The Boswell Sisters

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The Boswell Sisters
Boswell Sisters 1931.jpg
From left: "Vet", Connie and Martha in 1931
Background information
Born Martha: (1905-06-09)June 9, 1905
Connee: (1907-12-03)December 3, 1907
Helvetia: (1911-05-20)May 20, 1911
Origin New Orleans, United States
Died Martha: July 2, 1958(1958-07-02) (aged 53)
Connee: October 11, 1976(1976-10-11) (aged 68)
Helvetia: November 12, 1988(1988-11-12) (aged 77)
Genres Vocal jazz
Years active 1925–1936
Labels Victor Records, Okeh, Brunswick, Decca
Past members Martha Boswell
Connee Boswell
Helvetia Boswell

The Boswell Sisters were a close harmony singing group, consisting of sisters Martha Boswell (June 9, 1905 – July 2, 1958), Connee Boswell (original name Connie, December 3, 1907 – October 11, 1976), and Helvetia "Vet" Boswell (May 20, 1911 – November 12, 1988), noted for intricate harmonies and rhythmic experimentation. They attained national prominence in the USA in the 1930s.

Early Life and Education[edit]

The sisters were raised by a middle-class family at 3937 Camp Street in uptown New Orleans, Louisiana. Martha and Connie were born in Kansas City, Missouri. Helvetia was born in Birmingham, Alabama. (Connee's name was originally spelled Connie until she changed it in the 1940s.) Born to a former vaudevillian, Clyde “A. C.” Boswell, and his music-loving wife, Meldania, the sisters—along with 14-year-old older brother Clyde Jr. ("Clydie")—landed in New Orleans as children, in 1914. Martha, Connie, and Vet studied classical piano, cello, and violin, respectively, under the tutelage of Tulane professor Otto Finck.[1] They performed their classical repertoire in local recitals, often as a trio, but the city’s jazz scene swiftly won them over, personally and professionally. “We studied classical music . . . and were being prepared for the stage and a concert tour throughout the United States, but the saxophone got us,” Martha said, in a 1925 interview with the Shreveport Times.[2]

In addition to providing the young Boswells with formal, classical musical education, Meldania Boswell took her children regularly to see the leading African American performers of the day at the Lyric Theatre. There, young Connie heard Mamie Smith, whose "Crazy Blues" (1920), the first blues record performed by an African American, was a hit. Connie would later imitate Smith's style on the Boswells' first record, "I'm Gonna Cry (Cryin' Blues)," before settling into her own vocal style.[3][4] In interviews, the sisters recalled driving around New Orleans listening for new and interesting sounds, which they often found outside African American churches and barrooms.

As older brother Clydie began breaking away from classical music to study jazz, he introduced his sisters to the new syncopated style, as well as many of the young jazz players in New Orleans. Leon Roppolo (clarinet/guitar), Monk Hazel (drums/cornet), Pinky Vidacovich (clarinet/saxophone), Nappy Lamare (guitar/banjo), Ray Bauduc (tuba/vocals), Dan LeBlanc (tuba), Leon and Louis Prima (trumpet, trumpet/vocals), Wingy Manone (trumpet/vocals), Al Gallodoro (clarinet/saxophone), Chink Martin (bass/tuba/guitar), Santo Pecora (trombone), Raymond Burke (clarinet/saxophone), and Tony Parenti (clarinet/saxophone) were all regular guests to the Boswell home. The sisters were particularly influenced by cornetist Emmett Louis Hardy, another friend of Clydie's, whose well-documented talent and skill helped shape the sisters' knowledge of jazz harmony, syncopation, and improvisation. Hardy and Clydie both died young and unrecorded, Hardy of tuberculosis, at age 22, and Clydie of flu-related complications, at 18.

After becoming interested in jazz, Vet took up the banjo and Connie, saxophone. Martha remained on piano but focused on the rhythms and idioms of ragtime and hot jazz.


They came to be well known in New Orleans while still in their early teens, making appearances in local theaters and on the emerging medium of radio. By the early 1920s the Boswell Sisters were performing regularly at local vaudeville theaters, with an act that combined classical, semiclassical, and jazz styles—though, as their popularity increased, the classics faded into the background. The sisters performed as they would for virtually their entire career: Martha and Connie seated at the piano, with Vet close behind. This arrangement served to disguise Connie's inability to walk, a condition whose source has never been fully confirmed. A childhood bout with polio and a go-cart accident are the two main hypotheses, and Connie backed up both of them in various media sources. One theory holds that Meldania crafted the go-cart accident story in order to spare her daughter the stigma attached to the disease.[5]

In 1925 they made their first record for the Victor Records. After going on tour with a vaudeville company, through Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, the sisters landed in Los Angeles in 1929. They appeared on radio programs and recorded music to be dubbed into films. However, the Boswell Sisters did not attain national attention until they moved to New York City in 1930 and started making national radio broadcasts. The trio had a program on CBS from 1931 to 1933.[6]

After a few recordings for OKeh Records, recorded in Los Angeles in 1930, they made numerous recordings for Brunswick Records from 1931-1935. These Brunswick records are widely regarded as milestone recordings of vocal jazz. Connee's reworkings of the melodies and rhythms of popular songs, together with Glenn Miller's arrangements, and New York jazz musicians (including The Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Fulton McGrath, Joe Venuti, Arthur Schutt, Eddie Lang, Joe Tarto, Manny Klein, Dick McDonough, and Carl Kress), made these recordings unlike any others. Melodies were rearranged and slowed down, major keys were changed to minor keys (sometimes in mid-song), and unexpected rhythmic changes were par for the course. They were among the very few performers who were allowed to make changes to current popular tunes; during this era music publishers and record companies pressured performers not to alter current popular song arrangements. Connee also recorded a series of more conventional solo records for Brunswick during the same period.

