneurial business manager but divorced after just a few years. After her second marriage, with life on the road and running a unique unit growing tiresome, she retired in 1912 to raise her family and put down roots in Cincinnati where she conducted a successful hotel business for many years, later moving to Covington, Kentucky to run a boarding house. Helen May Butler remains a unique, pioneering female musical artist who had no parallel in her era. She dedicated her famous march to her father, himself a highly creative railroad engineer who had designed some of the first Pullman cars! The Arizona sheet music shows her in full band regalia, with an additional cape draped around her.
One of the first all girl orchestras formed was the Parisian Redheads or Red Heads. The impressarios behind them were actually two men: Charles Green and Harry Z. Freeman. In 1926, they were both working for a program that brought entertainment, the Central Community Chautauqua System, booking musicians for shows when they decided to create an orchestra themselves (Price).
While this was not a completely new idea, the Paramount Parisians, as they were originally called, were a local sensation (Price). One night, in 1926, they played under the name Parisian Redheads and the name stuck (Finch). Ironically, only one of the original members had natural red hair so all of the other members had to either dye their hair or wear a wig. In 1927, they expanded to a thirteen piece orchestra and attained national success. They were always pleasing the crowd because they had such a wide range of music ranging from show tunes to operettas.They became one of the nation’s most famous all girl bands until Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads threatened to sue for copying their name so they then changed their name to The Bricktops (Price).
Another bandleader always looking for a gimmick was eccentric Phil Spitalny, born November 7th, 1890 in Tetiev, Ukraine. Coming from a musical family, he began playing when he was only nine with the clarinet and played nightly just to earn a little money (Popa). After moving to the United States when he was about 25, he got into music professionally. He and his brother were members of a band that performed in a hotel. Spitalny had studied at the Conservatory of Music in Odessa but broke through into the American entertainment industry through the Hour of Charm radio. There he created Phil Spitalny and His All Girl Orchestra which became a huge success (Eder). While he had had regular orchestras before this, the all girl orchestra was what made him most well known. He eventually became a well known musician, music critic, composer, and bandleader (Eder). He appeared in ten musical shorts and two features but was not given a star on the Hollywood walk of fame until after his death in 1970. The ever-hustling Spitalny was also a notorious liar and braggart. He told people that he interviewed thousands of women for his orchestra when in all reality it was untrue. He claimed he spent over 20,000 dollars scouring the country looking for just the right girls to be in his orchestra (Popa). What is true, however, is Phil Spitalny and his all girl orchestra with his wife, Evelyn Silverstone, the lead violinist in this orchestra, revolutionized the music industry.
Phil Spitalny and his all girl orchestra was created in 1935 as a network program known as the Hour of Charm. They played jazz classics and light classical music. By choosing all women, Spitalny claimed that their sound would be more soothing and charming just as was the music material that they played (Hoff). All the women embodied particular characteristics. Requirements to get into the orchestra were as much about outer appearance as actual talent. Some qualifications were, but not limited to, the fact that you had to be in your twenties, have long flowing hair, and weigh less than 120 pounds (Hoff). You were not allowed to marry and needed permission to date. If a member wanted to go on a date, for example, she would be bombarded with questions about the man. What was his profession? What was his education level? Did he have a respectable family background? Was he suitable? The list went on and on. If the committee did not agree on the prospect, permission to date was not granted. To keep the weight down for the qualifications, the singers played tennis, badminton, swam, played basketball, and danced in their spare time. The most common rule broken, however, was age (Cort). Many women in the orchestra were in their thirties and a few were even older. Because there was only one other major all women orchestra at this time, they became very popular and had to expand their membership in 1940. After initially being 22, they expanded to 34 members. And the leading member, Evelyn Silverstone, helped Spitalny find these new members. She played a key role in the development of this orchestra.
Evelyn Silverstone was born Evelyn Kaye Klein in 1917. The date of her birth has been talked about for years as some people claim that she was born as far back as 1911. She was extremely musically talented as a child and won a fellowship to attend the Julliard School of Music. From there, she appeared on the radio in the 1920s. Once Spitalny heard about this talented musician, he wanted to hire her. Evelyn’s mom did not think that he had good intentions, so Spitalny revealed his plans about his all girl orchestra and they agreed to let Evelyn be the first member of the ensemble (Cort). Spitalny then hired her as both a musician and an office worker. She participated in interviews for the other positions and practiced with Spitalny from early in the morning to late every night. Once the all girl orchestra was formed, Evelyn led them to fame. She wore a white gown while performing and the singers wore mostly pastel colors.
Phil and Evelyn eventually got married outside Atlantic City on June 11, 1946 despite the orchestra's dating restrictions. This was while the orchestra was still performing, and the group later was taken off the air in 1948. Evelyn continued to work in the music industry after the orchestra and later died of heart failure in 1990.
