What do Norma Deloris Egstrom, Frances Rose Shore, Eleanora Fagan Gough, and Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff have in common? You’d probably have an easier time guessing if I gave you their stage names: Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, Billie Holiday, and Doris Day. By now you’ve figured out that they were all famous singers (and in at least one case, a movie star) but what you might not know is that early in their careers they were all songbirds – girl singers in swing bands.
I guess you could consider this a sort of companion piece to my earlier effort, The Crooner Conundrum, which covered male singers of the same era, but in this case there isn’t much of a puzzle attached. Not only were these ladies talented songbirds, but they were much appreciated in their heyday and fondly remembered now, although not many fans realized the struggles many of them had to overcome.
Any swing band worth its salt had singers, both male and female, although sometimes a band member performed double duty as the male singer. However, the girls had no such fall-back. They had to be talented singers and possess the ability to live out of a suitcase — while at the same time looking decorative, because that was expected too. I’m sure it was an exciting life in a lot of ways, with long trips, late nights and new sights as they toured with the bands. They had a good time, often forming relationships with band members (even if outlawed by the band-leader) and sometimes marrying them, but they also went through some tough times.
Doris Day starred as the eternal virgin in lots of movies, but she actually started out as a professional dancer, earning a living at age 12. But after injuring her leg in an auto accident, she was able to transform herself into a teenaged singer with the big bands of Bob Crosby and Les Brown. Eventually she became a huge star in both music and the movies.
Dinah Shore was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and had to overcome childhood polio – a dreaded disease in those days – before moving from her Tennessee home to New York, where she latched on with Xavier Cugat’s band. (This was way before his “Charo” days.) During World War II she was one of the most popular and respected stars.
North Dakota was the birthplace of Peggy Lee, who had to overcome everything from a wicked step-mother straight out of Cinderella to being so poor that she was literally singing for her supper. Eventually she managed to work her way into performing at a small nightclub where she caught the attention of Benny Goodman, and later became a star with her first million-seller, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”.
Anita O’Day got her start as a marathon dance contestant and progressed to singing for tips before managing to land a job as a chorus girl in a club. She auditioned for Benny Goodman but the prickly King of Swing rejected her when she improvised on the song. She latched on with Raymond Scott’s band but was fired after 3 days for forgetting the lyrics of a piece. Finally, she hung on with Gene Krupa’s band and had several hits with him.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald overcame a broken home that led to being an unwanted orphan, life on the streets, and time spent in a reformatory before finally starting her musical career by performing as a teenager with Chick Webb’s band in Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Over a career spanning almost 60 years, she became one of the most respected and admired singers of all time.
Jo Stafford grew up during the Depression and originally wanted to be an opera singer, but in a more practical frame of mind became instead a part of a singing group called The Pied Pipers. They went through some tough times until they finally signed with Tommy Dorsey’s band. Jo was the lead singer and as often happens, became the most famous member of the group, eventually going out on her own and forging a solid solo career. She was beloved by the guys in World War II and earned the nickname “GI Jo”.
Rosemary Clooney overcame a broken home and an alcoholic father and eventually became a band singer for the Tony Pastor band. She enjoyed a long, solid career that included many best-selling records and some solid movie roles — and ended up as George Clooney’s aunt.
Billie Holiday was famously known for struggling with problems for much of her life, with a background that she said included working as a prostitute, and her battles with drugs were well known. However, she formed musical partnerships with many of the greats, including Count Basie and Artie Shaw, and she’s remembered as one of the best singers ever.
The songbirds were a fascinating part of the musical history of the big band era, and there were many I haven’t even mentioned here. The stories about all of them are endlessly fascinating, and I’d encourage everyone to read more. A good place to start is the music wiki.
Here’s a good all-around album to enjoy the music, but there are many others – check them out!