The Boswell Sisters appeared in films during this time. They sang their 1934 song "Rock and Roll" in the film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, bringing with them an early use of the phrase "rock 'n' roll," referring in the song to "the rolling rocking rhythm of the sea". They sang the lively "Shout, Sister, Shout" (1931), written by Clarence Williams, in the 1932 film The Big Broadcast, which also featured Bing Crosby and Cab Calloway. (The song was also featured in the show Boardwalk Empire, S5:E5.) The song, one of the sisters' signature tunes, was described in a 2011 issue of music magazine Mojo as "by no means as archaic as its age".[7]

The Boswell Sisters chalked up 20 hits during the 1930s, including the number-one record "The Object of My Affection" (1935). (Of special note is their involvement in a handful of 12" medley/concert recordings made by Red Nichols, Victor Young and Don Redman, as well as their 1934 recording of Darktown Strutters' Ball which was only issued in Australia.) They also completed two successful tours of Europe, appeared on the inaugural television broadcast of CBS, and performed on Hello, Europe, the first internationally broadcast radio program.

The Boswell Sisters were some of radio's earliest stars, making them one of the first hit acts of the mass-entertainment age. They were featured in fan magazines, and their likenesses were used in advertisements for beauty and household products.[8] During the early 1930s the Boswell Sisters, Three X Sisters, and Pickens Sisters were the talk of early radio female harmonizing. The Andrews Sisters started out as Boswell Sisters imitators. Young Ella Fitzgerald loved the Boswell Sisters and in particular idolized Connee, after whose singing style she patterned her own.[9]

In 1936, the group signed to Decca, but after just three records they broke up. The last recording was February 12, 1936. Connie Boswell continued to have a successful solo career as a singer for Decca. She later changed the spelling of her name from Connie to Connee in the 1940s, reputedly because it made it easier to sign autographs. When she tried to get involved with the overseas USO tours during World War II, she was not given permission to travel overseas due to her disability.

Later groups the Pfister Sisters, the Stolen Sweets, Boswellmania, the Puppini Sisters, YazooZazz, the Spanish group O Sister!, the Italian trio Sorelle Marinetti, and the Israeli band the Hazelnuts imitated the sisters' recordings. Canada's Company B Jazz Band has many Boswell Sisters arrangements in their repertoire, and even created a set saluting the Boswells' appearance in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round for the cover of their second album, Rock & Roll. The Ditty Bops have covered Boswell Sisters songs in concert. Caffeine Trio from Brazil, also claims to have been influenced by them. There is also an Australian group called "The Boswell Project" based in Adelaide, South Australia.

In 2001, The Boswell Sisters, a major musical based on their lives, was produced at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California. The play starred Michelle Duffy, Elizabeth Ward Land, and Amy Pietz and was produced by the same team that produced Forever Plaid. The show was a hit with audiences and a critical success, but failed to be picked up for a much hoped-for Broadway run.

The Boswell Sisters were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998. At a ceremony covered by the Pfister Sisters, the Boswells were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

In 2014, Vet's daughter and granddaughter published "The Boswell Legacy", the first comprehensive book on the life and times of this influential group.

Hit singles[edit]

Year Single Chart positions
US[10][nb 1]
1931 "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" 6
"Roll On, Mississippi, Roll On" 7
"I Found a Million Dollar Baby" 3
"It's the Girl" 9
"(With You On My Mind I Find) I Can't Write the Words" 20
"Gems from George White's Scandals" 3
"An Evening in Caroline" 12
1932 "Was That the Human Thing to Do?" 7
"Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon (My Man's Gone)" 14
"Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" 13
1934 "Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)" 13
"You Oughta Be in Pictures (My Star of Stars)" 17
"Rock and Roll" 7
1935 "The Object of My Affection" 1
"Dinah" 3
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" 9
"St. Louis Blues" 15
"Cheek to Cheek" 10
1936 "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" 3
1938 "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (re-issue) 4


  1. ^ Joel Whitburn's methodology for creating pre-1940s chart placings has been criticised,[11] and they should not be taken as definitive.


  1. ^ Tulane University Register 19, no. 13 (1918): 178.
  2. ^ “‘Saxophones Got Us,’ Three Boswells Declare, Reason for Surrendering to Jazz,” The Shreveport Times, December 12, 1925, accessed January 8, 2014, Boz Biz,
  3. ^ Ben Manilla, “Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market,” All Things Considered, November 11, 2006.
  4. ^ Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows, (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980), 1431.
  5. ^ Cort Vitty, “The Personal Storm of Connee Boswell,” Radio Recall, February 2012.
  6. ^ Dunning, John. (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. P. 110.
  7. ^ Ches Ko of Auckland, New Zealand, quoted in Mojo, November 2011. Williams recorded the song himself in 1931.
  8. ^ Cave, Mark. Text panel for the 2014 exhibition "Shout, Sister, Shout! The Boswell Sisters of New Orleans," The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans.
  9. ^ Stuart Nicholson, Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz (New York: C. Scribner's Sons: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994), 10–12
  10. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Pop Memories: 1890-1954. Record Research. 
  11. ^ "Joel Whitburn criticism: chart fabrication, misrepresentation of sources, cherry picking". Songbook. Retrieved 15 July 2015. 

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