With the arrival of World War 2, all girl orchestras boomed as male bands struggled because male musicians and leaders were being drafted or enlisted into the armed forces. Big bands became increasingly popular in the war era. The Hour of Charm orchestra played for United States Army servicemen on bases all around the world. Soldiers found this music especially soothing because it was played by charming women and the tone of the music allegedly calmed them down while the soldiers were ever eager to see beautiful young women, whether they were musicians or not. Even after the men returned from war, all girl orchestras continued to be very popular for a few years.
Odessa Cowan, or as she was more famously known, Ina Ray Hutton, was born March 13th, 1916 in Chicago, Illinoisv(Fletcher). She was considered a Negro in census records, but during her career she successfully passed for a white female. She grew up in a dancing household as her mother played piano and she had a prominent African American dance teacher and choreographer, Hazel Thompson Davis (Fletcher). When she was seven, she was written up in the local newspaper for her talent but her black origins were suppressed once she was ‘discovered’ by a white producer. After this, she made her Broadway debut with Gus Edwards at the Palace Theater in New York at age 14 and later became a featured singer for George White, famed producer of the Scandals, at age 16. Once going into show business, she changed her name to Ina Ray Hutton and became the lead singer of an all female group when she turned 18 (Fletcher). She then led Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears for five years as one of the first all female swing bands and even made five studio recordings (Yanow). Hutton was known as the “Blonde Bombshell of Rhythm” because she conducted with her whole body. In 1951 she led the Ina Ray Hutton Show on television for five years, won five Emmys, and continued as a singer in the 1960s. She died of complications from diabetes on February 19, 1984.
Another successful vocalist of both the 1930s and 1940s was born on February 3rd, 1916 in Newark, New Jersey. She was born Theresa Anna Maria Stabile (Harris). and was a daughter of Italian immigrants. She began performing on a local weekend radio show when she was only a teenager. Her alias at this time was Billie Starr but a writer on The New York Journal-American, a Mr. Hall, came up with the name of Dolly Dawn. Her relationship with this man was so strong that Mr. Hall and his wife adopted her at age 19 and she became a member of George Hall’s Hotel Taft Orchestra as a trumpet player (Martin). Known as the “Champagne of Big-band Singers”, Dawn performed at jazz clubs in New York and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, she was most famous for Dolly Dawn and her Dawn Patrol (Martin). She died of kidney failure on December 11, 2002.
This summation of these successful artists and bands is only the tip of the iceberg of remarkable women in show business who had created, fronted, or participated in all girl orchestras. There were many other pioneering women who created theatre groups but I have concluded with these major artists as the more prominent ones of their time and those with the greatest impact on popular music. Their images appear on sheet music and are housed in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology collections. This is an area that begs for more research and a greater appreciation of women who have paved the way for other women in show business.
Cort, Vitty. "The Hour of Charm." Radio Recall - MWOTRC. Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, Feb. 2008. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Eder, Bruce. "Phil Spitalny." AllMusic. RhythmOne Group, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Finch, Evan. ""America's Greatest Girl Band": The Parisian Redheads and the Fourteen Bricktops." Galegroup. Indiana Historical Society Press, 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.
Fletcher, Phyllis. "Hutton, Ina Ray, Née Odessa Cowan (1916–1984)." BlackPast.org.N.p., 2007. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.
Harris, Craig. "Dolly Dawn." AllMusic. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Hoff, Chris, and Sam Harnett. "The World of Sound: The Hour of Charm Orchestra." The California Report. KQED News, 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.
Martin, Douglas. "Dolly Dawn, 86, Who Sang Center Stage in the Big Band Era." The New York Times. N.p., 18 Dec. 2002. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Popa, Christopher. "Phil Spitalny." BigBandLibrary.com. N.p., June 2009. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Price, Nelson. "The Redheads and All-girl Bands of 1920s, '30s." Hoosier History Live. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Yanow, Scott. "Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears." AllMusic. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology contains the following music regarding all-girl orchestras, as they were known:
COSMOPOLITAN AMERICA 1904 - by Helen May Butler. Cover art of males from all walks of life. Inset photo of HELEN MAY BUTLER, DIRECTRESS, HELEN MAY BUTLER'S LADIES' MILITARY BAND. "Dedicated to my father L. M. Butler". "Official Campaign March of Nation Republican Party for 1904". Published by The Tolbert R. Ingram Music Co. of Denver Colorado. Available for orchestra, military band, mandolins and guitars. 2nd edition. Over 17000 sold. For image, see above in article.
DON'T WAKE ME UP (LET ME DREAM) 1925 - Lyric by L. Wolfe Gilbert, Music by Mabel Wayne and Abel Baer. Cover art of man kissing woman in the stars within a moon is by JVR. "Featured by MISS MOLLIE KLINGER of JERRY AND HER BABY GRANDS." The remarkable Geraldine Valliere (1896-1986) came out of Duluth, Minnesota and featured an act with four baby grand pianos that caught on and let to American and European and world tours and a stint at the Palace Theater in New York City, reaching their peak in the later 1920s. The women all dressed in white and the pianos were normally also the same color. Sometimes they dressed in 18th century costume. From 1936 to 1938 at the death of vaudeville she became the pianist for Major Bowe's famous Amateur Hour on the radio and then returned to her home to perform a little and become a piano teacher. The famous cabaret singer and pianist "The Incomparable Hildegarde" (1906-2005), a huge star of the thirties and war years, got her start with Jerry's group.
GIRL OF MY DREAMS 1927 - Lyric and Melody by Sunny Clapp. Ukulele arrangement by M. Kalua. Inset photo of PARISIAN RED HEADS, AMERICA'S GREATEST GIRL BAND" (14 piece band, all female). Cover art by PERRET.
DREAM KISSES 1927 - Words by Jack Yellen. Music by M. K. Jerome. Woman dreams of kissing man on cover in art by AL BARBELLE. Inset photo "Featured by MARTHA TRIPPEER with PARISIAN RED HEADS. For image, see above in article.
DOWN THE LANE WITH YOU AGAIN 1927 - Lyric by Raymond Klages. Melody by Larry Spier. "Featured by HELEN LEWIS AND HER MELODY WEAVERS" (8 piece group). Another popular and rival group to the Parisian Red Heads.
GIVE YOURSELF A PAT ON THE BACK 1929 - Ralph Butler, Raymond Wallace. Cover FLORENCE RICHARDSON (violinist) AND HER NATIONAL BROADCASTING ORCHESTRA, "now playing at the Hollywood Gardens on the Pelham Parkway, New York". Cover art by LEFF. Forgotten today, Florence was a major bandleader of the 1920s and 1930s whose orchestra and bands frequently were heard on major radio stations such as WMCA in New York City.
TRULY I LOVE YOU 1930 - Words by Walter Hirsch. Music by Frank Magine. "Introduced and Featured by PHIL SPITALNY AND HIS ORCHESTRA. Cover art by LEFF. Published by Irving Berlin.
TORMENTED 1936 - by Will Hudson. "Featured by INA RAY HUTTON AND HER MELODEARS". Cover shows drawing of beautiful women playing trumpet, saxophone and banjo while another leads them. Cover art by LEFF. Watch Ina Ray get down and boogie as her orchestra "conducting" was a perpetual motion machine:
YOURS 1937 - English lyric by Jack Sherr. Music by Gonzalo Roig. "Featured by DOLLY DAWN AND HER DAWN PATROL BOYS"
MADELAINE 1941 - Music by Phil Spitalny. Lyric by Joe Capwell. "Introduced and Featured by PHIL SPITALNY AND HIS HOUR OF CHARM ORCHESTRA" (24 piece all female orchestra). Don't miss this essential short subject about this unique orchestra:
WE MUST BE VIGILANT 1942 - Words by Edgar Leslie. Music adapted by Joseph A. Burke. Adapted from F. W. Meacham's American Patrol. "Featured by PHIL SPITALNY AND HIS ALL GIRL ORCHESTRA ON THE HOUR OF CHARM". (28 piece all female orchestra).
HOW MANY HEARTS HAVE YOU BROKEN (WITH THOSE GRAT BIG BEAUTIFUL EYES) 1943 - Words by Marty Symes. Music by Al Kaufma. "Featured by The Girl With the Horn BILLY ROGERS AND HER ORCHESTRA". The amazing trumpeter Billie Rogers was really Zelda Louise Smith (1917-2014), who was the very first woman to hold a horn position in a major big band orchestra, being with the great Woody Herman from 1941 to 1943. She was also an outstanding jazz singer and later performed with the Jerry Wald band up to 1945 when she formed a sextet of her own which was all-male! The amazing Billie also played piano excellently, as well as organ, accordion, double bass and soprano sax. In order to survive in an almost entirely male profession, she had to be better than just about every male. She was! It's truly a shame that her artistry has been virtually fogotten today. But you can still hear her sing with Woody Herman's jazzy band:
PUT THAT RING ON MY FINGER 1945 - Sunny Skylar, Randy Ryan. Cover photo DOLLY DAWN
POLONAISE 1948 - Frederic Chopin. Back cover features full page photo of GLORIA PARKER. Glorious Gloria
Parker as she was known was a marimba, organ and glass harp (musical glasses) player who had her own radio show on WABC from 1950 to 1957. She was also called Princess of the Marimba and was the conductor of the 21 piece Swingphony big band, reputed to be the largest ever conducted by a woman and the broadcasts came from Buffalo, New York. She was a composer of many songs, especially for the series of video shorts known as Soundies which were viewed on a special pay jukebox known as a Panorama which offered mini-shows in the days before television and which were available at entertainment venues such as amusement parks all around the country. Although forgotten today, Parker was one of the most important female musicians of the big band era and even well into the 1950s until the advent of rock and roll.
SMOOTH AS SILK 1952 - Milton Kellem. "Recorded by DOLLY DAWN on Jubilee Records"